By Jonathan Crouch
It's an Audi A3 - but not perhaps, quite as you know it. In this case, we're looking at the Saloon version, designed to bring the brand's cool elegance within the reach of those who might find the only slightly larger A4 model a bit of a stretch. We all like the idea of good things in sensibly sized packages. In essence, that's what this is. Let's check out the 2013 to 2016-era version of this particular model out as a used buy.
The compact executive saloon. Every business carpark is stuffed with the things, most of them up-market German-badged offerings like Audi's A4, BMW's 3 Series or Mercedes' C-Class. Cars of this kind are now generations old and have got progressively larger, more sophisticated - and more expensive. So much so, that in recent years, room has been created for a market sector to slot in beneath them. A segment with four-door saloons offering pretty much the same thing, but in a slightly more compact form. Cars like this one, Audi's A3 Saloon.
From this variant's launch in 2013, the Ingolstadt brand knew that it needed to sell this one carefully. After all, it's traditionally been true in the UK that any four-door smaller than something A4/3 Series or C-Class-sized tends to get pretty much ignored on these shores. So the marketeers couldn't afford for this three-box A3 variant to be seen as a direct rival for minority sedan players like Volkswagen's Jetta or Volvo's S60. Instead, they had to pitch it as offering almost everything you'd get in their fully-fledged A4 model - but in a marginally smaller package with the option of some more efficient and affordable entry-level engines. The thinking person's compact executive saloon if you like.
By 2013, Mercedes had already dipped a toe into this kind of segment with their A-Class-based CLA model, but thanks to its style and technology emphasis, that car cost A4/3 Series or C-Class money. Which rather defeated the object of the exercise. This A3 Saloon, in contrast, though not vastly cheaper than its A4 stablemate, always offered enough of a price saving to offer a cost-efficient alternative to that car for business buyers on the lower rungs of the management ladder.
This variant sold until mid-2016, when it was replaced by an updated facelifted version.
What You Get
This was the first time a Saloon model had been offered as part of the A3 line-up and, if this variant takes your interest, you'll probably approach it with a couple of ready-made pre-conceptions. Either that it'll be some kind of lightly-shrunken version of the larger A4. Or merely an A3 hatch with a boot added on the back. In reality, neither of these expectations hit the mark. It's very much an A3, but a subtly different one, 11mm wider, 9mm lower and 146mm longer than the kind of comparable five-door A3 Sportback that many likely buyers will probably also be considering. Audi's made this three-box model because it was what customers wanted in markets like China or the US and also because it needed a slightly larger platform on which to base its A3 Cabriolet model.
From a style perspective, this design doesn't set out to make the kind of sweeping aesthetic statement you'd get in a pricier rival Mercedes CLA, but it's still a neat piece of penmanship. The headlamps are more tapered than you'll find on an A3 hatch and an emphasised version of Audi's trademark 'Tornado' swage line combines with short overhangs to create a more distinctive profile culminating in the neat way that the C-pillar flows down to meet the gently rising bootline. It'll all blend smartly into the background in the office carpark, exactly as buyers will want it to. More important though, is what you can't see, the hi-tech MQB modular transverse platform that underpins the ultra-lightweight construction primarily responsible for the kind of weight saving that sees this car up to 200kgs lighter than a rival CLA.
And practicality? Well, once you've lumped stuff over the relatively high sill, you'll find 425-litres on offer in the boot, 45-litres more than you'd get in a five-door A3 Sportback hatch model. Which is usefully more than you'd get in something like a Volvo S60 but about 10% less than the trunk provided by a rival Mercedes CLA. Despite that, we'd still contend this Audi to be a slightly more practical choice than the Merc because when you push forward the 60/40 split-folding rear bench (freeing up as much as 845-litres), the opening created is much wider and usable.
And for rear seat passengers, there's no comparison between this car and a CLA. Coupe-like styling means a place in the rear of the Mercedes is cramped and claustrophobic, whereas in this Audi, it's very different. Three can be accommodated at a squash but the two adults that'll more regularly be carried should certainly be as comfortable as they would be in a comparable A4 saloon on all but the longest trips, though it is true that headroom isn't quite as generous as you'll find in an A3 hatch.
What sets this car apart though isn't its practicality. No, it's the feeling you get from sitting behind the wheel. Quite simply, nothing else in this segment can match it, the cabin dominated by an electrically-extending 5.8-inch colour screen centrally positioned on top of the dash. Via this, you can marshal the many functions of a redesigned MMI infotainment system that prevents all but the most vital controls from cluttering up the minimalist dashboard. Just as distinctive are the four air vents, styled to look like miniature jet engines and made up of no fewer than thirty individual parts including bright metal outer rings that are shaped for perfect grip.
Otherwise, you've an interior that'll be familiar fare to anybody who speaks fluent Audi design language, everything clear, classy and easily accessible. The instrument panel's styled in a wing-like profile and an electric parking brake switch replaces the traditional - and preferable - handbrake lever so as to free up space for the MMI infotainment system controller by your left hand. Ultimately, what it all adds up to is a cabin that wouldn't be out of place on a car costing twice the price. And how many models of this kind can you say that about? Exactly.
What to Look For
Don't get us wrong, very little goes wrong with typical third generation A3 models, but there are a few rogue examples floating around in the market. Oil sump failure in 2.0 TD diesel variants was the most regularly reported issue we came across as part of our customer survey, this engine also sometimes exhibiting loud turbo noises too, so listen for that on your test drive. The 1.4-litre TFSI petrol variant has also occasionally faltered too. We came across a couple of owners complaining of a 'whooshing' noise with this powerplant which is apparently due to vacuum hose issues and a vibrating actuator rod.
Across the A3 range, other issues we came across that you might want to look out for included a random lumpy engine idle, a faulty coolant expansion tank, worn wheel bearings, warped rear brake discs and sticking rear brake pads. Also look out for a crunchy gear change between 1st and 2nd gear, plus faulty turbo hose seals, motor brushes in the small radiator fan that get stuck and suspension drop-link ball-joints that are worn out.
Less serious issues we came across included windows creeping open, alloy wheels corroding badly, broken parcel shelf lifting tabs, issues with the central locking mechanism, loose door handle outside trim bits and constantly high levels of humidity in the car after being parked up. Also listen out for a rattle from areas like the driver's side B pillar, dash vent and glovebox area.
(approx based on a 2013 A3 2.0 TDI) An air filter will be priced in the £14 to £20 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £8 to £11 bracket and a fuel filter will be around £5, though go for a pricier brand and you could pay as much as £25 for one. A timing belt will be around £45 and brake discs we came across sat in the £42 to £62 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing between £72 and £84. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £25 bracket, but you can pay up to £40 for a pricier brand.
On the Road
You won't be expecting this A3 Saloon to drive any differently to its hatchback model counterparts - and it doesn't. But if you haven't tried one of those, it might be worth covering the experience on offer. Which is very polished indeed. The MQB (or Modular Transverse Matrix) underpinnings have been developed on a billion euro budget to deliver class-leading standards of ride, handling and a whole lot more. Let me explain.
First up, because a lot of the stuff you can't see is lighter than it would be in competitor models, the car immediately feels more lithe and agile than you expect, even on a short drive. True, real driving enthusiasts might still prefer the slightly sharper reactions of a rival Mercedes CLA. But everyone else will probably enjoy this Audi just as much thanks to lovely technical touches like the way that an electronic limited slip differential is built into the stability control system so that the car turns more sharply into bends. And the beautifully calibrated multi-link suspension that enables the car to flow fluently though those corners while nonchantly soaking up the bumps in a way that perfectly complements this A3's quite exemplary standards of refinement.
Suspension in fact, is one thing it's important to get right when finding the right version of this car. Sports suspension lowered by 15mm is included in the price of all variants and offers a firm set-up that's fine if you like to throw the car around a bit but in day-to-day use might prove a little wearing. Just as well then, that standard, softer springs were offered to original buyers as a no-cost option - and finding a car that was specified in that way might be a better way to go. That's if you can't find one fitted out with the altogether rather better option of Audi's advanced 'magnetic ride system' with its clever magneto-rheological fluid-filled dampers that let you change the ride quality to suit the road you're on and the mood you're in. This set-up works via the 'comfort', 'auto', 'dynamic', 'efficiency' or 'individual' modes of the standard 'drive select' system, which in its basic form lets you vary the throttle response, steering weighting and, where the S tronic dual clutch sequential transmission is present, the gearbox shift points to create exactly the kind of feel you're looking for.
This smooth-shifting auto 'box is an option across the range and it's a rather good one, a dual-clutch system able to select the next gear before you've even left the last one. Without it, your A3 Saloon will come fitted with a reasonably slick-shifting manual six-speeder. From new, around 35% of buyers chose the 2.0-litre TDI diesel. Performance with this popular black pump-fuelled variant is smoothly rapid, the 62mph sprint occupying 8.4s on the way to 136mph. If you like the thought of a diesel but don't need to go that fast, the lower-powered 1.6-litre TDI model manages 10.9s and 123mph.
But don't automatically choose that car without first considering its comparably priced and very clever petrol alternative - the 140PS 1.4TFSI CoD petrol version. Here, advanced 'Cylinder on Demand' technology is capable of seamlessly shutting down two of the four cylinders at low-to-medium engine speeds. The result is a combined cycle fuel figure of around 60mpg that belies the spirited performance - rest to 62mph in 8.4s on the way to 136mph. That's a combination of virtues that's difficult to argue with. If spirited performance is a priority, then the two top petrol models might tempt you. The 180PS 1.8 TFSI is more than acceptably quick, making 62mph in 7.2s en route to 150mph, and offers the advantage of being the only mainstream A3 Saloon model available with the option of quattro 4WD. At the top of the range, that quattro system is standard-fit on the 300PS S3 sports saloon, with its 2.0-litre TFSI turbo engine able to power you to sixty in just 5.1s.
Many will like the statement this car makes on their behalf. It's smart and elegant without being showy. No does it unduly advertise its status as the smallest saloon Audi made in this era. Most who see you at the wheel will simply think you've bought an A4 and those who do spy the different bootbadge will probably think you've chosen wisely. So there's very little not to like.
Unless you were looking to make some sort of style statement: this car won't turn the heads of passers' by like a rival Mercedes CLA, but then that very discretion is a fundamental part of its appeal. As with any other A3, it's as home in Belgravia as it is in Brixton, offering a democratisation of automotive luxury without a dilution of desirability.
If you doubt that, you've only to get behind the wheel, for the interior is where this design really strides apart. You could be in a luxury car - and of course, in many ways, you are. Just one that perhaps better reflects the times we live in.