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Third-gen Audi A3 gets a mild facelift, more equipment, some new engines and a new hot model - but is it the cream of the premium hatch crop?

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Stepping from an old Audi A3 to a new one is like going to the supermarket and discovering your favourite brand of washing powder has been ‘reformulated.’

First you wonder why they’ve felt the need to change a formula with which you were already entirely happy. Then you look a little closer and discover the product and its packaging appear to have changed hardly at all and you wonder some more.

Like so many of this brand’s recent ‘Russian doll’ relaunches, this is a ‘new Audi’ with the emphasis on the latter part of that concept

But then you read the small print and discover the new product has been built up around an entirely new formula that despite all appearances to the contrary, bears no relation whatever to what you’ve been using for years.

It’s because within the Volkswagen Group that owns Audi, there exists a culture of never, ever making radical changes to known winners. You can see it all the way from the Porsche Boxster to the Volkswagen Golf, but most of all you can see it in the A3, which has dominated its class since launch.

Chances are you’d need to be an existing owner before you’d be likely to spot the differences between old and new. But make no mistake: the differences are real and, for the dynamically underachieving A3, game changing. Just to give new and old owners clues that this is a new A3, bar from checking the number plate, the mid-life facelift gave the nose a sharper design with the headlights resembling those found on the new Audi A4 and Audi A5

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In fact everything has changed – there’s a new platform and every engine is either new or substantially renewed. It’s this change without appearing to change that Audi hopes will provide the right blend of technical improvement with design reassurance to keep the new A3 on top throughout its third generation. Even the mid-cycle facelift sought to rejuvenate rather than radically alter the A3 with new engines and more equipment chief among the additions.

Question is, will it really wash whiter?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi A3 rear

If you’re not already used to the acronym ‘MQB’. Volkswagen’s ultra-flexible, lightweight, part aluminium, part high strength steel modular platform is rolling out across all VW’s mainstream brands. It’s light, it’s strong and as easy to turn into a large saloon as a small hatchback.

For Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and Seat it brings unprecedented economies of scale. It will save them vast amounts of money over the lifetime of the platform as its engineering costs are amortised over so much time and so many other products.

One tester said the cabin reminded him of his iPod, in that it combines technical sophistication with simpler control logic — fewer buttons and dials, not more. It’s rare in that regard — unique, even

For you, the quality hatchback prospector, compared to the old Audi A3, MQB removes 80kg from the weight of the structure, improves crash safety and liberates more interior space.

Over it, Audi has draped a shape so utterly familiar you can park a new Audi A3 next to the old and not only struggle to tell one from the other but, once your eyes have picked out the myriad differences, still not be entirely sure which is the new car. The 2016 facelift certainly makes that process slightly easier - although only when you look from the front - as the bonnet has sharper crease lines and the headlights have gained an unfortunate looking extension.

The three-door A3 engine line-up is a mix of turbocharged petrols and diesel engines. The range kicks off with a 114bhp, three-cylinder, 1.0-litre petrol, and is topped with a 2.0 TFSI unit pushing out 197bhp, partnered with Audi's four-wheel drive quattro system. The 1.4 TFSI engine has been dropped in favour of a higher capacity 1.5 with lower internal friction and the ability to switch off when you are on the throttle, all to help improve efficiency but not at the expense of performance.

Those after a hot version of the three-door A3 will be pleased to know the S3 remains an option - powered by a 305bhp 2.0 TFSI unit capable of flinging the premium hatch to 62mph in just over five seconds with a manual gearbox (expect that time to be in the 4.5sec area with the auto 'box), while Audi claim it can breach 40mpg on a combined cycle. Stepping up further takes you into true hot hatch territory, with the 394bhp, turbocharged 2.5 five-cylinder Audi RS3 capable of sub 4.0 second 0-62 times.

The diesel line-up is entirely more conventional. A single, 114bhp 1.6 TDI starts the range off, while the crux of the oilburners sold will come from two 2.0 TDI units producing 148bhp and 181bhp respectively, both of which are available with quattro. The A3 range is driven through either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic.

Predictably enough, suspension is by McPherson struts at the front and a fully independent multi-link rear axle for all versions, rather than just the expensive models like the Volkswagen Golf upon which it is based. There are three states of suspension tune: standard, sport and S-Line, though the last of these is available only with the top of the range S-Line trim.

INTERIOR

Audi A3 interior

The Audi A3 always felt like the entry level Audi, even though after the arrival of the Audi A1, it no longer was. Its interior worked at a basic ergonomic level but the style and quality enjoyed by those rich enough to afford larger more expensive Audis was missing.

No longer. This A3 marks the point where Audi chose to democratise its brand values and bring them to a wider audience than ever before, a strategy of which only good can come in the long term.

Have a look at the latches that hold the false boot floor in place and you’ll find springs that prevent it from rattling

It seems almost redundant to talk about the basics. Of course a perfect driving position is achievable for all bar the freakishly tall or short. The dials are paragons of clarity, what little switchgear there is laid out in such a simple, intuitive manner you wonder why all cars don’t follow suit. Maybe they will. For those looking for a more futuristic feel, then parting with an additional £450 will get you Audi's fabulous Virtual Cockpit, which is configurable to show a wealth of information, including becoming your sat nav display.

But it is the quality of the fittings that’s the real news here and the way they have been put together. It all looks so effortless that it’s tempting to think all those neat radii and millimetrically perfect panel fits just happened rather than being the result of years of blood, sweat and euros. But when you start pushing and prodding at the soft fabrics and plastics you soon realise there’s very little in here that merely looks the part.

It’s a spacious car too, at least in the front. Rear seat passengers have been deliberately denied more than adequate legroom to provide owner/occupiers with the grounds to spend more on the longer wheelbase A3 Sportback. The 365 litre boot is competitive in the class but no more.

There are seven trim levels available with the three-door A3 - starting with the SE and going all the way up to S3 Black Edition. Opt for an entry-level SE A3 and you'll find 16in alloys, xenon headlights, cruise control, rear parking sensors and auto lights and wipers fitted as standard on the outside. Inside, there is air conditioning, an auto-dimming rear view mirror, and Audi's MMI infotainment system complete with a 7.0in display, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and smartphone integration. Upgrading to the SE Technik trim adds sat nav and a three-month trial to Audi's online connected services.

Opt for Sport trim and the A3 gains 17in alloys, dual-zone climate control, front sports seats and touches of aluminium, while S-line cars get LED headlights, a sporty bodykit, lowered, firmed up suspension, ambient interior LED lighting, a part leather upholstery and 18in alloys. Topping the standard range is the Black Edition models which get 18in alloys, an improved audio system and lots of gloss black exterior styling.

Those craving the 305bhp S3 will be pleased to know it gets its own trim level, with all the equipment found on an S-line A3, plus sports suspension and steering, a quad-pipe exhaust system, an aggressively-styled bodykit, a Nappa leather upholstery and heated front seats included in the bundle. Those wanting a little bit exclusivity added to their S3 can get the Black Edition version which includes the stylish, 5-arm turbine alloys, lots of gloss black exterior trim, rear tinted windows and a Bang and Olufsen audio system.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi A3 side profile

If you have the choice and can afford it, the 2.0-litre TDI motor is by far the best engine available for the Audi A3. The petrol engines are smooth and sweet but simply don’t add up when you consider the price paid in fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, range and limited low down torque, although the new 1.5 TFSI EVO engine hopes to rectify some of those shortfalls.

Between the 1.6 and 2-litre diesels, the fact the latter is 40bhp more powerful yet apparently will go just 5.4 fewer miles on every tank of diesel tells you what you need to know. Yet while the 1.6 needs 10.7sec to reach 62mph, the 2-litre is claimed to do it in 8.6sec. Our testing resulted in an 8.9sec run, but that’s still a night and day differential.

The A3 is capable enough in corners and can hold almost 1g, but there’s little interaction

The 2.0-litre engine arrived with the 2016 facelift and boasts an excellent spread of refined torque. It’s only noisy right at the top end in that realm around 5000rpm where normal drivers never stray, or if you stand outside the car. For almost all occupants almost all of the time, it is more than sufficiently refined.

The 1.0-litre TFSI, 1.5-litre TFSI and 2.0 TFSI petrol engines are all very strong performers, offering plenty of flexibility, excellent throttle response and consistent power delivery. 

We’d stay with the standard six speed manual gearbox too, which is a typically slick mechanism that makes smooth driving second nature. Choosing the double clutch S-tronic auto may cost you a four figure sum and occasionally frustrate when you use it in manual mode, but invariably it’ll improve fuel consumption and reduce the cost of your road tax.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A3 rear cornering

There’s very little that’s actually wrong here, but that’s a long way from saying the chassis is exactly as it should be.

It should first be said that Audi should be commended in making this A3 ride like no other A3 in history. All the old shimmer and shake over rough surfaces has gone, replaced by a silken fluency much closer to what you might hope from a limousine than what you might have expected from most Audis of the recent and not so recent past.

There is not the deftness of damping to render it immune to mid-corner bumps

At low speed there’s still a little patter over rougher surfaces but nothing you’d not find in its leading competitors.

So Audi has fixed one of the A3’s traditional dynamic weaknesses. Sadly the other remains, at least in part. The new car is a more capable cross country runner offering both improved accuracy and body control, but it’s still not an actively fun car to drive.

While Audi may share its MQB underpinnings with VW, SEAT and Skoda, it is free to tune it any way it sees fit, so it perhaps no surprise seeing it prioritise stability over agility and ride over handling. Driving the A3 fast is at best a mildly pleasurable and only fleetingly diverting experience. You might enjoy a run up a decent road in the car but it’s hard to see it tempting you to seek one out or remembering it for long thereafter.

The steering lacks feel, the chassis the kind of throttle adjustability to encourage committing to a corner.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A3 hero front

Depending on which engine and transmission you choose, the fuel consumption of your A3 can be as poor as 39.8mpg (almost on par with the entry-level petrol Porsche Panamera). Or it can be as good as 74.3mpg (and most Smart ForTwos don’t do that well).

In reality these figures bear little relation to the truth, but don’t blame Audi but the entirely unrealistic way in which the EU requires it to calculate them.

The best residual prospects can probably be delivered via S-line trim

What can be said is that relative to its key rivals, the A3 is a frugal car making it cheap to run either as a private or company car. Experience with the core 2-litre TDI suggests owners should routinely expect to return over 50mpg which, given the performance and sophistication of the product is a magnificent result.

However it is to be remembered that Audi offers a mere three year warranty as standard, which can only be extended to four or five years (and still with limited mileages) for hefty additional fees.

Any Hyundai will give you five years for free and with no mileage cap.

 

VERDICT

4 star Audi A3

Audi’s formula of mild visual evolution cloaking total transformation under the skin is likely to prove a canny choice.

The fact is the old A3 was able to dominate the class without ever being close to its best car. Dramatically improving the product while providing the reassurance of a familiar face requiring existing customers to make no great leaps of faith should ensure their continued patronage.

Superb interior and low costs of ownership mean you can’t ignore the A3. Souless to drive

For ourselves, though we admire the new A3 as we do, we’d have preferred Audi to have been a little more audacious.

It could have kept the style but sexed up the substance a little to provide an appeal that might tempt not only existing customers back to the ranks but prospects who might now either return to their 1 Series, take a longer look at the Mercedes Mercedes-Benz A-Class, or even consider choosing the Volkswagen Golf.

As it stands, the stronger impression left by the A3 even than how clearly good it is, is how much better even than that it could and perhaps should have been.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Audi A3 2012-2020 First drives