When it's not winning Le Mans or building supercars like the R8 GT Spyder Audi actually makes normal vehicles that even common folk might be able to afford. One of its most popular offerings is the A3 -- the car that was largely responsible for kicking off the premium compact hatch segment.
The A3 has been around in one form or another since 1996 and has sold nearly three million in that time. But the competition hasn’t let up and so there’s now a third generation A3 to take on fresh young pretenders. We tested the mid-range 1.8-litre TFSI petrol in Sport trim with the S tronic seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, priced at £24,410.
There's nothing radically different about the new A3's styling, but there are subtle differences between this car and its predecessor. It has a slicker overall design with more intricate details, particularly at the front where there are more edges and slashes that channel air more effectively. It’s also lower and leaner compared to the previous A3, which was very upright in comparison.
You’ll want larger wheels to make the most of it and Sport and S line trims have extra detailing that get the best out of the shape.
As much as the A3 is a premium product it will still have to do the daily grind, so shortcuts on space and practicality won’t cut the mustard. It’s only available as a three-door from launch but it’s still pretty simple and easy to get into the back seats. There's enough space to get three fully-grown adults comfortable and there's more than a reasonable amount of head and legroom.
You can pack luggage for five people, with the A3 offering one of the biggest boots in the class. It’s sensibly packaged in the cabin too, with the space-saving version of the Audi's MMI infotainment interface and electronic handbrake freeing up a little more room.
Performance & handling
Dynamically Audi’s more humble products have often been regarded as safe and predictable rather than tremendously exciting but the new A3 moves the game forward by a sizeable amount. Driven in normal conditions it is just as easy-going and comfortable as you would expect; all the major controls operate with well-weighted accuracy and smoothness and Audi's optional Drive Select system, available for the first time on the A3, lets you customise the steering weight, suspension firmness and engine responsiveness according to your personal tastes. Even in Sport trim with firmer suspension it rides with composure and sufficient suppleness to cope with poor road surfaces.
With the S tronic seven-speed and the 1.8-litre TFSI petrol, trickling through urban traffic is effortless. There's bags of torque available and you can flip to manual shifting and really rev the engine to extract maximum performance. And it certainly flies; 0-62mph takes a hot-hatch beating 7.2 seconds and it runs on to 144mph. You can hurl it around with virtual abandon thanks to the accuracy of the steering and the security of the grip; it’s the most playful and fun Audi without an S or RS badge.
Economy & environment
Despite the very impressive performance the highly efficient turbocharged petrol engine also manages to deliver some remarkable economy and emissions figures. The combined fuel consumption is a claimed 50.4mpg and the CO2 figure of 130g/km isn’t far off the 2.0-litre diesel figures. With strong torque from low revs it is possible to get good consumption in everyday driving although of course if you want to match or better the official combined figure then a careful approach is required. Regardless, the fact that this A3 is so quick yet still capable of genuinely thrifty driving makes it a genuine all-rounder.
Equipment & value
There’s no need to worry about loading the options on if you buy an A3. Even the base specification SE model has that large and thin display screen, climate control ,a decent audio system with the clever touch pad on the MMI. Move up to the SE model and you also get a driver's information system that gives you tips on when to change gear, a multifunction steering wheel and a front arm rest. The Sport model gets you 17-inch wheels, aux-in for your MP3 player, and some extra speakers at the rear. S-Line gets you plenty of chrome and leather, plus 18-inch wheels.
The new A3 is 80kg lighter than the outgoing model but the car’s structure is stronger than before. It also comes with a big haul of safety kit. As well as six airbags, ABS and ESP there’s the option of radar-guided cruise control, lane proximity warning and even Audi pre-sense, a suite of active safety measures that reduce the chances of injury in a crash. Hardly surprising then that it scores a full five stars from Euro NCAP.
It’s virtually impossible to make a case against the Audi A3. It is hugely competent in so many areas: design, quality, dynamics, performance, efficiency -- it ticks almost all the boxes anyone could have on their list. Of course it is a premium product so there is a price premium to pay, but if that doesn’t worry you then you can’t go wrong. BMW’s 1 Series is arguably better to drive but it’s not as pretty and doesn’t have a petrol engine to match the Audi’s, while we’ll have to wait on the new Mercedes A-Class to see if it can beat the A3 at it’s own game. Until then it’s a clear class leader.
Model tested: Audi A3 1.8 TFSI Sport
Engine: 1.8-litre petrol
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds
Top speed: 144mph