The most potent A3 diesel model you can buy has 184PS and quattro 4WD. With this top variant, Audi aims to demonstrate how to blend high performance and low emissions in a beautifully finished package. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
If you hanker for a bit of muscle from your car but don't want to foot some big bills to keep it running, the top Audi A3 diesel model, the 2.0 TDI quattro 184PS variant, could be the answer. With the ability to cover 0-62mph in under 7 seconds and capable of a 143mph top speed, this A3 allies that pace with 58.9mpg fuel economy and 127g/km emissions. How? We're a little baffled to be honest.
It might be a bit of an old car buying chestnut, but the maxim "fast, cheap, reliable - pick any two" has more than a kernel of truth about it. With prices starting just north of £24,000, the Audi A3 2.0 TDI 184PS certainly doesn't qualify as being notably cheap, but fast and reliable you can definitely count on. Were we to bend the rules a little and define cheap as 'cheap to run' instead, this is a car that certainly answers the call.
The A3 is the Audi that seems to achieve great things without ever seeming to try too hard and this model is set very much in that mould. It's not positioned as a sports hatch but it has the pace to see many off. It's not sold as an eco special but it turns in better fuel economy than many cars wearing ostentatiously green badges. If you prefer quiet ability over the big claim, the A3 2.0 TDI 184PS is as good as they come.
These days, 184PS wouldn't even qualify a hatchback as hot. You could safely bottle that and feed it to a baby. Yet hot hatchbacks have traditionally had petrol and not diesel engines. Couple that 184PS with 380Nm of torque, plus quattro 4WD and you have a hugely capable performance model. Remember, this is the same engine that's found shoehorned into the noses of the Volkswagen Golf GTD, the Skoda Octavia vRS and the SEAT Leon FR, so it's serious hardware. It'll manage 62mph in 6.8s and keep going to 143mph.
This engine adds around 25kg to the kerb weight of a 2.0-litre petrol A3, so that's hardly catastrophic. Fire it up and it settles into a muted idle, far more refined than some earlier high power Audi diesels. The powerplant has a sudden and insistent punch but you'll need to be quick with the gearbox because it's all done and dusted by around 4,000rpm. It's only available mated to S tronic auto transmission and a quattro 4WD system controlled by a clever multi-plate clutch. During normal driving, the clutch sends most of the engine's power to the front wheels, but if they start to break traction it can transfer torque in varying degrees to the rear axle almost instantaneously by pressing the sets of plates together under control.
Either comfort-oriented standard suspension, or sports suspension lowered by 15mm over standard and with a tauter, more handling-focused bias can be specified. S line models can also be equipped with S line sports suspension, the most overtly sporting set-up with a ride height lowered by 25mm over standard. On British roads this may be a little bit much.
Design and Build
Exterior changes to the the and five-door A3 hatch variants we're focusing on here are slight but the front looks a little more purposeful, courtesy of sharper lines for the familiar and now broader Singleframe grille. The headlights are flatter, with distinctive outer contours and can now be ordered in Matrix LED form, so they are significantly brighter and constantly adapt themselves to avoid dazzling other road users, plus of course they never need to be dipped. Equally subtle changes at the rear aim to accentuate the width of this car - with the horizontal illuminated graphics of the rear lights and the separation edge above the redesigned diffuser.
Inside, the 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this one as an option. This displays the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as before, with classy materials and strong build quality. The hatch most will want with three or five doors has a 365-litre boot - and there's still the option of saloon or Cabriolet bodystyles if you want them.
Market and Model
You can only have this top 184PS 2.0 TDI engine with quattro 4WD, S tronc auto transmission and with the top 'Sport' and 'S line' levels of trim. That means it won't be cheap - but then no A3 ever is. Prices start at just under £29,000 for the three-door variant in 'Sport' guise - or around £31,000 if you want the more dynamic-looking 'S line' variant. There's a premium of around £620 on top of those prices if you want the more versatile 'Sportback' five-door bodystyle. The key option with this improved A3 model range is the clever 'Virtual Cockpit' system replacing the conventional instrument dials with an eye-catching 12.3-inch TFT display. But of course, there's much else to select from.
As for infotainment, well Audi reckons that this improved A3 sets fresh standards here. An 'MMI radio plus' set-up with an electrically extending 7-inch diagonal monitor is standard, while the 'MMI navigation' system is fitted from 'SE Technik' trim upwards. Go further and specify the 'MMI navigation plus with MMI touch in conjunction with the Audi connect' package (what a mouthful!) and you can have many online functions in your A3 at high speed via the super-fast LTE standard. They include, for example, navigation with Google Earth and Google Street View traffic information in real time, as well as practical information on parking, destinations, news or the weather. There's also a free 'Audi MMI connect' app that enables other services, such as online media streaming and transfer of a calendar from a smartphone to the MMI. Mobile phones with iOS and Android operating systems can now be connected with the car via the standard Audi smartphone interface.
Cost of Ownership
You probably don't need us to tell you that the third generation A3 is quicker, more economical and emits less carbon dioxide than its predecessor. Engine technology moves on apace, as do aerodynamics and the fact that it's lighter than before all adds up to a more efficient vehicle. How much more efficient? In the combined cycle test, this 2.0 TDI 184PS quattro S tronic variant managed 58.9mpg with 17-inch wheels - equivalent to CO2 emissions of 127g/km. ot bad for such a potent, capable 4WD model.
In other words, a number of steps have been taken in the right direction. The problem though for Audi is that with the latest 1 Series and A-Class models, BMW and Mercedes have done the same thing. Even Volvo is getting in on the act with their surprising V40. Plenty then, for prospective purchasers of this top A3 2.0 TDI to think about.
The Audi A3 is an undeniably expensive compact hatchback in this 2.0 TDI quattro S tronic 184PS guise. That said, it's hard to argue with what it delivers. It's brutally punchy for such an unprepossessing looking thing, economy and emissions are very competitive and it has an interior that feels incredibly well put together. Nobody does interiors in this price bracket quite like Audi and in case you were wondering whether this car is worth the price premium over a Golf GTD or a Leon FR, sit in one for a while and all will be become clear.
Of course it's possible, upon reflection, to suspect that this is all an artfully and beautifully polished trap designed to separate you from your money. Audi's swollen profit figures would also nod you knowingly to this line of thinking. But can a car with so much mettle to it ever be accused of style over substance? That will always be a subjective call, but from here the pricing looks more than fair.