The road cleaning effect became increasingly significant through the first three stages, helping Citroen driver Meeke - who is back in eighth in the start order - to close in on and then overhaul early leader Sebastien Ogier.
The reigning World Rally champion had been quickest on SS1 despite running first on the road, though the fact that part of the stage had been used for Thursday's shakedown helped his cause.
Ogier kept his Volkswagen 2.2 seconds ahead of Meeke after SS2, but road conditions on third stage Newey were too tough for the Frenchman to overcome and he fell to fourth overall with a stage time 10.6s off pacesetter and new leader Meeke.
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Andreas Mikkelsen emerged from SS3 as the top VW in second overall, 2.4s behind Meeke and just 0.9s ahead of a resurgent Mikko Hirvonen. The three-time Australia winner benefited from a helpful road position but is also showing his best form since rejoining M-Sport for 2014.
Jari-Matti Latvala is just behind Ogier in fifth, having made a quiet start to the rally when brake worries hampered him on SS1, while Rally Germany winner Thierry Neuville is right on the VW pair's tail in sixth in the leading Hyundai.
Mads Ostberg, Robert Kubica and Elfyn Evans all lost a little time with minor errors early on.
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