But whereas the 'R' Golf represents the ultimate in sporting VWs, it is also a last hurrah for the Mk4 platform. The new A3, on the other hand, is built on a totally new platform that, coincidentally, is also the basis of what will be the Mk5 Golf. However, and here's the cunning bit, despite the 240bhp V6 and all-wheel-drive transmission package being deemed overtly sporty for a VW, it isn't worthy of Audi's ultimate accolade, the 'S' badge. So, if it's not the new S3, should we be excited by the six-banger A3?
On first acquaintance, probably not. It looks mature, sophisticated and more aggressive than the outgoing model, but understated wheels and conservative proportions ensure it's the hatchback equivalent of a Boss suit: well-tailored but safe. Likewise the interior, which though immaculately laid out and solidly constructed is all rather predictable. There was a time when Audi interiors were special, but as VW, Seat and even Skoda keep ripping leaves out of Audi's interior design book, they all become much of a muchness - good if you're Skoda, bad when you're the 'premium' brand of the bunch.
We have a choice of H-pattern manual and DSG paddle-shift semi-auto models to drive at the launch. I've driven a number of TTs fitted with DSG, and although extremely smooth and a spectacularly clever piece of engineering, the more I drive it the less I enjoy it. So, stick-shifter it is.
Though pleased to have a bit more input and ultimate control, there's little feel through the clutch pedal, which has a long travel, and the brakes have the usual over-servoed Audi feel. There's a modicum of feel through the steering, but nothing like enough (you get far more detailed information from a cooking Ford Focus). Audi, it seems, still can't grasp the value of dynamics and tactility.
In objective terms there are reasonable but certainly not exceptional levels of grip, and a safe, understeer-led balance, but you never get the feeling the A3 ever gets up on tiptoes and begins to flow. Like its neat and tidy exterior, the chassis is efficient and safe, but there's no life, no highlights or stand-out dynamic flourishes that make you warm to it. A BMW 325 Compact isn't enthralling, and may be lacking in power compared with the muscular Audi, but show it a decent thread of bends and it can entertain.
In straight-line terms the A3 is brisk, with a high level of refinement. Given a clear stretch of autobahn it'll power to a relatively easy indicated 150mph, which is pretty serious performance whichever way you cut it. Unlike in the R32 Golf, however, the engine note is more distant and subdued, and the power delivery is linear to the point of anonymity. It's more characterful than any of VW Group's four-cylinder motors, but then so is a food mixer.
If you're picking up vibes that suggest the range-topping A3's a bad car, you're wrong. It's a very good car. Strong, safe, smooth and swift, it's a polished and perfectly capable executive hatch (whatever that is). Where it falls short, and why we're lukewarm about it, is that in pure driving terms it doesn't satisfy on a emotional level. You don't feel stimulated or inspired by it. In basic, clichί¿½d terms, given the choice of driving home on backroads or motorways, you'd navigate your way to the M1, slot sixth and crank-up the Bose stereo. There's a true 'evo' car in there somewhere. It's just disappointing to discover the engineers (and marketeers) haven't found it yet.