As one of the key models in the Audi range, getting the refreshed A3 right is an important job. We drove all four body types, and various engines, to see if the A3 still has what it takes in a competitive market.
In the same year England crashed out of Euro ’96, Audi launched an upmarket compact hatchback to the world. Suffice to say some things don’t change – not least when it comes to football and, two decades later, Audi has released a refreshed version of the third-generation A3. Accounting for over a quarter of all 166,708 Audi sales in the UK alone last year, the A3 is clearly a big deal for the marque.
Being such a big-seller, it’s perhaps understandable that Audi has taken a subtle evolutionary approach with this mid-lifecycle update. The original third generation A3 only went on sale in 2013, so this update comes quite soon in car terms. With a significant proportion of outgoing A3 models potentially still leveraged on personal finance or business lease deals, the last thing Audi needs is to be damaging residual values with radical restyling efforts. Plus, the A3 has always been the more mature hatchback in the VAG platform-sharing world.
Update and refreshed
Keeping that maturity in mind; reprofiled front and rear bumpers, the new Audi corporate grille, and updated lighting are the biggest changes on the outside. Xenon headlights are now standard across the range, whilst higher-spec versions get fancy LED units. There’s new colours, including the ESM-pleasing Vegas Yellow, and different alloy wheel designs. In short, you’re most probably going to be a real Audi geek to be able to spot the differences. But whilst it might appear similar to the outgoing version, the technology underneath is where the biggest changes have occurred.Virtual Cockpit, first seen in the TT and R8, is the most important news for the revised A3. It’s on the options list but, once sampled, it would be a tough call not to tick that box. Having a 12.3” screen instead of conventional instrument dials makes so much sense, with the ability to see all information right in front of you. It renders the standard 7″ MMI display on the centre console essentially redundant, to the point we drove with it retracted most of the time. Thankfully that centre screen can be dropped and raised at the press of a button. It’s a novelty – but we approved.
Remember when infotainment controllers like MMI were controversial? Yeah, we’d forgotten about that, too. The revised MMI system in the new A3 is simpler, with fewer buttons and optional touchpad atop the main controller. We’re fussy when it comes to infotainment systems, but this version of MMI is genuinely a joy to use. It’s logical, responsive and also pretty good to look at. Furthermore, it proves that touchscreens aren’t always the answer to everything.
Being 2016, online connectivity is also a big deal. With the optional Technology Pack, buyers can have an embedded SIM card fitted at the factory, allowing access to the Internets immediately. It’s worth it for the integration of Google Earth and Google Street View into the navigation system alone. In fact, our notes from the test day labelled it as “awesome” which is probably all you need to know.
Safety and assistance systems from models higher up the Audi food chain also make an, optional, appearance in the new A3. Along with adaptive cruise control there’s emergency brake assist, active lane assist, and traffic jam assist. The latter allows the A3 to keep itself in lane, brake, and accelerate on congested roads. Make no mistake – this is the onward march of autonomous driving.
Aside from new technology, the changes inside are limited to new air vents, new steering wheel designs and… that’s about it. However, it still looks suitably modern, although it should do when the previous version is less than three years old. The minimalistic style, thanks to a dashboard not dominated by an infotainment screen, makes for an attractive and well-built interior.
Revised petrol engine choices now range from a new 113hp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo, to a 1.4 TFSI (featuring cylinder-on-demand tech) producing 148hp, and a 2.0-litre TFSI unit with 187hp topping the range. Diesels feature a 108hp 1.6-litre TDI, and 2.0-litre TDI units in 148hp and 181hp flavours.
All engines have the option of the S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, with the most powerful engine variants available with quattro all-wheel drive. A new S3 with 306hp is also coming soon, but not present at this launch event, and there’ll be an RS3 with even more power in due course. That excites us – a lot.
On the road
A3 Saloon 1.4 TFSI CoD [S tronic] S LineSay what you will about badge snobbery, but the A3 saloon has seemingly succeeded where the Volkswagen Jetta has failed. The four-door A3 has become a desirable compact sedan, no doubt helped by strong lines and balanced proportions on the outside.
The cylinder-on-demand function allows the 1.4-litre engine to switch between two and four cylinders to maximise fuel economy. It works well, actually making it hard to deduce when the engine was firing on all four cylinders or not. Official performance figures state 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds – 0.1 seconds quicker than the 2.0-litre 148hp diesel – meaning it’s a warm, rather than hot, saloon. With 184lb-ft of torque the mid-range twist is decent, but lags behind the diesel.
The seven-speed S tronic gearbox shifts quickly in normal driving, although playing with the steering wheel-mounted paddles can catch it out at times. Steering is well-weighted, as it is across the range tested , with added load from the drive select mode set to Dynamic. Steering feel and feedback is relatively muted regardless of the setting picked. Running on 19” wheels, with the accompanying S Line suspension, the ride is firm but bearable.
Official combined fuel economy is rated as 56.5mpg (on the optional 19” wheels) with C02 emissions of 114g/km. Our short test showed an average of 33mpg across mixed roads, falling some way below the claimed amounts. Longer runs might help provide higher numbers, but those seeking economy might be better served by the 2.0-litre diesel. There’s much to like about the new A3 Saloon, but we’d be picking a diesel if it appeared on our company fleet list. We might make an exception for an S3 though…
Engine: 1.4-litre TSFI four-cylinder petrol
Output: 148hp / 184lb-ft
Performance: 0-62mph: 8.2s / 139mph top speed
A3 Sportback 2.0-litre TDI S LineFortunately, we had the chance to try the 148hp 2.0-litre TDI unit in the popular Sportback five-door after the Saloon. The additional chunk of torque immediately made itself known, with 236lb-ft helping the Sportback feel real-world quick, and faster than an 8.6 seconds 0-62mph time. Average fuel economy of 50mpg on mixed roads speaks of a decent balance between pace and piety.
The six-speed manual gearbox was tight and precise, although the throw was longer than we’d like. As much as purists might argue in favour of three pedals, in this application it’s hard to see what rowing your own gears adds to the occasion. With the drive select in Dynamic mode, throttle response was impressive without too much turbo lag. The added steering weight and tightened suspension added to an overall feeling of warm hatch ability.
Whilst a VW Golf, SEAT Leon, or Skoda Octavia could do 90% of what the A3 Sportback can, it does feel special enough to justify that premium price. S Line trim adds an extra layer of desirability, and it’s hard not to be little seduced by the attention to detail. Starting at £27,285 might seem a lot for a diesel family hatchback, but residuals are predicted to be resolutely strong to the benefit of those buying on finance. It’s refined, solid, and practical, with enough brand cache to let you feel a little bit smug behind the wheel.
Engine: 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder diesel
Output: 148hp / 236lb-ft
Performance: 0-62mph: 8.6s / 136mph top speed
A3 Cabriolet 2.0-litre TDI S LineJune in England usually sounds like the perfect time to drive a cabriolet. Sadly not. It was hood up all the time in the A3, with rain showers stopping the topless fun. Still, it looks handsome enough with the roof closed, the red soft top contrasting neatly against Daytona Grey paintwork.
What did become apparent was the added mass of the Cabriolet in comparison to the Sportback. The open top car weighs in at 1,460kg – some 155kg more than the equivalently powered five-door – meaning that despite having the same engine, performance felt noticeably dulled. Whilst on paper only 0.3 seconds separates the 2.0 TDI Cabriolet and Sportback from 0-62mph, on the road you might feel the gulf is bigger. Average fuel economy was showing as 45mpg, down on the Sportback, and short of the official combined 61.4mpg.
In terms of handling, however, the Cabriolet is just as able as the rest of the range. Being 2016, lopping the roof off the A3 doesn’t conjure up scuttle shake or any other random vibrations. In fact, the only discernible difference is the additional road noise from the fabric hood. A folding metal roof would clearly be more effective at sound deadening, but doing so would inflate weight and add cost. We would suggest picking an S tronic gearbox over the manual, as the latter detracts slightly from the boulevard cruising image.
With good looks, that high-end interior, and a premium badge the A3 Cabriolet could be quite desirable to a certain demographic. It isn’t cheap though, with the entry-level SE spec starting at £26,875. The S Line trim car we tested had a basic price of £31,340, but actually checked out at £41,705 with options. Big money, but buying a cabriolet is done out of want, not need.
Engine: 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder diesel
Output: 148hp / 236lb-ft
Performance: 0-62mph: 8.9s / 139mph top speed
A3 3-Door Hatchback 1.6-litre TDI SportLast to be tested was the cheapest, and smallest, A3 of the bunch. The original A3 of 1996 may have started as a three-door, but it seems noticeably rarer today due to the popularity of the Sportback. In dark Cosmos Blue, and on smaller Sport-spec 17” wheels, the A3 still managed to look smart against a sea of S Line stablemates.
Although it might not have the out-and-out power of the bigger diesel, choosing (or perhaps being made) to have the 1.6-litre unit shouldn’t feel too much of a hardship. It lacks the initial acceleration of the large engine, but once moving keeps pace easily enough. It certainly feels faster than the 0-62mph time of 10.5 seconds suggests, with more enthusiasm than you might imagine. Curiously, driven over the same roads as the 2.0-litre TDI Sportback, the 3-door hatch achieved the same average 50mpg. That may well be due to needing to be worked slightly harder due to the 52lb-ft deficit in torque.
What was most apparent from this Sport specification car was the difference made by Virtual Cockpit. With the previous three models tested having the optional Technology Pack installed, reverting back to normal dials felt decidedly 20th century. Although adding the Tech Pack swells the price by £1,395, without it you miss out on the best bits of what the new A3 can do.
It’s worth considering that the options list across the A3 range has the potential to elevate prices to terrifying levels, meaning those making orders might need to reign in their choices. If you don’t need the extra doors of the Sportback, or just want to emulate the original A3 more, we wouldn’t blame you for picking the three-door hatchback.
Engine: 1.6-litre TDI four-cylinder diesel
Output: 108hp / 184lb-ft
Performance: 0-62mph: 10.5s / 124 mph top speed
VerdictIn a tough market the new A3 manages to maintain the air of premium quality and ability to justify the price tag it wears. The options list is extensive, and expensive, but the base car deserves recognition on merit alone. It ticks all the boxes of a desirable compact hatchback, saloon, or cabriolet and delivers a driving experience in keeping with those expectations. It clearly isn’t an all-out ESM-grade performance car, but the promise shown by the regular A3 points to the potential in the revised S3 and RS3 models.
We can wholeheartedly recommend the revised A3 – whatever body style you pick – whether it’s for fleet usage or your own personal ownership. Just be sure to specify Virtual Cockpit, and consider your engine and gearbox choices wisely.
ESM Rating: 8.5/10
+ Mature and refined styling upgrades
+ Practical, well-built, minimalist interior
+ Range of new technology options
– Starting prices can appear expensive
– Options list is lengthy and costly
– Manual gearbox brings nothing to the party