The entry-level 1.6-litre TDI diesel version of Audi's improved A3 premium compact hatch offers a sensibility package with more than a touch of desirability too. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
The Audi A3 recipe is one that's reasonably familiar to customers. Certainly, this latest model doesn't diverge from the template of high quality and a big car feel miniaturised into a compact hatchback shape. What has changed is the market the A3 competes in. This revised third generation car now has to work harder than ever to win sales. Fortunately for Audi, it seems up to the task, especially in the improved 1.6 TDI entry-level diesel form we look at here.
Why pay over the odds for surplus you don't need? It's a philosophy that works for all the big purchases you'll ever make, whether it be a house, a holiday or a car. Especially a car. It's so easy to be seduced into going large, just on the off chance you might one day need to carry five passengers or negotiate a muddy track. Then after a few years with the car, we realise that we only did that thing once or twice and would have been better off with something less ostentatious. Something like this Audi A3 1.6 TDI maybe.
The formula for the A3 hasn't changed a great deal since it first appeared in 1996. Then, it weathered the accusations that it was a Volkswagen Golf in a posh frock then and it continues to do so today in an improved guise that includes a slightly smarter look. More significantly, Audi's latest Virtual Cockpit instrument panel makes an appearance as a desirable option and Ingolstadt's latest know-how when it comes to media connectivity is paraded in the redesigned MMI infotainment system. Let's check this car out in affordable diesel guise.
The very first thing that strikes you when driving the Audi A3 is how quiet it is. That has traditionally been something that manufacturers of compact cars have struggled with in the past. Building suspension systems down to a price, packaging engines and ancillaries where it would have been nice to have extra soundproofing and the busy ride inherent in a short wheelbase vehicle were usually key contributing factors to why smaller cars never really felt like big cars to drive. That's changed with the latest generation of premium hatches and the A3 is probably the best of the bunch in this particular regard.
It's wholly competent, if not a major entertainer. Should you want a bit of fun behind the wheel, the BMW 1 Series feels a more extrovert character and the Mercedes A-Class a more rewarding steer, but the A3 isn't far off that pace. It feels beautifully resolved when you thread it through a series of bends in that way that only seems to come from Audi. It's hard to ruffle it in any particular way, the control systems keeping a cap on any antics and the car feeling slightly disdainful at being manhandled along. Rest to 62mph in the 1.6 TDI variant takes 10.5s on the way to 124mph flat out. That's not far off the 8.5s and 135mph figures you'd get in the pricier 150PS 2.0 TDI variant.
Design and Build
Exterior changes to the A3 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
Pricing for this entry-level 1.6-litre TDI diesel A3 diesel starts at around £21,000 - or just over £21,500 if you want the five-door Sportback version. There's a choice between SE, Sport and S line trim levels. For a quattro variant, you'll need the saloon bodystyle and at least a £25,000 budget. As for bodystyles, apart from the three and five-door hatches and that saloon, there's also a cabriolet variant. The key option with this improved model 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
Start cranking a bunch of options onto an A3 and you'll put a dent in what might be its biggest asset - the way it clings onto its value. It wouldn't require too much effort to push the cost of this 1.6-litre TDI A3 above £30,000 which, after a night's sleep, must feel vaguely terrifying. Better to stick with the standard equipment and add a couple of options that used buyers will increasingly look for such as navigation or Internet connectivity services.
As it stands, the A3 has one of the best residual figures around. Buy an entry-level A3 1.6 TDI now and three years down the road it will still probably be worth over 45 per cent of what you initially paid for it. That's what makes this car worth paying the extra over, say, a well-equipped Focus or Astra, both of which have closed the gap in terms of quality in recent years. As long as you can afford the initial outlay, the Audi is going to work out cheaper to own.
Perhaps the smartest thing about the Audi A3 is its efficiency. You'll have already justified the asking price of the car in terms of its build quality, equipment and power output, so getting excellent efficiency almost feels like a bit of a bonus. In its most frugal form, a 1.6 TDI diesel manages a combined fuel figure of 83.1mpg with emissions of just 89g/km, so this model is clearly going to be hugely popular with fleet and private buyers alike.
The Audi A3 isn't the sort of car that naturally grabs the headlines, especially in this 1.6-litre TDI guise. It's just a little bit too sensible for that. The driving dynamics won't have magazine road testers getting all unnecessary and the styling isn't going to sell too many posters. It's the unsexy stuff that the A3 does so well. It studiously leverages the power of Audi's cherished brand. It's safe, efficient, discreet and makes sense financially when its crushing residual values are taken into account.
So, a car that you buy with the head rather than the heart? Not entirely. The coldest pragmatist would gravitate to a Golf then realise that even better value could be had with a Skoda or a SEAT. No, the Audi A3 is all about walking a very fine line balancing value and badge equity. My personal take is that perhaps the A3 has become a little too cool and could do with a few more fireworks to really grab the buyer but you may well disagree. What's not up for debate is that this is a compact car that goes large on quality, refinement and maturity. Will it outsell the Mercedes A Class and the BMW 1 Series? You'd be foolish to bet against it.