The third generation Audi A3 offers a lighter way to enjoy the premium compact hatch. Jonathan Crouch drives it
Ten Second ReviewWe all like the idea of good things in sensibly sized packages. Perhaps that's why Audi's A3 has been so successful here, a compact car that goes large on quality, refinement and maturity. Especially in third generation guise, where it's lighter, more efficient, more powerful and cleverer than ever before. Which is just as well given that there are Volkswagen Group products using many of the same ingredients and plenty of tempting high profile segment rivals. In other words, this MK3 model will have to work harder than ever to win sales. Fortunately for Audi, it seems well up to the task.
BackgroundThe premium compact car. If that concept means anything to you, then it's this model, Audi's A3, that'll probably come to mind. This is the third of three generations in a line that dates all the way back to 1996 and a time when the idea of being able to move a car up-market in class and appeal without increasing its size was new and rather different. Cynics dismissed it as a way of dressing up ordinary family hatches and charging a lot more for them. Customers though, loved the idea and nearly a quarter of a million MK2 A3s were pounding global roads by the time this third generation model arrived in the Autumn of 2012 - to find a much tougher market awaiting it.
Audi's response was very Vorsprung Durch Tecknic, a subtle new suit disguising the revolution beneath the bodywork that was the first outing of the Volkswagen Group's all-new MQB platform. Stiffer and more cost-effective to produce, it promised better ride and handling and freed up funds for the installation of an interior with quality and technology previously unseen at this price point. The result, we were promised, would be the definitive compact premium car. We're going to find out whether that's exactly what we have here.
Driving ExperienceYou and I might not get very excited by the thought of a redesigned automotive platform but Audi does. With good reason. Because this car's MQB (or Modular Transverse Matrix) underpinnings have also to support everything from a Volkswagen Golf to a SEAT Leon, an awful lot of development budget has been thrown at getting them right, the by-product of which for A3 drivers should be better ride, handling and a whole lot more.
By and large, that's exactly what you get. First up, because a lot of the stuff you can't see is lighter than before, the car immediately feels more lithe and agile than you expect, even on a short drive. True, real driving enthusiasts will still prefer the rear wheel drive reactions of a BMW 1 Series or the fine front-driven tactility of a Ford Focus. 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 car's quite exemplary standards of refinement.
Engine-wise, there's a petrol 1.8 TFSI option and a 2.0-litre version of this engine in the 300PS S3 hot hatch but almost all British A3 buyers will choose either a 1.4-litre petrol variant or a diesel. The 1.4 petrol comes with 122PS or, if you go for the 140PS derivative, clever 'Cylinder on Demand' technology that cuts out two of the four cylinders at low-to-medium engine speeds for greater efficiency. Diesel-wise, there's a 105Ps 1.6 or a 2.0-litre TDI unit with either 150 or 184PS.
Design and BuildFor many years, ultra-lightweight construction has been one of the strongest pillars upon which the Audi brand is built. Ingolstadt has, after all, been building cars out of aluminium since 1994. Though this one's mainly made out of steel, in this respect, it's as revolutionary as any model the marque has made, a premium compact hatch that weighs the same as a supermini, 80kgs lighter in third generation form than it was previously. That's equivalent to losing the weight of a fully grown adult, with benefits you can readily imagine in terms of performance and efficiency.
So consider that before voicing the first reaction that most have to this third generation A3: which is, quite simply, that it doesn't look much different to what went before. That isn't really true anyway, something you don't properly realise until you park this new model next to its predecessor, an experience that's like looking at a film starlet when she was ten years younger, the newer model simply tauter and prettier in either three-door form, or as a five-door Sportback with an extended wheelbase.
What sets this car apart though is the feeling you get from sitting behind the wheel. Quite simply, nothing else at the £20,000 price point 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.
Market and Model
You're not going to find too many A3s leaving dealerships at less than £20,000 as that sum will buy you little more than an entry-level 1.4-litre TFSI petrol variant with a few modest options on board. There's the option of both three and five-door hatches and even a saloon. The bulk of the range campaigns up to £25,000 and these days is almost directly comparable to Audi's two closest rivals in this segment, the BMW 1 Series and the much improved Mercedes A Class. Though choice between this trio will come down to personal preference, the fact that you can have, say, an A3 2.0TDI on the same fuel and tax terms you'd have to choose a feeble 1 Series or A-Class diesel to get will be a powerful incentive for Audi ownership.
Whichever three, four or five-door A3 model you choose - 1.2, 1.4, 1.8 or S3 petrol or 1.6 or 2.0-litre TDI diesel - you should find it to be decently equipped. Now that Audi has scrapped the old generation version's poverty-spec entry-trim level, even the least expensive SE variants get a decent kit tally. That means you can expect to find 16-inch alloy wheels, heated powered door mirrors, a driver information system with onboard computer, air conditioning and 5.8-inch extending slimline colour infotainment display screen via which you can make your 'phone Bluetooth-compatible and fiddle with an eight-speaker stereo system that's also operable via controls on the four-spoke leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel.
Cost of OwnershipLight weight has all kinds of automotive advantages and, with enhancements like the use of aluminium for the front wings and bonnet meaning savings of up to 80kgs on the previous generation model, this MK3 A3 is certainly as lean as it can be. A 1.4 TFSI model, for example, weighs just 1,175kgs, not much more than a car from the next class down like, say, a VW Polo supermini. And that makes it at least 185kgs lighter than equivalent rival BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A Class models. As you can imagine, this creates big benefits when it comes to cost of ownership, with fuel economy over the previous generation model reduced by an average of up to 12%.
It's probably best to illustrate what I mean with an example. The strongest selling A3 variant will be the 150PS 2.0 TDI diesel, which manages 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and 106g/km of CO2. To match that in a rival BMW 1 Series or Mercedes A-Class, you'd have to get a much lower-powered diesel engine. Go for the A3 in 1.6-litre TDI form and of course you can expect to do even better (this version returning 74.3mpg and 99g/km of CO2) but its advantage over the 2.0 TDI is slight enough to ensure that most potential customers will probably opt for the more powerful model.
Don't decide upon a diesel though, before checking out the clever 140PS 1.4TFSI CoD petrol model with its 'Cylinder on Demand' technology that sees this four cylinder engine running on only two of its cylinders at low to mid-throttle speeds. Thanks to that, this variant manages a combined cycle figure of 57.7mpg - which is not far off diesel standards at the same time as running on cheaper green pump fuel. Even the ordinary 122PS 1.4TFSI petrol variant doesn't do too badly, returning 54.3mpg on the combined cycle and a CO2 figure of 120g/km.
SummaryIn the search for a compact car that's also a premium purchase, there are more charismatic choices than this Audi A3. But there are few better ones. Light in bulk, heavy in technology, it's a logical evolution of the breed that's already one of Britain's favourite company cars.
If you're one of those who questions the need for a premium peoples' hatch, then in this Audi, you have your answer. From the outside, well, it's as home in Belgravia as it is in Brixton. Enough said. But the interior is where this design really strides apart. You could be in a luxury car.
And of course, in many ways, you are. By pioneering the premium compact hatch segment with the original version of this model, Audi has redefined the meaning of automotive luxury, democratising it without the desirability being diluted. Other brands claim to have done the same of course and many have used a few more visual or dynamic fireworks to grab the attention. Ingolstadt doesn't think this A3 needs them and legions of loyal global buyers seem to agree. Cool, class-less and clever, it's desirably definitive.