The Audi A3 can rightfully claim to have invented the premium compact sector during the nineties. It turned out to be hugely profitable, with Audi selling 1.8 million examples of the MkII across three bodystyles.
This success was soon copied by rivals, and now competition in the class is hotter than ever. The BMW 1 Series is into its second generation, while new players like the / and more upmarket Mercedes A-Class will ensure that this new A3 has a tough time matching the great sales success of its predecessors.
Making that task even tougher is the fact that, even though the A3 is an all-new car, the exterior design has barely moved on from where its predecessor left off – it’s even the same length and height as the old MkII.
A longer wheelbase and wider track mean the new car has shorter overhangs, while the wheels are pushed closer to each corner. Angular new lights front and rear give it a modern look, but Audi’s trademark LED running lamps are only standard on top-spec S line versions. They cost £1,250 to fit as part of a xenon lights pack on lesser models.
Sharp headlamps aren’t enough, though, and our test car didn’t have the visual presence of the sleek V40. Sportier trims get lowered suspension and bigger wheels, but these still aren’t sufficient to make the new A3 stand out.
There are big changes hidden under the unassuming bodywork, however. This Audi is around 80kg lighter than the old car, thanks to an intensive weight-saving programme that includes an aluminium bonnet and front wings, plus a rigid new bodyshell. The revised 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine is lighter, too.
The ‘less is more’ philosophy extends to the impressive cabin, which sets new class standards for quality and design. Every version of the A3 comes with a slim 5.8-inch MMI screen that rises from the dashboard on start-up. Key functions are accessed via an elegantly simple pair of toggle switches and a new, larger central control wheel. Everything from the Bluetooth to the £495 optional SD card-based sat-nav is brilliantly intuitive, too.
The A1-inspired jet turbine air vents also look fantastic, adding to a cabin that feels luxurious even in basic SE trim.
Although the five-door model is set to arrive soon, even this three-door offers a lot more room inside than the previous A3. Headroom has been improved for driver and passengers, while there’s more rear legroom than in the Volvo. With the rear seats in place, the Audi has the biggest boot (at 365 litres) and the widest third seat in the back. But the limited rear access means that family buyers would be better off waiting for the five-door Sportback to be added to the line-up.
At launch, there are two petrol engines and two diesels to choose from – including a 1.4-litre TSI with 120bhp and the familiar 104bhp 1.6-litre TDI (the closest match for the diesel engines we tested in the 1 Series and V40). However, the majority of UK A3s sold will be powered by the 2.0-litre TDI that’s fitted to our test car.
This diesel engine’s muscular 148bhp and 320Nm of torque really impressed out on the road, where the broad spread of power and smooth delivery made the A3 feel really eager. It’s also remarkably refined, but at motorway speeds the ride in the Audi was noticeably firmer than in its rivals, with even small bumps in the tarmac transmitted into the cabin.
The new chassis is designed to deliver a more exciting driving experience, as it’s lighter and more rigid than before. But while the steering is quick and direct and the six-speed gearbox is accurate, the A3 never comes close to matching the driver engagement you get from the superbly balanced BMW.
You might assume the performance advantage the Audi has over its rivals here would make it more expensive to run, but in fact it returned close to 50mpg on our test. Emissions of 106g/km mean it will be almost as cheap to run as the BMW for private buyers, plus it’s cleaner than the equivalent 118d.
Is that enough to secure victory for the A3? Or will BMW keep its premium hatch crown?