"The Audi A3 is a high-quality hatchback that's relaxing to drive and great to own."
The original posh hatchback with compact dimensions, the Audi A3 launched a bandwagon that has since been climbed on by the Mercedes A-Class, BMW 1 Series and Lexus CT 200h. Now, the latest incarnation has moved the game on yet again. Mixing unrivalled quality, good looks and brand desirability with a more comfortable ride and a wider range of economical but fast engines, it may not be quite as much fun to drive as the 1 Series but it is certainly a classy package. Every model comes fitted with stop-start technology, Bluetooth connectivity and a slick 5.8-inch sliding screen as standard equipment.
The overall practicality of the A3 is improved compared to the car that it replaces, thanks to some clever engineering inside the car, somehow managing to increase the boot space by 15 litres without reducing seating space or the car being any longer. You can also now get a five-door A3 Sportback as well, which adds an extra couple of rear doors and an even larger boot, plus an S3 hot hatchback that will go from 0-62mph in just 4.8 seconds.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
You will have to pay more money for your A3 than you would to buy a SEAT Leon or Volkswagen Golf, but the running costs on the A3 will prove to be surprisingly low and its strong resale value when you come to make a second-hand deal to sell it should be justification enough to make the purchase. It comes with a wide range of capable petrol and diesel engines – all of which are impressively frugal and offer surprising performance for the money. The excellent 1.6-litre TDI engine will return 74.3mpg, and emits less than the magic 100g/km of CO2, making it road-tax free. The performance-focused 2.0-litre TDI is only slightly less efficient, but also accelerates from 0-62mph in only 8.6 seconds. The 1.4-litre TFSI now comes with cylinder deactivation technology, which allows diesel-rivalling economy combined with the smoother nature of a petrol engine. Fixed price servicing and a comprehensive warranty should also manage to keep a lid on any unexpected bills for the first three, four or five years of ownership.
Interior & comfort
Audi made a choice to refocus the latest A3 a bit, trading in some of the car's sporty feel for a more comfortable ride, after customer complaints that the car was too firm and bumpy over rough road surfaces – which are getting more common in the UK. What's more, it doesn’t actually matter very much which engine you ultimately choose, as each is quiet and unobtrusive, offering plenty of acceleration and tremendous fuel economy for a premium car. The powerful diesel engines manage to impress with their balance of performance and economy, and even the top-of-the range 1.8-litre TFSI petrol manages to return 50mpg. The A3 is also just as at home when you’re navigating busy town traffic as it is cruising on the motorway, with very little wind or road noise managing to get inside the car – even when driving at high speed. The driving position is comfortable and decent enough, even though there's not much adjustment in the steering wheel - because the seats can be manipulated in plenty of ways to compensate.
Practicality & boot space
The latest A3 has pretty much the same dimensions as the model it replaced, but the space between the front and back wheels has been extended a bit to create some more room inside. This lengthening of the wheelbase is particularly noticeable inside the car, where there is quite a lot more interior space for both passengers in the front and the back of the car. If you buy the three-door model, the front seats fold forward and can slide to allow better access to the back seats, while the Sportback model benefits from having an extra pair of rear doors that really do boost its practicality. That said, there still isn’t as much room as you’ll get in a MkVII Volkswagen Golf, and passengers over six foot will find that legroom is particularly cramped if you end up sitting behind someone of a similar height. The boot is bigger (by 15 litres, offering 365 litres with the back seats up; expanding to 1,100 litres when they standard-fit split-fold rear bench is folded down flat) and is a useful shape. However there's still quite a high lip to lift luggage over. If you need more space, the A3 Sportback has 380 litres of boot space, expanding to 1,220 litres when the back seats are folded.
Reliability & safety
Audi has yo-yoed about a bit in the Driver Power customer satisfaction survey over recent years. Fortunately, the 2013 poll saw it spring back up the manufacturers rankings to place 10th, above arch rival BMW but below luxury competitor Mercedes. (Also, it was ahead of parent company, Volkswagen). The A3 itself, however, didn’t fare so well, coming a lacklustre 110th in the top 150 cars list, with owners being disappointed with the car's stiff suspension, high running costs and generally poor level of standard equipment. This is unusual, because Audi owners usually tend not to have very many gripes about their cars’ reliability or their dealers’ service. With the problems over ride quality being addressed, the latest A3 has also taken a step up with its beautifully designed interior, which is made from very high-quality materials and lots of soft-touch plastics. What's more, thanks to clever safety accessories like radar-controlled cruise control and lane keep assist, the current A3 secured the maximum five-star rating in the stringent Euro NCAP crash safety tests, making it one of the safest family cars that you can buy in the UK. The A3 comes fitted with a full range of airbags, electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.
Engines, drive & performance
Audi has been in something of a catch-22 situation in recent years. They’re often been criticised for their firm ride of their cars, but their desirable looks mean that lots of people go for top-of-the range models, so end up compromising on comfort due to the firm sports suspension fitted to most top-spec cars. If you didn’t want a firm ride, don’t buy the top-spec model, right? Well, yes, but Audi has now addressed this issue, by offering customers the opportunity to add standard suspension on its S line cars, combining their bold looks with a more comfortable ride, if so desired. The trade-off is that there is an unavoidable minor reduction in the car's handling ability, while the BMW 1 Series continues to lead the class in terms of driver enjoyment and the VW Golf (from Audi's parent company, no less) seems to manage to blend handing and comfort in a way that Audi just can’t manage to crack. However, the new Audi S3 hot hatchback is amazingly fast and surprisingly smooth at the same time – managing to accelerate from 0-62mph in just 4.8 seconds without losing its agreeable ride and impressive grip in the process.
Price, value for money & options
Being a premium brand, the A3 is more expensive than more mainstream rivals such as the Ford Focus or VW Golf, but the difference in price is slowly reducing. It also slightly undercuts both the Mercedes A-Class and the BMW 1 Series, which are its main rivals in the market, and it also offers superior levels of standard equipment. All models – even the entry-level SE – come fitted with air-conditioning, alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity and Audi's clever multimedia interface as standard equipment. So, when you include its impressive resale values on the used car market and longstanding desirability, the Audi A3 may well prove not to be as expensive as it at first appears.