With its third generation A3, Audi has subtly developed a winning formula. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
This improved MK3 model A3 - now offered in five-door Sportback form only - shows Audi at its slick, intelligent best. Its styling might still be low key and the engineering eminently sensible, but there's now a polish to this vehicle that escapes virtually all of its rivals. Efficiency and economy are excellent by class standards, especially when it comes to a much improved range of petrol engines. And some of the high-tech options available are extremely tempting.
Audi's A3 has always been a car marked out by its quiet confidence. You don't buy one if you're an attention seeker or want to show off quite how much money you've spent. Instead, it's a premium compact hatch that blends in with real panache. Owners like that and so do we.
As for this improved version, well it's essentially a refinement of the 2012 original design. 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. More significantly perhaps, a frugal 1.0 TFSI petrol engine now props up the range - and there's an improved 2.0 TFSI petrol unit too. Evolution then, not revolution.
Lots of changes have been made in recent years on the petrol engine front, the range these days beginning with a downsized 115PS 1.0-litre TFSI unit that, nonetheless, still generates a useful 200Nm of torque. Next up is the more family 1.5 TFSI COD engine with 150PS and the efficiency of its clever 'Cylinder-on-Demand' technology. If you want more power, then the next step is a 2.0 TFSI unit - this a new engine featuring 190PS and an innovative new combustion process. It can be ordered with a freshly developed 7-speed S tronic auto gearbox and there's the option of quattro 4WD. Near the top of the range, the S3 hot hatch also gets 2.0 TFSI power - in this case with power upped by 10PS to a 310PS total.
The diesel line-up is more familiar, things kicking off with the usual 1.6-litre TDI powerplant developing 110PS and offered with either manual or S tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission. Above that sits the consistently popular 2.0-litre TDI unit, available, as usual, with either 150 or 190PS and the normal transmission choices. Top diesels also get the quattro option. As before, lowered firmer 'Sport' or 'S line Sport' suspension set-ups are available and buyers can specify a progressive steering system for sharper turn-in. The Sportback e-tron petrol/electric Plug-in hybrid variant continues on for those with an eye on their tax status.
Design and Build
The five-door Sportback bodystyle is now the only one on offer. 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
Pricing is much as before, which means that it sits mainly in the £22,000 to £35,000 bracket expected for premium compact hatches. There's there's the option of a five-door Sportback hatch, plus saloon and cabriolet bodystyles. 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 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
Forgive us if you've heard this script before, but the current A3 is quicker, more economical and emits less carbon dioxide than its predecessor. It will also challenge the very best in class for residual values. So much, so predictable. The usual drill now is to quote the faintly unbelievable economy figure of the most economical diesel model in the range to underscore that point, but petrol buyers are in for a treat with the 1.0-litre TFSI engine. Expect over 60mpg combined fuel economy and CO2 emissions getting down towards 100g/km.
Although Audi will roll out even more fuel efficient diesels in the future, the current 2.0-litre TDI 150PS unit is no slouch. In the combined cycle test it covered 68.9mpg - equivalent to CO2 emissions of just 108g/km. The A3 range also encompasses a 1.6 TDI engine, promising 74.3mpg potential with CO2 emissions of just 99g/km. If you want to go further, then the Plug-in petrol electric Sportback e-tron hybrid continues on at the top of the range with its 176mpg and 37g/km CO2 capability.
The power of the brand. It's something Audi muses on at some length and it's the driving force behind the success of the A3. After all, an A3 is a Golf in a posh frock and commands a significantly heftier asking price. That hasn't changed with this current model. Nor has the fact that there will be many quite happy to pay that premium. Forget all the numbers that surround this A3. What Audi continues to do better than anybody else is tap directly into the often deeply illogical subconscious of the buyer. It sows seeds of desirability that are hard to bat away with simple financial rectitude. The A3 is an artfully laid trap that most of us can't wait to blunder into.
Is that wrong? Is it cynical? Not really. The A3 serves a need and serves it very well. The current model is, by any reasonable measure, a smart, admirable and technically brilliant thing. The intelligent people who will buy it will nevertheless have the self-awareness to ask themselves whether they have been beguiled by brand awareness, even if only just a little. Those with typical Audi owner self confidence probably won't mind either way.