With its current third generation model A3 2.0 TDI, Audi has decided to keep the styling conservative but sharpen the package in a multitude of ways. Jonathan Crouch reports on the 150PS version.
Ten Second Review
You might find it a bit hard to get excited about Audi's current A3 2.0-litre TDI in 150PS form, but after you've had a good look at one, done the sums and hemmed and hawed for a bit, you might well end up signing on the dotted line. It's that sort of car - deeply considered.
The Audi A3 is a vehicle that has always sold on discretion. Yes, you can buy tarmac-scorching S3 and RS3 sports variants with look-at-me colour schemes and big alloy wheels, but the standard A3 model is the very acme of understatement. You only have to open the door of the current model and get inside to realise this. Your first thought is "Where are all the controls?" Then you realise that Audi has been confident enough not to feel the need to festoon the dash with buttons in order to make the car look well equipped.
At this point, the penny starts to drop. Here's a car that isn't trying too hard. Which seems as good a definition of automotive coolness as you'll find. The A3 is a model that's sold well in diesel form in the UK, especially in the 2.0-litre TDI 150PS form we're going to look at here, a variant that's sure to be a big favourite. As for the recent changes, well 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.
Go for this standard 2.0-litre TDI diesel and you have 150PS under your right boot which is more than enough to let the A3 lift her skirt a little when you plant the throttle pedal. In fact it's tempting to think that this kind of power output represents a sweet spot in terms of balancing performance against fuel efficiency. Front wheel drive and a six-speed manual gearbox is a fairly straightforward recipe and thanks to excellent traction control, this A3 will step off the line to 62mph in just 8.5 seconds before eventually running onto a top speed of 135mph. There's also the option of specifying quattro 4WD.
As ever, this car uses a hi-tech MQB modular chassis and ride quality is good while refinement is even better. There's an electromechanically assisted steering system and a sophisticated stability control package which includes an electronic limited slip differential for composed deployment of power. The optional Audi drive select system lets the driver vary the throttle response, steering weighting and, where the S tronic transmission is present, the gearbox shift points. What's more, it can also be upgraded to manage the optional Audi magnetic ride set-up, with its clever magneto-rheological fluid-filled dampers. If you're downsizing from a bigger Audi model, you're not going to feel hard done by in this one.
Design and Build
Exterior changes to the A3 over recent years have been slight but the front still looks purposeful, courtesy of sharp lines for the familiar broad Singleframe grille. The headlights are flat, with distinctive outer contours and can 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 styling at the rear aims 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 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 five-door Sportback hatch has a 365-litre boot - and there's still the option of saloon or Cabriolet bodystyles if you want them.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £25,000 for an A3 2.0 TDI 150PS in five-door Sportback form with base 'SE Tecknik' trim; there are also 'Sport', 'S line' and 'Black Edition' options. Think in terms of the 2.0-litre TDI unit needing a premium of around £1,300 over the 110PS 1.6-litre TDI variant. If you want your car with quattro 4WD, you'll need at least 'S line' trim and a £33,000 budget. The key option with this current 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 current 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 as standard. 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 150PS variant managed 70.6mpg with a manual gearbox and 16-inch wheels - equivalent to CO2 emissions of just 105g/km. With the S tronic auto gearbox, the figures are 64.2mpg and 116g/km, while with quattro 4WD, you're looking at 58.9mpg and 125g/km in a manual variant.
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 A3 2.0 TDI purchasers to think about.
I must confess that I wasn't immediately enthused by this current Audi A3. I felt it was almost too polished, too low-key for its own good. But if you can get past its rather cool barrier of wilful understatement, you'll find a truly excellent car. It's undoubtedly a grower, a design that impresses you with small considered details as well the headline figures. The 2.0-litre TDI 150PS unit feels as if it's perfectly pitched to balance power and parsimony, making it the choice in the A3 range for higher mileage drivers. Don't overlook the smart 1.5 TFSI petrol engine with cylinder on demand technology though.
Ultimately, the more I drove this A3 the more I admired it. I never felt that impulsive spark that would send me careening to an Audi dealer looking for a dotted line but then it's not really that kind of car. Hedonists will probably look elsewhere. Those looking for discreet refinement will find a lot to like here. Don't expect fireworks, it's a slow burner.