New Audi A3 Sportback TDI 2016 review
The new Audi A3's raft of refinements make it a competent premium hatch, but is it exciting?
There’s not much surprise and delight in the Audi A3’s 2016 makeover; instead, the small changes improve on what was already a competitive car. New tech brings it right up to date, while the fit and finish throughout remains unrivalled in this sector. If it’s excitement or dramatic looks you want, look elsewhere – but the sheer competence of Audi’s premium hatch is hard to ignore.
Audi launched the original A3 over 20 years ago, and wakened an appetite within the British car buying public for small, premium hatchbacks. Since then, it's been attacked by the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class - as well as other rivals like the Lexus CT, Volkswagen Golf, Volvo V40, and even the five-door MINI.
Despite all these rivals, a constant series of updates has kept the A3 competitive, and it still rules the roost in terms of market share.
As you'd expect, the latest model's mid-life nip and tuck are pretty minor - evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Exterior changes are undeniably subtle - a widened grille and redesigned lights are about the only visual changes you'll be able to spot.
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At the back, you might also be able to spot a slightly altered bumper with a chunkier diffuser, while new alloy wheel and colour choices give the A3 a lift. S-Line spec cars receive a sportier lower bumper with extra air intakes, while also gaining fashionable scrolling LED indicators at the back.
Equipment levels have been given a boost across the A3 range, too. Enough to make the £500 price increase over the old car seem like decent value, that’s for sure. Even base SE models come with cruise control, auto xenon headlights, and improved smartphone integration.
The A3 also becomes the fourth Audi model to receive the option of the slick Virtual Cockpit display behind the dials. It works as well as it does in the A4 or TT, although it only comes as part of a £1,395 Technology pack that also lumps in a more advanced navigation system and wireless smartphone charging. Audi has also updated the already intuitive MMI controller, reducing the buttons and menu levels to make it one of the easiest systems on the market to operate.
Elsewhere, it’s business as usual. The minor changes to the cabin only serve to improve what was already the best interior in the class. There’s an exceptional air of quality and solidity to the materials that you just don’t find in a BMW 1 Series, for example, while the new steering wheel design adds a upmarket feel. At night, things get even smarter thanks to the new LED interior lighting. Mainstream hatchbacks are catching up in quality terms, but the A3 still shows that you really do get what you pay for.
Our test model was a five-door Sportback in ever-popular S-Line trim, using the VW Group’s tried and tested 2.0 TDI diesel with 148bhp and a six-speed manual gearbox. It’s an engine we’re very familiar with, with a muscular feel in the mid-range, a willingness to rev, and strong fuel economy. It’s not the most refined unit out there, but it’s less raucous at low revs than the 1.6 and feels more in-keeping with the A3’s upmarket character.
Unfortunately, the A3 still lacks the driving engagement of cars like the 1 Series. While S-Line models get the option of lowered sports suspension, all that does is ramp up the stiffness in the A3's ride. Stick with the standard setup and you get a taut but well-damped ride – keeping the body tied down perfectly well in the bends. Make sure to avoid the optional 19-inch alloys, too, as they introduce quite a lot of road roar, upsetting the A3’s otherwise first-class refinement.
The steering is accurate and pleasingly weighted in all apart from the artificially heavy ‘Dynamic’ mode. It offers little in the way of feel or involvement, though, and while the A3 feels agile it’s not a hatchback you relish driving quickly for the fun of it. The BMW has that covered instead.
While S-Line is the most popular trim level, it’s not the best value. The sports seats it brings along are smart, but there’s not much wrong with the standard chairs. If you can do without the big wheels and racier detailing, we’d save a bit of cash and opt for Sport spec instead.