"A high-quality hatchback that's relaxing to drive and great to own."
The Audi A3 was the original small posh hatchback. It set a trend that has now been copied by the Mercedes A-Class, BMW 1 Series and Lexus CT 200h, but the latest incarnation moves the game on once again. It mixes unrivalled quality, with good looks and desirability with a comfortable drive and a wide range of fast but economical engines. It may not be as fun to drive as the BMW, but there's loads of high-tech equipment, with every model getting stop-start, Bluetooth and a slick 5.8-inch sliding screen. Practicality is improved over the car it replaces thanks to some clever trickery inside – and while it's no longer – the boot is 15 litres larger. There's now a five-door A3 Sportback, too, which adds an extra couple of doors and a larger load bay, and an S3 hot hatchback that'll do 0-62mph in just 4.8 seconds.
In the past, Audis have often been criticised for their firm ride. The desirable looks of the flagship models mean plenty of people opt for top-spec cars and compromise on comfort due to the firm sports suspension. However, Audi has now addressed the issue, by offering customers the opportunity to spec standard suspension on S line cars, combining bold looks with an agreeable ride. The trade-off is a slight reduction in handling ability – a BMW 1 Series continues to lead the class in terms of driver enjoyment, while the VW Golf seems to blend handing and comfort in a way the Audi cannot. That said, the new Audi S3 hot hatchback is blisteringly fast and surprisingly smooth – managing 0-62mph in just 4.8 seconds with an agreeable ride and impressive grip.
The new A3 has traded some of its sporty feel – which can hamper comfort over poor road surfaces – for a more relaxed and comfortable ride. What's more, it doesn’t matter which engine you go for, each feels refined and quiet, with plenty of acceleration and tremendous mile-munching ability. The range of powerful diesel engines impress with their blend of pace and economy, and even the top spec 1.8-litre TFSI will return 50mpg. The A3 is as at home on in town as it is on the motorway, with very little wind or road noise reaching the cabin – even at high speed. The driving position is comfortable and although there's not much steering adjustment, the seats can be manipulated in plenty of ways.
Audi owners tend not to have many gripes about their cars’ reliability or their dealers’ service. The brand placed a respectable 15th in the 2012 Auto Express Driver Power survey – just one place behind BMW but ahead of parent-company Volkswagen. That's good news for potential A3 owners, especially now complaints about ride quality have been addressed. The latest A3 has a taken a step up with its beautifully designed interior made from high-quality materials and soft-touch plastics. What's more, thanks to clever safety kit like radar-controlled cruise control and lane keeping assist, the current A3 received five stars in the stringent Euro NCAP crash tests, making it one of the safest family cars on sale today.
While the new A3 is similar in size to the old model, the space between the front and rear wheels has been extended to allow more room inside. This increase in the car's wheelbase is particularly noticeable from inside the cabin where there is more interior space for both front and rear passengers. On the three-door model, the front seats fold forward and slide to allow access to back, while the Sportback benefits from an extra pair of rear doors. However, there still isn’t as much room as in a new VW Golf, and six-footers will find legroom limited if sitting behind someone of a similar stature. The boot is bigger, and of a useful shape, but there's still a lip to lift luggage over.
Value for money
Not surprisingly, the Audi is more expensive than more mainstream rivals like the Ford Focus or VW Golf, but that margin is slowly reducing. It's priced to rival the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class, and slightly undercuts both, while offering decent levels of standard equipment. All cars – even the base-spec SE – come with air-con, alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity and Audi's clever MMI multimedia interface. So when you factor in the impressive used values and longstanding desirability, the Audi A3 doesn’t seem as expensive as you might think.
An Audi A3 may be slightly more expensive to buy than the VW Golf and SEAT Leon, but low running costs and solid used values should allow you to justify some of that investment. There's a great range of capable petrol and diesel engines – all of which are impressively frugal and surprisingly fast. The excellent 1.6 TDI engine will do more than 70mpg, and emits less than 100g/km of CO2, so road tax is free. The punchy 2.0 TDI is only slightly less efficient, but offers a 0-60mph time of only 8.6 seconds. The 1.4 TFSI now comes with cylinder deactivation technology – which load on the engine at crusing speed – allowing diesel-rivalling economy with the smooth and refined nature of a petrol engine. Fixed price servicing and a comprehensive warranty should keep a lid on any unexpected bills for the first three, four or five years.