The Audi A3 was the original premium downsizer back in 1996, bringing a degree of poshness never before seen in a Golf-sized car. Two generations on, this new model may not look a whole lot different, but it promises to move the A3 even further upmarket with an added dose of efficiency and dynamic appeal.
It’ll have to be good with the new BMW 1 Series already impressing and the exciting new Mercedes A-Class just around the corner. Plus you’ve got a new Golf due at the end of the year, while Ford and other mainstream makers are pushing their small hatchbacks further upmarket.
Video: Watch our video review of the new A3
So Audi has taken an intelligent approach to the new A3 – this is its most advanced Audi yet, not only in terms of clever on-board gadgets, but also the way it’s built.
The new car is about the same length as the old one, but with a longer wheelbase for more interior space and better dynamics. It’s a shade wider, too.
Most importantly, it’s the first VW Group car to sit on the much talked about MBQ platform – a lightweight chassis system that shares many parts, but allows individual tailoring for different sizes and classes of car. It not only saves weight (around 80kg in the case of the A3) and saves money, it should improve everything from comfort and refinement to safety and economy.
So plenty has changed… apart from the looks. Audi itself describes the new A3 as evolutionary, but man has evolved faster than the look of Audi’s line-up. The goatee grill remains with slightly slimmer headlights, a sharper crease along the sides and larger rear lights. Against the old car, the differences are clear, but we came across an Audi A1 on our test drive and had to look hard to check whether it was another A3 or not…
Inside, the changes are more obvious with the gains in width and wheelbase making the car feel much more spacious, especially in the front. A five-door Sportback model will arrive next year, but until then you’ll have to slide the front seat forward to clamber into the back. It’s pretty simple to do, but rear knee space is still a bit tight for tall adults, although headroom is fine. Boot space is up 15 litres to 365 litres making for a decent sized, nicely shaped load space.
However, it’s interior style and quality that Audi has become famous for and both have been stepped up another notch. The dash sits lower than before, while there’s less clutter. A slim 5.8-inch screen rises out of the dash, there are simpler air-con controls and Audi’s excellent MMI controller looks after many of the other functions.
It’s all smart and simple to use, while Audi has even thrown in handwriting recognition on top of the MMI controller. It sits between the front seats, so when right-hand-drive cars come to the UK the two-thirds of the population who are right handed will have to learn to be a bit more dextrous with their left digits.
If you love your gadgets, though, you’ll love the A3. There’s the expected smartphone connection via Bluetooth, but you can also boast about navigation with Google Street View, your own on-board wireless hotspot, a box that’ll boost your mobile phone signal and internet radio.
Our biggest crititicism of A3s of old is that they haven’t been that good to drive, while the ride has bordered on the uncomfy. Not any more – the standard cars still aren’t the sharpest to drive, electromechanical steering doesn’t give the greatest amount of feedback, while mid-corner bumps can cause the car to lurch a bit if you’re going really fast.
But you can still have fun in a car that corners confidently, while the ride on standard suspension is good – comfy with only a slight hint of firmness and a real step forward compared to A3s of old.
All our test cars were on standard suspension, which is now a no cost option on top-spec S-Line or mid-spec Sport models that are normally lowered (by 25mm and 15mm respectively). Even entry-level SE models are reasonably specced with alloys, air-con, iPod and Bluetooth connection, plus MMI and fancy display screen.
Mid-spec Sport model adds 17-inch alloys, Audi Drive Select (so you can choose between sportier or more relaxed steering and throttle settings), sports seats, climate control and some aluminium trim. At the top of the tree is S-Line, which is likely to be the best selling trim level thanks to smart 18-inch alloys, smart Xenons with the latest interpretation of Audi’s famous daytime running lights, and a mild body kit.
Initially, engine choice is limited to 1.4 and 1.8 TFSI petrol engines (the latter coming with an S Tronic double clutch gearbox) and a 2.0 TDI diesel. Prices aren’t that far away from an equivalent VW Golf and are pretty much on a par with a 1 Series.
The range runs from £19,205 for a 120bhp 1.4 TFSI SE to £26,560 for the 178bhp 1.8 TFSI S-Line. The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel starts at £21,505 in SE trim – going to Sport adds £1,225, while going for S-Line means spending a further £2,150.
It’s that top-spec 2.0-litre we drove first, with the slick-shifting S Tronic ‘box. Performance is strong and economy impressive at 68.9mpg. It’ll be a popular company car, too, with CO2 emissions of just 106g/km. There’s plenty of mid-range punch, but the engine was a little grumbly around town, while the stop-start system was also a bit loud.
A much better bet is the 1.6 TDI we’ll get towards the end of the year. With figures of 74mpg and 99g/km it’ll grab some headlines, but it’s the way it performs that’s most impressive. It’s a sweet engine, revving keenly with easily enough oomph and excellent refinement. We reckon it’ll be worth the expected saving of around £1,200 over the 2.0-litre diesel, even if the economy and emission gains are small.
A 138bhp 1.4-litre petrol with Audi’s clever cylinder deactivation tech will arrive early next year. It’ll shut down cylinders when the car’s cruising to boost economy figures to close to that of the 2.0-litre diesel, but still with decent performance on offer.
On the road, all A3s have a new found sense of refinement. There’s very little road noise, only a small amount of wind noise and the engine is nice and quiet, too.
That’s very much in keeping with the new, relaxed nature of the A3. It may not be as sharp to drive as a 1 Series, but it seems to be taking a slightly different approach. Which makes the route the new Mercedes A-Class takes, all the more eagerly anticipated.