Audi A3 Sportback review

Our Rating: 
4
4.0/5.0
2012 model
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The A3 Sportback is one of the best cars Audi makes, with decent practicality, a sharp drive and good looks

For: 
High-quality interior, huge boot, very refined
Against: 
Not as stylish as three-door, high price, expensive options

The latest Audi A3 Sportback is a big improvement over the model it replaces, which wasn’t much more than a three-door version with two extra doors and more rear headroom.

This time round, Audi has stretched the wheelbase by 35mm. This means rear passengers benefit from decent legroom (not a strong point on the old car) and the boot is also bigger. The trouble is, this additional room comes at a premium of around £600 over the three-door A3.

Best hatchbacks

Still, with a classy, high-quality cabin, stylish looks inside and out and a range of superb engines – including a plug-in hybrid with a theoretical 580-mile range – there’s an A3 Sportback to suit everyone. Plus, all models, from the 1.2 TFSI up to the high-performance RS3 flagship, claim highly competitive fuel consumption and emissions figures for this class.

So as long as you like the looks – and it’s not quite as sleek as other versions of the A3 – this premium five-door should quickly prove why it’s one of Audi’s best all-rounders.

Our Choice: 
Audi A3 Sportback Sport Navigation 1.6 TDI

Despite the fact that the Audi A3 has been in the UK since 1996, and that a five-door model has been available from 1999 onwards, the Sportback name only appeared in 2004 during the lifecycle of the second-generation A3.

On the original Mk1 A3, the five-door looked barely any different to the three-door, but for the second generation, Audi made sure the Sportback was easily identifiable by giving it different rear light clusters. And it has carried that theme over to the latest Sportback, which is longer than the three-door and has a stretched wheelbase. This leads to a different glasshouse arrangement around the C-pillar, as well as slimmer rear light clusters, making the five-door a doddle to spot on the road. 

Even though it hasn’t been in production for as long as the regular hatch, the Sportback currently has the widest model range of any Audi A3. Not only can buyers take their pick from the full range of petrol and diesel engines as found in the three-door, Saloon and Cabriolet variants, as well as a high-performance S3 version, the five-door is exclusively available with the ultra-frugal e-tron hybrid drivetrain, too. Plus, the top-of-the-range RS3 mega hatch is solely offered in the Sportback bodystyle.

Trim levels still run SE, SE Technik, Sport and S line, but an equipment overhaul of the range for the 2016 model year saw 2D satellite navigation introduced as standard on every model bar the SE – and that includes the S3 and RS3 Sportbacks.

Sat-nav used to be a cost option on all A3 five-doors apart from the SE Technik, so it’s a welcome addition, although of course, the move has brought an increase in price. Just bear in mind that the set-up isn’t the classy MMI Navigation plus with the beautiful 3D mapping; that remains an expensive upgrade as part of the £1,100-plus Technology Pack (around £1,500 on the SE). Only the Sportback e-tron gets MMI Navigation plus as standard.

Nearly every version is available with a choice of six-speed manual or S tronic dual-clutch automatic transmissions, with the automated set-up an option at around £1,500 where it’s available. Some versions of the Sportback are only available with the S tronic auto, like the 1.8 TFSI quattro, the RS3 and the e-tron. Confusingly, the S tronic box offered in the 1.2, both 1.4s and the RS3, as well as the 1.6-litre TDI, is a seven-speed set-up, while the version available in the 1.8 TFSI, S3, e-tron and both the 2.0 TDIs has six ratios.

Sportbacks are mainly front-wheel drive, but quattro four-wheel drive is an option on the 1.6 and 2.0 TDI models, while it’s standard on the 1.8 TFSI, S3 and RS3. Where it can be specified as an upgrade, expect to pay around £1,500 for the peace of mind all-wheel traction provides.

A highlight of the range is the 1.6-litre TDI Ultra model. It’s 55kg lighter than the regular 108bhp diesel, features longer gearing and comes fitted with low-rolling-resistance tyres, and is the eco champion of the A3 line-up for those who aren’t prepared to take the plunge with the hybrid e-tron. The tweaks allow the Ultra to deliver claimed economy of 83.1mpg and CO2 emissions of just 89g/km, which mean it qualifies for 16 per cent Benefit in Kind company car taxation. As it requires 16-inch wheels for the specialised tyres, the Ultra is only available in SE or SE Technik spec. 

Slotting into Audi’s line-up between the A1 hatch and all-new A4, the A3 Sportback rivals established premium five-doors such as the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class, as well as the Volvo V40, Lexus CT and Infiniti Q30. As it’s based on the VW Group’s advanced MQB platform, potential A3 Sportback buyers would also be well advised to consider the cheaper ‘in-house’ alternatives, in the shape of the Volkswagen Golf, SEAT Leon and Skoda Octavia.

Engines, performance and drive

4.5
The Audi A3 Sportback shares its lightweight MQB chassis with other VW Group products. This means it’s decent to drive

The MQB architecture helps the A3 Sportback feel light and agile on the road, and it delivers buckets of grip, too. When fitted with the quattro four-wheel-drive system, there’s plenty of traction when you accelerate out of a corner, as you’d expect.

The A3 Sportback rides nicely, soaking up rough and bumpy roads more effectively than the three-door. However, the S line suspension makes the ride very stiff and doesn’t really help the handling in any way.

The plug-in hybrid A3 e-tron combines a 148bhp 1.4-litre petrol turbo engine with an electric motor to deliver 201bhp and 350Nm of torque. Audi claims it can run on zero-emission electric power for 31 miles at speeds of up to 81mph. As you’d expect, the silent punch is a real boon in town, but even on the open road the e-tron performs strongly and doesn't feel cumbersome, despite the addition of 125kg in batteries.

If you’re shopping at the top end of the A3 Sportback range, the RS3 doesn’t necessarily hold all the aces. True, it has a more charismatic five-cylinder engine than the S3, with more power and super-aggressive looks, and is undoubtedly quicker in a straight line, on a track or along a twisting country road. But the RS3 can feel a bit aloof when being driven within the legal limit, and when pushed hard it ultimately washes into understeer. So don’t discount the S3; it does almost everything the RS3 can, has a more neutral chassis and costs around £7,500 less if you specify the S tronic box to match.

Sport and S line customers can upgrade the standard suspension found on all A3s to a stiffer sports set-up for no extra cost, although they pay the price in ride comfort. On the same specifications, and also on the S3 and RS3, Audi Magnetic Ride – with variable damper settings – is an option costing about £1,000; on the RS3, it forms one half of the Dynamic Package (around £1,500), which also includes a sports exhaust system. Find another £1,000 or so on top of that for the Dynamic Package plus, and the RS3’s electronic speed limiter is raised from 155mph to 174mph. 

Engines

The engine range powering the A3 Sportback is almost exclusively four-cylinders, as the 1.0-litre TFSI three-cylinder seen in the A1 hasn’t yet been carried over. The only exception is the RS3, which comes with a powerful 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine that evokes Audi’s enviable Quattro rally heritage.

Starting with the petrol options, the excellent 1.2-litre TFSI delivers 108bhp and 175Nm of torque. But despite those seemingly modest numbers, it’s a smooth, rev-happy engine and provides more than enough grunt to propel the Sportback along at a decent speed.

Next up is the 1.4-litre TFSI, which is available with 123bhp and 200Nm of torque, or in 148bhp guise with Cylinder on Demand (CoD) technology; this allows it to run on two cylinders under low loads. The CoD engine delivers its power across the same rev range as the less potent 1.4, and offers 250Nm of torque.

The three performance petrol options range from warm to super-hot. The 1.8 TFSI has healthy figures of 178bhp and 280Nm, and is offered with quattro all-wheel drive. 

So is the superb S3 Sportback, which delivers 296bhp and 380Nm. It’s a very quick car, covering 0-62mph in less than five seconds with the S tronic gearbox, and rivals the likes of the Volkswagen Golf R and SEAT Leon Cupra 290.

But if that’s not enough for you, Audi sells the Sportback with a 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged engine making huge outputs of 362bhp and 465Nm. For a brief period, the second-generation RS3 was the world’s most powerful and fastest hot hatch – until mid-2015, when the Mercedes-AMG A 45 4Matic was uprated to 376bhp and claimed a 4.2-second 0-62mph time. 

However, diesel power makes more sense in a practical car like the A3 Sportback. The 1.6-litre TDI only comes with 108bhp and 250Nm, but is offered in Ultra, regular manual, S tronic and quattro formats, all of which subtly affect economy and emissions.

The 2.0-litre TDI is available with either 148bhp and 340Nm or 181bhp and 380Nm. However, it’s not quite as refined as the 1.6, plus it’s obviously less frugal.

For the ultimate eco fan, the choice has to be the e-tron. Its punchy petrol-electric drivetrain can propel the A3 Sportback to 62mph from rest in 7.6 seconds, with a 138mph top speed in hybrid running.

The three performance versions (RS3, S3 and 1.8 TFSI) can all do 0-62mph in less than seven seconds, and every A3 Sportback can hit a top speed of at least 120mph. The slowest model is the 1.6 TDI quattro, with 0-62mph in 11.2 seconds and that 120mph top speed; most Sportbacks complete the benchmark 0-62mph sprint in less than 10 seconds.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

4.5
The Audi A3 Sportback won't break the bank to run; even the S3 and RS3 models claim commendable fuel economy

Petrol versions of the A3 Sportback are impressively efficient. When equipped with a manual gearbox and low-rolling-resistance tyres on 16-inch wheels, the 1.2 TFSI claims 57.6mpg fuel economy and 114g/km CO2; specify the S tronic dual-clutch auto, and these figures improve to 58.9mpg and 110g/km. Even on 18-inch wheels and regular rubber, the car promises a respectable 55.4mpg with either gearbox, as well as 119g/km in manual guise and 118g/km with the S tronic. 

Indeed, where it’s an option, the auto ensures the petrol A3 Sportback is either as green or even slightly cleaner than the equivalent manual. The 123bhp 1.4 TFSI is at its most efficient on 16-inch wheels with an S tronic box, claiming 57.6mpg and 113g/km; in manual guise with 18-inch alloys, official figures stand at 52.3mpg and 124g/km. 

The 148bhp CoD 1.4 TFSI is the cleanest petrol A3 Sportback, emitting between 106g/km and 114g/km, and claiming anywhere from 57.6mpg to 61.4mpg fuel economy. The 1.8 TFSI quattro, which is only available with an S tronic box and on 18-inch wheels, promises 42.8mpg and 153g/km officially.

Meanwhile, the S3 and RS3 are more efficient than their supercar-baiting pace would lead you to believe – especially the former. According to Audi, the 296bhp 2.0-litre engine in the S3 emits 159-164g/km of CO2 and is capable of 39.8-40.9mpg, depending on the gearbox and whether it’s on 18 or 19-inch wheels. These wholly reasonable numbers are not far off the much less powerful 1.8 TFSI.

The RS3 is naturally thirstier, but Audi claims it’s 12 per cent cleaner than its 335bhp predecessor, quoting 34.9mpg and 189g/km on the 19 x 8J alloys. Go for the optional rims that are half an inch wider, and consumption, emissions and Benefit in Kind company car tax all increase. 

Yet as efficient as all the petrol engines are, the diesels are the eco stars of the A3 Sportback range – and none more so than the 1.6-litre TDI Ultra, which claims 83.1mpg economy and CO2 emissions of just 89g/km. The 1.6 TDI with an S tronic box is the only other model to be exempt from road tax, if you can stick to 16-inch wheels on the low-rolling-resistance tyres, thanks to its 99g/km emissions. It also has an official economy figure of 74.3mpg.

According to Audi, the 148bhp 2.0 TDI returns 68.9mpg and emits 108g/km in front-wheel-drive, manual guise, on 16-inch wheels, although official economy figures for most 2.0-litre diesel versions of the A3 Sportback range from around 60-65mpg.

Quattro all-wheel drive has a big, negative impact on economy and emissions. When you compare the 1.6 TDI Ultra to the quattro equivalent, CO2 jumps by 30g/km to 119g/km and economy tumbles from 83.1mpg to just 62.8mpg. It’s the same story at the other end of the diesel range, where the manual 181bhp 2.0 TDI promises 67.3mpg and 112g/km; the quattro version – which only comes as an S tronic – claims 58.9mpg and 127g/km. 

For the ultimate in fuel-saving technology, the plug-in hybrid A3 Sportback e-tron will be the choice. On 17-inch alloys, Audi quotes an astonishing 176.6mpg and CO2 emissions of just 37g/km. That means a Benefit in Kind rate of five per cent. However, the e-tron isn’t a cheap car to buy, at over £30,000 even after the Government’s Plug-In Car Grant has been deducted, and before you add any options.

Benefit in Kind rates on other versions of the A3 Sportback range from 16 per cent on the 1.6 TDI Ultra to 33 per cent on the RS3.

Insurance groups

With plenty of electronic driver aids as standard – and more on the options list – plus the safety net of quattro all-wheel drive, insurance premiums for the A3 Sportback can be kept low. The range kicks off at insurance group 17 for the 1.2 TFSI and rise to group 40 for the RS3; for reference, the e-tron sits in insurance group 29. 

Depreciation

As a premium product, the Audi A3 Sportback costs more to buy than the mainstream models in this class, including its Volkswagen Golf cousin, as well as the Ford Focus and the Vauxhall Astra. However, the Sportback benefits from strong residuals, meaning you’ll get more of your cash back when it’s time to sell.

Interior, design and technology

4.5
Latest exterior styling isn't as pert as the A3 hatchback's, but the Sportback has a superb, spacious cabin

Unlike the old model, the latest Audi A3 Sportback is more than just a five-door A3. Thanks to the extra 35mm in the wheelbase, it rivals its Volkswagen Golf cousin for space. It’s also more practical than a BMW 1 Series.

While some buyers will feel that the Sportback doesn’t look as good as the standard three-door A3, there’s no denying it has a sporty yet classy design. Sport and S line models feature suspension that’s been lowered by 25mm, making the A3 Sportback appear even more hunkered down to the road. 

Like the rest of the cars in the Audi line-up, the A3 Sportback’s interior is outstanding thanks to excellent build quality and understated design. All versions are also fitted with air-conditioning, Bluetooth phone connection, DAB, alloy wheels, front foglights and a leather steering wheel as standard.

As you move up the range, the equipment list does grow to a healthy level, but there are still plenty of three and four-figure cost options that can seriously inflate the A3 Sportback’s showroom price.

For maximum visual appeal, the S line models have 18-inch wheels and a bodykit that takes cues from the S3 – which itself benefits from quad exhaust tailpipes, lots of silver highlights on the exterior and unique badging. The RS3 goes a step further, with bulging wheelarches and a pair of fat oval tailpipes.

If buyers don’t intend to spend extra on their Sportback, the standard solid colours are black, white and red. For around £500, metallic and pearl-effect paints can be chosen, while crystal-effect finishes cost about £800 (and include the S3 colours, Sepang Blue and Panther Black). The RS3 gets its own eight-colour palette, two of which are bespoke: Nardo Grey and Catalunya Red.

If none of these appeals, you can pay around £2,000 to get access to the brand’s entire paint catalogue as part of the Audi exclusive programme. Or spend £2,500 or so and the customised option lets you colour-match your car to any shade you like.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

Audi now fits its entry-level 2D sat-nav on all A3 Sportbacks apart from SE models. This set-up used to cost £495, and list prices have risen by about that much in the process. Still, it’s good to know that the flagship S3 and RS3 models now get factory mapping. The e-tron is the winner here, though, as it features the very best 3D MMI Navigation plus system as standard; this set-up is a pricey option on all other A3 Sportbacks.

All these nav systems are displayed on a 5.8-inch infotainment screen that slides in and out of the dash when you start the engine. It’s controlled by the MMI rotary dial on the centre console. 

If you don’t like the default eight-speaker, 80W sound system, Audi offers two audio upgrades. Its own £255 nine-speaker, six-channel, 140W set-up costs around £250, while the high-end Bang & Olufsen upgrade will set you back around £750. But the latter is a stunning set-up, comprising 13 speakers, a 625W, 13-channel amp and full 5.1 surround sound.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

4.5
The Sportback has the biggest boot of any A3 with the rear seats folded, plus the most passenger space

Look closely and the stylish interior benefits from plenty of useful storage space, including a large glovebox and deep door bins. And as it has five doors instead of three, the A3 Sportback is much easier to live with if you’ve got a young family – loading a child seat into the back is less hassle.

Size

At 4,310mm long and with a 2,636mm wheelbase, the Sportback is the most spacious A3 of them all. It’s a mere 4mm higher than the three-door, too. The extra metal and doors mean it’s 30kg heavier, while the Sportback can tow anything from 1,500kg up to 1,800kg of braked trailer, depending on specification. 

Leg room, head room & passenger space

There’s 1,021mm of headroom in the front and 955mm in the back, making the Sportback the most airy A3. You get more than 1.4 metres of elbow room whether you’re sitting in the front or rear, while shoulder room stands at 1,392mm in the front and 1,344mm in the back, so the car should comfortably accommodate four tall adults, while five adults should be able to squeeze in easily, too.

Boot

The A3 Sportback offers 380 litres of boot space; that’s 50 litres more than in the standard three-door. Fold the rear seats flat, and it has a maximum load capacity of 1,220 litres. This is more than a five-door BMW 1 Series in both configurations, and also leaves the Mercedes A-Class and Volvo V40 trailing.

The quattro drivetrain eats into space slightly; it reduces the capacities by 40 litres on the A3 and S3 Sportbacks. But the RS3 and e-tron really lose out; both offer 100 litres less boot space as a result of their sporty chassis and battery pack respectively. That leaves these models with 280 litres when the seats are in place and 1,120 litres once they’re folded.

Reliability and Safety

4.5
A five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating and excellent Driver Power showing make the A3 Sportback an attractive proposition

The Audi A3 finished an impressive 27th out of 200 cars in our Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey – way ahead of the Mk2 version, which came 180th. That made the car the third-highest ranking Audi in the poll; only the Q3 (14th) and the A5 Sportback (26th) finished higher in the chart. Unsurprisingly, the A3 Sportback’s highest category score came in the build quality section of the survey; owners ranked it a superb sixth here.  

The MQB chassis underpinning the car is used widely in other VW Group models, where it has proven reliable. The same goes for the engines, which have no known weaknesses – although the recent emissions scandal will have tarnished Audi’s brand image in the eyes of some consumers. 

Euro NCAP awarded the Audi A3 a full five-star rating in its independent crash tests, and there’s a whole raft of safety systems to help prevent accidents. These include a lane departure warning system, optional adaptive cruise control, hill-hold assist, and a ‘Pre-Sense’ programme that tensions the seatbelts and closes the windows if the car enters a skid. There’s even an optional self-parking system to ease the A3 Sportback into tight spaces.

Warranty

Audi supplies the car with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, which includes unlimited mileage cover for the first 24 months. The 60,000-mile cap takes effect in year three. If you want to extend the warranty to either four years and 75,000 miles (capped in years three and four), or five years and 90,000 miles (capped for the final 36 months of the warranty), Audi will charge you £245 or £545 respectively. 

The advanced lithium-ion battery on the e-tron model comes with its own, separate eight-year/100,000-mile manufacturer cover. However, one caveat is that Audi will not replace the unit within the warranty period if its capacity degrades by between 10 and 30 per cent, as the manufacturer says this is normal wear. 

Servicing

The A3 Sportback is now available with fixed-price service deals such as Audi Complete, which should help to keep maintenance bills in check. Depending on how you drive it, the company recommends two service schedules: if you cover less than 10,000 miles a year and do lots of shorter journeys, it says the car will need a minor check every 9,000 miles or 12 months and a major service every 19,000 miles or 24 months. Drive more than 10,000 miles with lots of motorway use, and a flexible maintenance programme is brought to bear.

One note of caution about the A3 Sportback e-tron: it’s not sold or maintained by every dealer in the Audi network. Only 34 specialist centres across the country are set up to handle the plug-in hybrid, so check carefully that you live close to one of these before placing your order – or at least keep in mind that you may need to travel.

Last updated: 19 Feb, 2016
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