Audi A3 review
Audi’s A3 takes on the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class with good looks, impressive economy and a decent drive
The Audi A3 is a premium family hatchback that sits between the A1 supermini and A4 compact executive in the Audi model range. Designed to take the fight to the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes A-Class and Volvo V40, the A3 remains a shining sales success for the company.
With a classy, elegant exterior, a well crafted interior and the latest safety and efficiency technology, the A3 is far from the poor relation in Audi’s line-up.
Maintaining a premium look and feel inside and out has never been an issue for the A3. The latest model has undoubtedly the best interior in the class, with superb fit and finish and an attractive design.
The A3 is based on the advanced MQB platform used widely within the VW Group, but Audi has tuned the chassis specifically to deliver a sportier feel than any other hatchback in the family. However, it still can’t match the level of driving engagement and composure offered by the best cars in the class – namely the sharp and involving BMW 1 Series.
Even so, the engine range is strong and extensive – and increasingly fuel-efficient. With so much choice on offer, there should be an Audi A3 to suit anyone’s needs.
The Audi A3 must have one of the most comprehensive ranges in the automotive world. It comes in four bodystyles: the regular three-door hatch, a five-door Sportback (which adds £620 to the price of the equivalent hatch), four-door Saloon (carrying a £550 premium over the Sportback) and a Cabriolet (£4,190 on top of the price of the Saloon).
Trim levels will be familiar from other Audi line-ups, but they are not universal across all A3 bodystyles. The hatch and Sportback specifications are SE, SE Technik (add £750 to SE), Sport (add £1,400 to SE) and S line (add £2,150 to Sport). The Cabriolet isn’t available in SE Technik trim, while the Saloon only comes in Sport and S line specs. The S3 and RS3 come with their own, high-end specifications to match their performance, although sat-nav remains an expensive optional extra on both.
Engine options are varied. In the regular A3 range, there are three petrol units and two diesels, split into a variety of outputs. The 1.2 TFSI is only available on the three-door and Sportback models, while there’s a 1.4 TFSI in either 123bhp or 148bhp guise. The 123bhp 1.4-litre, like the 1.2, is only for the hatch and Sportback. A 178bhp 1.8 TFSI is available at S line level only across the four A3 bodystyles.
The S3s use a high-performance derivative of the four-cylinder EA 888 engine found in many Volkswagen Group performance cars, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R, SEAT Leon Cupra and Skoda Octavia vRS. Meanwhile, the RS3 uses a 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo in honour of Audi’s rally heritage, making it one of the quickest hot hatches in the world.
All A3s get the option of a 1.6-litre TDI diesel engine, delivering 108bhp, but there’s an ‘ultra’ version in the hatchback and Sportback that cuts CO2 emissions to 89g/km. The 1.6 TDI can be had with quattro all-wheel drive on the A3 Sportback and Saloon, but only up to Sport trim. The 2.0 TDI makes either 148bhp or 181bhp and is available across the range.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on almost all engines (the 1.8 TFSI and RS3 are the exceptions), with an S tronic dual-clutch automatic a £1,480 option. The auto is a seven-speed set-up on the 1.2 TFSI, 1.4 TFSI and 1.6 TDI, and on the RS3 – where it’s the only gearbox available – while the six-speed S tronic is offered on the 1.8 TFSI, 2.0 TDI and S3. The six-speed auto is the only option on the S3 Cabriolet.
Most A3s are front-wheel drive, but quattro four-wheel drive can be specified for £1,430 on some Sport models upwards, usually linked to an S tronic gearbox. The odd A3s out here are the 1.6 TDI quattro and the 148bhp 2.0 TDI quattro, both manuals. The rare 1.8 TFSI comes as a quattro S tronic S line only.
Audi also offers an impressive A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid. This is available in the Sportback bodystyle only, uses a 1.4 TFSI engine supplemented by an electric motor and has a one-off specification that closely resembles an A3 Sport. The e-tron is designed to challenge the BMW i3 electric car (which is available with a range-extending petrol engine), but doesn't feel quite as revolutionary – although the Audi is more conventional and easier to live with.
The A3 fits into the Audi line-up above the A1 and below the A4, with its natural rivals being the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes A-Class, Volvo V40 and Lexus CT. However, it’s worth considering any other VW Group product built on the MQB platform, such as the Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon, as most will be cheaper than the premium A3 spec-for-spec.
Audi has been building the A3 since 1996 and this is the third-generation model, introduced in 2012. There have always been three and five-door versions, although the latter was only called Sportback from 2004 onwards, while this is also the third generation of the S3.
Both the Cabriolet and the RS3 Sportback appeared during the second-generation A3’s lifecycle, while the smart Saloon is the newest A3 of all, first introduced in 2013.
Engines, performance and drive
This latest A3 bucks the Audi trend of using hard suspension to improve the handling – which ultimately compromised ride comfort in the previous generation, as well as other models from the company. The suspension on the current A3 is a vast improvement over the old car's, with only a dab of firmness present. Yet even though the car is generally good to drive, the handling is still somewhat uninvolving.
This is particularly true on the RS3. Although it serves up ballistic pace and secure quattro four-wheel-drive grip, it’s ultimately found wanting in the fun department. The S3 is better, possibly because your expectations are set lower to begin with, but it can do 95 per cent of what the RS3 can do for significantly less cash. There’s a leap of around £7,000 from the S3 Sportback S tronic to the flagship, and we don’t feel the RS3 is truly worth it if you must have a performance model.
All versions of the Audi A3 get a standard suspension setting, but on Sport and S line models buyers can opt for sportier, stiffer suspension at no extra cost. Just beware that with this set-up, the ride is significantly firmer.
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Audi Magnetic Ride is a £995 option on the Sport, S line and S3 models, and part of a £1,495 Dynamic Package on the RS3 that also includes a sports exhausts system. For another £1,000 on top of that, the Dynamic Package plus adjusts the RS3’s electronic speed limiter, increasing the top speed from 155mph to 174mph.
In terms of engine, we’d choose either the 1.6-litre TDI diesel or 1.4-litre TFSI petrol for a good mix of economy and performance. Go for the 1.8-litre petrol if you need speed at the expense of economy, or the 2.0-litre TDI for great power and efficiency at the cost of refinement.
All engines in the Audi A3 range are four-cylinder turbocharged units, with the exception of the superb 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine in the RS3. The 1.2 TFSI and lower-powered 1.4 TFSI petrol engines are only found in the three-door and Sportback bodies; the 1.2 makes 108bhp at 4,600-5,600rpm and 175Nm of torque from 1,400-4,000rpm, while the 1.4 delivers 123bhp at 5,000-6,000rpm and 200Nm from 1,400-4,000rpm.
The 1.4 is also available with Cylinder-on-Demand (CoD) technology, allowing it to shut down two cylinders during low-demand driving situations. This clever engine is offered across the A3 range, and delivers 148bhp at 5,000-6,000rpm and 250Nm of torque from 1,500-3,500rpm.
The final non-performance petrol engine is the 1.8-litre TFSI, rated at 178bhp from 4,500-6,200rpm and 280Nm from 1,350-4,500rpm. All the petrol engines are sweet and rev freely, but we particularly like the eager 1.2 or the 1.4 CoD.
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The diesels make more financial sense, though, and while the 2.0 TDI has the best power and torque figures, it’s neither as refined nor frugal as the 1.6-litre TDI. This makes 108bhp at 3,200-4,000rpm and 250Nm of torque from 1,500-3,000rpm. The 2.0 delivers its power and torque figures across 3,500-4,000rpm and 1,750-3,000rpm respectively, although on the more powerful engine the peak torque hangs on to 3,250rpm. The headline stats are 148bhp and 340Nm, or 181bhp and 380Nm.
The 2.0-litre TFSI engine in the S3 has figures to match the Volkswagen Golf R, with 296bhp at 5,500-6,200rpm and 380Nm of torque from 1,800rpm all the way up to 5,500rpm. But the RS3’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder leaves even that in the shade. It serves up 362bhp from 5,550-6,800rpm and a huge 465Nm from 1,625-5,550rpm. While the S3’s four-cylinder sounds superb, the RS3 has the edge for aural appeal thanks to trick exhausts and that fabled five-cylinder warble.
Performance is strong across the range, with only a handful of models, mainly 1.6 TDIs, unable to complete the 0-62mph sprint in less than 10 seconds. Plus, all A3s are capable of at least 120mph. Even the 1.8 TFSI is rapid, covering 0-62mph in between 6.7 and 7.6 seconds, while if you opt for the S3 S tronic you can knock 0.4 seconds off the sprint time of the manual version. With the twin-clutch automatic gearbox, the S3 hatchback can do 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds, which isn’t far off the bombastic RS3’s time of 4.3 seconds.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
An A3 diesel is the most sensible choice if efficiency is your main priority. The 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI claims 68.9mpg fuel economy and CO2 emissions of only 108g/km. The 181bhp version isn’t far behind, with 67.3mpg and 112g/km.
Petrol engines are usually a lot less economical, but with 1.8 TFSI power and an S tronic auto box, the Audi A3 promises 50.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 129g/km – not bad considering the performance on offer. Plus, the clever 148bhp 1.4 TFSI petrol with cylinder deactivation can return 60.1mpg and emit only 109g/km of CO2, so while it’s faster than the 123bhp 1.4 TFSI, it’s claimed to be more economical.
Of course, the real eco-champion (in terms of official numbers in any case) is the A3 e-tron. Its petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain returns 176.6mpg and emits 37g/km when the car is running on 17-inch wheels; specify 18-inch rims, and it claims 166.2mpg and 39g/km. The e-tron has a fully electric range of 31 miles at a limited top speed of 81mph, takes a minimum of two-and-a-quarter hours to recharge and can go 550 miles on petrol power alone. However, at £35,340, it’s not cheap, and even with the Government’s £5,000 plug-in car grant helping out, buyers will still pay in excess of £30,000.
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Our real-world choice, therefore, is the 1.6 TDI ultra. It’s no less powerful than the regular diesels, but with lowered sports suspension, 16-inch alloys wearing low-rolling-resistance tyres and a longer top gear in the six-speed manual gearbox (for more relaxed cruising; there’s no S tronic auto option on the ultra), it returns 83.1mpg and 89g/km. That’s significantly more efficient than the standard 1.6 TDI, which claims 70.6mpg and 105g/km.
The ultra is only available as a three-door or Sportback and in lesser SE or SE Technik trims. However, the £750 upgrade to SE Technik spec looks like money well spent, as it brings 2D sat-nav, a Colour Driver’s Information System, rear parking sensors and cruise control, which makes the ultra as well equipped as it is efficient.
Company car drivers will be drawn to the A3 ultra with its low emissions, but Benefit-in-Kind tax for the entire line-up ranges from just five per cent on the e-tron to 33 per cent on the RS3.
An equivalent BMW 1 Series or VW Golf will be cheaper to insure, as the Audi A3 falls into at least insurance group 16. Surprisingly, though, the RS3 doesn’t sit in the highest insurance group in the A3 range; that dubious honour goes to the S3 Cabriolet (group 42). The RS3 sits in insurance group 40.
Whether you go for one of the performance models or a lower-spec diesel, Audi offers a wealth of electronic safety assist systems and quattro all-wheel drive on the A3, much of which will help lower insurance premiums.
The Audi A3 is quite a bit more expensive to buy than a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf, but decent standard equipment, the brand’s perceived quality and strong residual values help to counter the higher initial outlay.
Interior, design and technology
The A3 carries some familiar Audi trademarks, with the style of the lights and the large grille found on everything from the A1 to the A8. However, it’s an attractive design with a quality look, so while it’s conservative when compared to the likes of the Mercedes A-Class, it’s certainly a handsome car.
For us, the most visually appealing model in the range is the Saloon model, which has the sharpest looks of any A3 and is one of the neatest three-box designs in the entire Audi range. The second-generation Cabriolet is based on the Saloon’s underpinnings, which ensures it appears a classier soft-top than its dumpy looking predecessor.
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A3 SE and Sport models look fairly restrained on the outside, but range-topping A3 S line models stand out more with their 18-inch alloys and sporty bodykit. The S3 is set apart by its quad exhausts, plus silver detailing and badging, while the RS3 has flared wheelarches, two big oval tailpipes and its own logos.
Standard colours on the A3 range are white, black or red, with metallic/pearl effect finishes costing £550. Crystal-effect paint is £775 and this includes the two specific S3 colours: Sepang Blue and Panther Black.
The RS3 is available in a choice of eight colours – six are shared with the S3, while Nardo Grey (standard) and Catalunya Red metallic are exclusive to the performance flagship.
For £2,025, Audi exclusive allows buyers to choose from any of the firm’s paints or 100 exclusive shades, while the £2,525 customised option lets you pick whatever colour you want.
What the A3 lacks in exterior excitement it makes up for on the inside, with a stylish and simple dashboard design and high-quality materials throughout.
Entry-level SE-spec cars get 16-inch alloy wheels, stop/start, air-conditioning and Bluetooth as standard, with the higher trims adding significant luxury equipment from there.
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Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Every A3 gets a slick, 5.8-inch infotainment screen that pops out from the top of the dash. This is controlled by a rotary wheel on the centre console – which is an excellent feature to find on entry level models.
However, to fit the basic 2D sat-nav on any model bar the SE Technik or the e-tron – which comes with the top-spec MMI 3D system as standard – costs at least £495, while the 3D MMI navigation software is part of a £1,495 Technology pack (it costs £1,000 on the SE Technik). We think this is a bit steep, especially on the S3 and RS3 models, where it ought to be standard.
Audi offers two audio upgrades on all models: the £255 Audi sound system brings nine speakers and a six-channel, 140W amp, while the absolutely superb £750 Bang & Olufsen set-up featuries 13-speaker, 5.1 surround sound functionality and a 625W, 13-channel amp. If you can afford it, this is well worth having.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The latest Audi A3 hatchback is the same length as the previous-generation car. However, thanks to a stretched wheelbase, the interior is more accommodating for passengers than before. The wider track in the new model also gives occupants more elbow room.
One downside is that the rear can be a bit cramped for taller adults, but getting in and out of the three-door shouldn’t be much trouble, thanks to the long doors.
Because of its improved dimensions, the Audi A3 gets more room in the boot than before. Space is now extended to 365 litres with the rear seats in place, and this grows to 1,100 litres when they’re folded. This compares with the BMW 1 Series, which offers 360 litres and 1,200 litres, and the Volkswagen Golf, which serves up 380 litres and 1,270 litres.
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Although broadly similar in most dimensions, the Sportback is more than just a three-door A3 with two extra doors grafted in at the back. While the cars have the same front-end styling, the Sportback gets its own rear light clusters and is longer than the three-door A3, at 4,310mm compared to 4,237mm. It also has a longer wheelbase and is slightly higher.
The Saloon is longer again, at 4,456mm, but its wheelbase is the same as the Sportback’s, while the Cabriolet is marginally shorter than the four-door it is based on, at 4,421mm.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Front head room is a metre and more in all models, rising from 1,000mm in the Cabriolet to 1,021mm in the Sportback. However, the Saloon and Cabriolet have more limited rear head room, at slightly more than 920mm each instead of 950mm-plus in the hatchback and Sportback models.
Elbow room is at its widest in the front of the Cabriolet, with 1,468mm on offer, but this version’s cabin is by far the narrowest in the rear of all four models – its 1,203mm is a long way behind the next smallest version, the three-door A3, which provides 1,411mm. This means the A3 Cabriolet is a strict four-seater, where the other A3s should be able to take five average-sized adults.
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Bizarrely, the A3 Saloon has the biggest boot of all models in the Audi A3 range with the rear seats up, at 425 litres. The Sportback manages 380 litres, the hatch 365 litres and the Cabriolet 320 litres, although the hatch and Sportback have the largest cargo area with the rear bench folded down, at 1,100 and 1,220 litres respectively. The Saloon manages 880 litres and the Cabriolet 678 litres on this score.
As a side note, specifying quattro all-wheel drive eats into boot space, by around 35 litres on the Saloon/Cabriolet and 40 litres on the hatch/Sportback. The RS3 and e-tron models have the smallest ‘regular’ boots of all, losing 100 litres over other Sportbacks – the RS3 due to the sporty chassis and exhaust back box, and the e-tron thanks to its lithium-ion battery pack. Both cars record 280 litres with the seats up and 1,120 litres when the seats are down.
Reliability and Safety
The A3 is an impressively safe car, having scored the maximum five stars in Euro NCAP’s crash tests. Of particular note is its result of 95 per cent in the adult occupant protection category.
Audi has stocked the A3 with impressive levels of big-car safety kit, too. These include optional radar-controlled cruise control that maintains a set distance to the car in front, lane-keep assist, hill-hold assist and a pre-sense system to prepare the car in the event of an accident. Another optional safety feature is a self-park system that will help you get into a tight parking space.
The A3 also put in an impressive performance in the Auto Express Driver Power 2015 survey, coming 27th out of 200 cars.
Audi’s standard warranty is three years and 60,000 miles, which is unlimited mileage for years one and two, with the 60,000-mile cap coming into effect in the third year. For either £245 or £545, that can be extended to four years and 75,000 miles (years three and four mileage limited) or five years and 90,000 miles (years three to five are mileage limited).
The battery on the e-tron model is covered by a separate, eight-year/100,000-mile warranty, but Audi says that a reduction in battery power capacity of between 10 and 30 per cent in the warranty period is normal degradation and thus not a claimable item.
The service schedule ranges from 9,000 miles for minor checks to 19,000 miles for a full service. Audi offers a range of fixed-price deals, including Audi Complete, so maintenance shouldn’t prove too costly.
Whether your car qualifies for a fixed or flexible schedule of servicing depends on your annual mileage, with Audi stating that any car that covers more than 10,000 miles per year should have flexible maintenance patterns.
Bear in mind that the A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid can only be sold from and maintained by a network of just 34 Audi specialist centres in the country, so it is not available from every dealership.