Is it necessary to sacrifice handling in the name of comfort? James Ruppert finds two cars of suitable refinement

Mr RC Stevens writes that he suffers from a bad back. He is happily driving an Audi A3 Sportback, which he finds excellent, but feels that the suspension is far too hard. He believes that all German cars are the same - that is, offering a hard ride - so he wants an alternative that is a similar size to the Audi but much more comfortable.

So is it racist to suggest that all German cars have rock-hard suspension? Not really; cars are often set up to cope best with their indigenous road conditions. The roads in Germany are uniformly excellent and the autobahns in particular are well-finished, hence the sportier and firmer set-ups you can find on some German cars.

However sporty and firm BMWs are, the ride, even on the fastest versions, is still pretty refined and comfy. By contrast, Audi seems to have produced cars over the last 20 years that feel very unyielding. Some buyers like it - you only have to look at the large numbers on the roads to prove that they are doing a lot right. The suspension, though, is an acquired taste but there are signs that later models are a bit easier and don't clatter into and out of potholes so roughly.

Interestingly, a Volkswagen Golf, which is closely related to the A3, and also some Skodas and SEATs have different and often much softer set-ups compared to that of the Audi. Here's proof that one company (Volkswagen) can produce four wildly different models on roughly the same platform. Anyway, there are still plenty of alternatives.

A car for the head

My immediate reaction is to tell Mr Stevens to go for a Volkswagen Golf. As I explained, this should be a softer version of the Audi A3. Trouble is, it does still ride firmly over potholes and Mr Stevens will have to drive it to see if for him it is significantly less firm to drive. The interior quality and finish is better than most. Every hatchback compared to the Audi will feel only averagely built, but I know that Mr Stevens is prepared to consider a lower-quality model. Anyway, the Golf I believe should be supple and smooth enough.

I could complicate matters by suggesting the Skoda Octavia, which is based on the Golf, but is different in style and execution, and doesn't share the Golf's or the A3's good looks. If Mr Stevens enjoys driving he should appreciate the grip and traction that the car offers. It is also refined, especially if he goes for the 2.0-litre petrol engine. Add to that the absence of wind and road noise under normal conditions and I reckon Mr Stevens will appreciate what a sophisticated and comfy car this is.

A car for the heart

On purely nationalistic lines, French cars have always been set up to ride a lot more softly. Despite the excellent autoroutes, stray off the pay-as-you-go motorways and the roads can be very marginal. Hence, French cars have traditionally been developed with much softer suspension. Remember all those roly-poly Citroën 2CVs ?

Recently, though, even the French manufacturers' designs have been firmed up for more exciting handling characteristics. It is still true, however, that just about any Citroën offers a comfier ride than most cars on sale. Indeed, with its gas suspension a Citroën C5 is one of the smoothest performers on the road. It also has the advantage of a relatively long wheelbase - that's the space between the front and rear wheels- which is much longer than a A3 or equivalent, and means that the bumps are smoothed out even further.

Mr Stevens doesn't want a huge hatch, however, he wants a compact one, so that rules out the big (but value for money) C5. In that case, let's go with the smaller C4. That is actually one of the hardest-riding Citroëns ever, so Mr Stevens will just have to give it a test drive to make sure it's still compliant enough for his tastes. If he finds its comfort levels acceptable, then he will discover that the C4 is easy to own, refined and extensively equipped. There's a choice between radically styled three-door coupé models and the conventional five-door versions, or he could consider something like Kia Cerato, which has very soft suspension, but won't be as fun to drive. Also, the quality and finish won't be what an Audi owner could live with.

Car choice

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and contact telephone number, as well as details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested as well as your budget.

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