SPACE, as they say, is the final frontier. But forget the infinite frontiers of Star Trek; what’s important to us Earthlings is the space which is nearer to home or, rather, within our cars.
It’s the big issue these days, now that the manufacturers have done all they can to squeeze every available mile out of every drop of fuel and cut the CO2 emissions at the same time – to save not only the planet but also the cost of your tax disc. Actually, it seems as if some of the car designers are using science fiction techniques, similar to Dr Who and his Tardis, to defeat the normal dimensional rules.
The objective appears to have moved away from filling new cars with every conceivable piece of kit, probably because now that you can get cars which virtually drive themselves, there’s not much left to develop and offer as an option.
So the current trend is to offer as much space as possible inside while keeping the exterior dimensions as tight as feasible to fit into the tightest of parking spaces. One of the best at doing that is the third generation of the five-door A3 Sportback from Audi, which combines a new look with a longer wheelbase than both its predecessor and its three-door counterpart, offering even more space for families and their luggage, with barely any increase in what’s called its exterior “footprint”.
It’s a trick worthy not just of The Doctor but also Paul Daniels, and the result is a smart, efficient and economical car which is still very practical for the demands of everyday use by ma, pa and the weans. Remarkably, the wheelbase is only 50mm longer but it seems to open up a vast amount of space, especially in the back. The wide opening rear doors are good for access and there’s more head and leg room for up to three adults.
The test car came with a highly efficient 1.6-litre diesel which has set new standards in reducing internal friction, with the result that it can return 74 miles to the gallon with a sub-100g/km emission figure and still offer very useful performance using all six gears.
Without getting too technical, the car feels composed and stable on the road and it’s all down to some fine engineering on the chassis and the balance of axle loads. The front axle has been shifted forward by 40 millimetres compared with the previous model, shortening the overhang, and the engine is installed tilted backward by 12 degrees to give a better weight split, front and back. Added to that is the ultra lightweight body – 90 kilos less than the previous model – but with high-strength steel to create a strong structure.
It’s not just stiff, it’s also quiet, incorporating sound-deadening components such as a noise-insulating windscreen to reduce interior levels. The bonnet, wings and areas behind the front bumper and front axle subframe are made of aluminium to save another 12 kilos.
The exterior look has only subtle changes from the previous model and, short of putting them both side by side, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences. But back to the interior space, and in the test car that was highlighted by the impressive light beige Milano leather seats, which added more than a thousand pounds to the price tag but certainly looked the business.
The A3 Sportback is among the smaller cars in the range, but from the driver’s seat the interior layout bears all the hallmarks of the Audi family including the big boys which cost three times as much.
I liked the retractable display screen which slips quietly into the depths of the dashboard when it’s not needed to call up the various functions from audio to satnav and onboard computer. I wasn’t keen on the electronic parking brake which, although unobtrusive, doesn’t have the same positive feel as a conventional handbrake. And once again, I automatically switched off the annoying stop-start function, which I still can’t believe saves anything in the fuel consumption figures.
But, returning to the USP of its space, the boot is bigger than before and the seats fold down to a flat cargo floor with a one-metre wide opening between the wheel arches. Hooks to hold bags in place and tie-down rings are standard, but if you’re a serious outdoor type there’s an option of a load-through flap for skis and snowboards. Space, in fact, for almost everything.
CAR Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDi SE
PRICE £20,505 (£25,785 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 121mph; 0-62 mph 10.9 secs
MPG 74mpg combined
CO2 EMISSIONS 99g/km