Our favourite engine is the 148bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol, which can turn off two of its four cylinders at a cruise to save fuel. It’s a refined motor that is hushed at a cruise and sends few tremors through the controls while you're driving. Performance wise, it pulls strongly from low engine speeds and feels brisk when revved hard.
The entry-level 1.0 TFSI has just three cylinders, but it's a sweet engine that's very well suited to town driving. You do have to work it fairly hard on fast A-roads, but it never feels too short of puff. There’s also a more powerful – though harder to recommend due to its additional costs – 2.0-litre turbo petrol.
Of the diesels, the entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine isn't gutsy per se, but it's marginally quicker outright than a Mercedes-Benz A180d and, relative to the lacklustre BMW 116d, it's akin to a flying machine. The 148bhp 2.0-litre unit is much stronger and definitely worth the extra, while the 181bhp version of that engine is an absolute belter, but too pricey to really recommend.
Meanwhile, the hot S3 Sportback has a 306bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine and four-wheel drive. That's enough to give a Porsche Cayman a fright away from the traffic lights, especially with its standard quick-shifting S tronic automatic gearbox.
If that’s still not enough power for you, then the turbocharged five-cylinder engine in the supercar-baiting RS3 is seriously rapid – it'll fire you to 62mph from a standstill in just 4.1sec and won’t let up until you hit 155mph, or 174mph with an optional speed limit increase.
The A3 Sportback e-tron is a plug-in hybrid that mixes electric power with a 1.4-litre petrol engine. It’s a first-rate hybrid that is very easy to live with in cities, but it’s not cheap and its electric-only range is limited. Audi claims that the e-tron model is capable of up to 29 miles on a single charge, but we managed around 18 miles in the real world. The added electric power does make the car pretty swift, though.
The A3 has a generally sportier, and therefore slighlty firmer, ride than the most cosseting family cars (such as the Volkswagen Golf), but it's well controlled and far from harsh. If you want the most comfortable ride, go for SE Technik trim; it comes with relatively small 16in wheels and blends good bump and pothole absorption at low speeds with a controlled and settled ride on A-roads and motorways.
Move up to Sport trim and you get 17in wheels, which make the ride a bit bumpier around town. This problem is amplifed on S line versions that come with 18in wheels and stiffer sports suspension. However, you can opt to have regular suspension instead for no extra cost; we'd definitely recommend taking Audi up on this.
The sporty S3 and RS3 versions are stiffer again; unsurprisingly, you feel more of the bumps as they pass beneath you. However, compared with similarly focused hot hatches, both ride pretty well.
It has to be said that these days the A3 isn't the youngest of family cars, but it's still one of the most dynamic. It'll change direction more zealously than, say, a Golf or Skoda Octavia, there’s buckets of grip and body roll is kept neatly in check. Only a Ford Focus offers keen drivers more fun.
S line models have stiffer sports suspension that helps the A3 stay even more upright through tight twists and turns. But the handling benefits are small and, given the degradation in ride quality, we think the standard suspension is a better bet. Fortunately, you can choose to have this fitted to S line models for no extra charge.
Regardless of which suspension you choose, the A3’s steering is precise and pleasingly weighted, although selecting Dynamic (rather than Comfort) mode makes it too heavy and reduces your sense of connection with the front wheels. Four-wheel-drive quattro versions feel sure-footed whatever the weather but, unless you live in an area where it snows regularly, we’d stick to front-wheel drive.
With sports suspension and added traction out of corners due to standard four-wheel drive, both the S3 and RS3 models hold the road incredibly well, although they aren’t quite as much fun to drive as other hot hatchbacks, such as the Honda Civic Type R or the rear-wheel-drive BMW M140i and M2.
The A3 is as quiet as most rivals in the class, including the Mercedes A-Class, with only the Golf proving noticeably more tranquil. The petrol engines are particularly hushed; while the 1.6 TDI is the noisiest of the diesels, it isn't dreadfully coarse, and the rest are surprisingly muted. The only minor bugbear is road noise – something that models with larger alloy wheels suffer from to a greater extent. That's another reason to stick with the more modest 16in and 17in rims.
The e-tron variant, meanwhile, is an extremely accomplished performer. There’s no electric motor whine to speak of, so if you’re running in all-electric mode around town the only noises you’ll hear will be a bit of road noise and other traffic passing by. Even when the petrol engine kicks in, it’s remarkably quiet.
The A3's six-speed manual gearbox is slick, and while the automatics can be a bit jerky at parking speeds, they change gear smoothly most of the time.
No one should have a problem getting comfortable behind the wheel of the A3. The steering wheel has a wide range of adjustment, while the seat can be adjusted for height. The seatback angle is altered via a dial controller, too, so it’s possible to make small changes easily. That said, it's disappointing that you have to pay extra for adjustable lumbar support on every trim.
Sport and S line editions have more supportive sports seats, with chunkier side bolsters to hold you in place better through the corners. Long-distance comfort in all versions is top-notch, though.
The A3’s dashboard looks sparse, but in a smart, minimalist way that also means it's wonderfully simple to use. Its instruments are superbly clear and the major switches and dials – such as those for the climate controls – are distinctly labelled and easy to reach from the driver’s seat.
There’s little to complain about if you’re looking straight ahead; slim front pillars and large windows mean visibility is very good. And while the A3's rear pillars are on the thick side, they're nothing compared with those in many of its rivals, including the Mercedes A-Class, that really blot out what's lurking over your shoulders.
Rear parking sensors are standard across the range, while front parking sensors, a reversing camera and even a self-parking system are on the options list.
SE Technik and Sport versions have relatively powerful xenon headlights. However, S line, S3 and RS3 models get even brighter LED headlights as standard.
Most cars in this class have a touchscreen infotainment system – a relatively cheap interface but one that can be quite distracting to use while you're driving. The A3 has a better solution: a big dial positioned between the front seats that you simply twist to scroll through the on-screen menus and press down to make a selection. It's far less distracting than a touchscreen and there are even some handy shortcut buttons to allow you to hop quickly between functions.
The 7.0in display rises from the top of the dashboard when you switch on the infotainment system and slides out of sight when you power it down again. It's bright and easy to read, and the fact that it's so high up means you don't need to divert your eyes far from the road to look at it. All versions of the A3 come with sat-nav, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and Apple Carplay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.
The optional Technology Package brings a built-in hard drive, live traffic updates and MMI Touch. The latter turns the top of the dial into a touchpad that you can use to scrawl letters on when you’re selecting a destination. This pack also adds Virtual Cockpit, a digital 12.3in display that replaces the conventional instrument dials behind the steering wheel and which you can configure to show sat-nav directions, music information or trip computer information.
Whichever system you go for, the A3 has one of the best infotainment systems in its class. In fact, only BMW’s brilliant iDrive system is marginally better.
The A3’s interior is the benchmark for how a family hatchback should look and feel; everything is built from the sort of high-grade materials you’d usually expect to find in an executive saloon. You’ll struggle to find unappealing plastics anywhere, even lower down on the dashboard, and the materials in your direct line of sight are a tactile treat, with classy metal flourishes adding to the seriously premium feel.
You could argue that an A-Class adds more wow factor with its swish design, but it can't compete with the A3 for robustness. Everything in the A3 feels really well screwed together, while the well-weighted, nicely damped switches and super-slim infotainment screen add to the impression that no expense has been spared.
There’s more than enough leg and shoulder room for a couple of tall adults up front and, as long as you steer clear of the optional sunroof, even those well over six feet tall aren’t likely to complain about head room, either.
The simple dashboard design doesn’t include a huge number of cubbyholes, but there are storage areas ahead of the gearlever and under the central armrest, plus a couple of cupholders beneath the air-con controls.
The door pockets on either side are big enough for a large water bottle, too.
As long as you’re carrying only a couple of adults in the back, even six-footers should be reasonably happy with the amount of leg and head room on offer. The A3 is less able when it comes to three adults, but it's not dissimilar to the Mercedes A-Class and far better than the pokey BMW 1 Series. That said, cheaper rivals, such as the Skoda Octavia and Ford Focus, boast more generous width and even greater leg room.
There isn't much stowage space in the back, although the door pockets are big enough to hold a small drinks bottle.
The A3’s rear seats aren’t especially innovative. They don’t move back and forth to prioritise passenger or boot space, for instance, although the seatbacks do split 60/40 and fold down easily. For a relatively small premium, you can have more flexible 40/20/20 split-folding rear seats.
Unlike some of its rivals (the Octavia being one), the A3 isn't available with a folding front passenger seat that would allow you to carry really long items, such as ladders. The front passenger seat does get height adjustment as standard, but adjustable lumbar support costs extra.
At 380 litres, the A3’s boot has almost exactly the same amount of space as the Volkswagen Golf’s. While that’s easily enough for a big food shop and in our testing we managed to fit six carry-on suitcases on board, you can fit far more in the boot of a an Octavia (11 suitcases, to be precise).
It’s also worth remembering that quattro four-wheel-drive models get a 40-litre reduction in boot space, because of the extra oily bits underneath. The e-tron model gets an even pokier 280 litres in total, due to all the batteries under the boot floor.
An adjustable boot floor comes as standard and reduces the load lip at the entrance and ensures there’s no step up to the rear seats when they’re folded down. They don’t lie totally flat, but the slope is a small one, so it shouldn’t cause too many problems. The boot opening is a decent size and shape, too.
As you might expect, the A3 isn't exactly cheap, although it doesn’t cost much more than a Volkswagen Golf – and on many PCP and lease deals, the A3 can actually work out cheaper per month. And while the A3 can't match the Mercedes A-Class's excellent resale values, it will hold onto its value better than pretty much every other rival, including the BMW 1 Series.
Audi has used aluminium and high-strength steel to help keep weight down. These measures ensure that the A3’s fuel economy and CO2 emissions are comparable to those of its best rivals. The most efficient is the 1.6 diesel, pumping out as little as 103g/km of CO2. However, the punchier 2.0 TDI 150 only emits a few grams more of CO2 per kilometre, despite its extra power.
The 1.0 TFSI engine is the most efficient petrol engine and comes close to matching the diesel’s claimed fuel economy figures, while the e-tron variant brings the cost of running down even further. Its CO2 emissions are just 38g/km, and while you can take the claimed 166mpg with a pinch of salt, it's still reasonably frugal in real-world driving. It can also run on battery power alone for around 18 miles in real-world conditions.
Use our True MPG calculator and see what your car really does to the gallon
The A3 comes with a reasonable amount of standard equipment, but less than what you'd get in some rivals. For business users looking for the cheapest company car tax, we'd stick with entry-level SE Technik, because you'll find sat-nav, air-con, 16in alloy wheels, Bluetooth, xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights and cruise control included, so it's hardly spartan.
If you're buying privately, though, we'd recommend Sport trim. This gets a host of extra kit, including dual-zone climate control, sports seats and bigger 17in wheels. Next up is S line, although since it’s focused on sporty styling more than anything else, you’re mostly paying for design touches. With that in mind, we’d stick to Sport.
The high-performance S3 gets a bespoke bodykit, leather seats, heated front seats, LED headlights and a host of mechanical upgrades. Finally, at the top of the range, the RS3 adds 19in alloy wheels and high-grade nappa leather seat trim.
See how we'd spec an Audi A3
The A3 got three stars in our latest reliability survey and was ranked above average. Although the Golf and 1 Series beat it, the A3 ranked above the Volvo V40. Audi as a brand ranked 20th out of 31 manufacturers, above Mercedes but below BMW and VW – a decent but not outstanding result.
The A3 comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty and three years’ roadside assistance as standard. That’s par for the course, but some way short of the five-year cover offered by Hyundai and Toyota, and way behind the seven-year protection provided by Kia. You can pay extra to cover your A3 for up to five years or 90,000 miles for a reasonable price.
Safety And Security
All A3s come with seven airbags as standard, but it's disappointing that automatic emergency braking costs extra. Called Pre-sense Front, the optional system can apply the brakes and prime the safety kit if it detects an impending collision. It can even recognise pedestrians as well as cars. Other optional safety kit includes blindspot monitoring and reat cross traffic assist; the latter warns you of passing cars when you're reversing out onto a busy road and will even hit the brakes if it thinks you haven't spotted something about to cross your projected path.
The A3 received a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, with a strong 95% score for adult protection and 87% for child protection. The e-tron model went through the test in 2014 and was also awarded the maximum five stars, scoring 82% for adult protection and 78% for child protection. For context, the Golf scored 94% and 89% respectively.
An alarm and an engine immobiliser are standard on all A3s, and the car received the maximum five stars from security experts Thatcham Research for resistance to being stolen and four out of five for guarding against being broken into.
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