Our favourite petrol motor is a punchy 148bhp 1.5-litre turbo that can shut down two of its four cylinders to save fuel when you’re cruising along. It’s more refined than the entry-level 114bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit and feels more flexible across the rev range. The 2.0-litre TFSI with 187bhp proved quick in the A3 Sportback but high running costs count against it here.
The diesel options are more likely to attract company car users, though, and it’s a strong line-up. The entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine isn’t as gutsy as the bigger units, but it seldom feels underpowered and has a smooth power delivery. The 148bhp 2.0-litre engine is strong across the rev range and we think it’s an absolute belter. So much so, in fact, that while we’d agree the pricier 181bhp version does have a more defined surge as the turbo kicks in, the 148bhp one is so effective that it makes the higher-powered diesel an unnecessary extravagance considering its added cost.
The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual that has a precise shift action and Audi’s S tronic automatic transmission is available on all engines. It offers super-fast shifts, but the 'box doesn’t always react quickly enough to your commands when you try to use it in manual mode.
Another feature is Audi’s four-wheel-drive system, quattro, that gets you off the line quickly in slippery conditions. It’s available in the 2.0 TFSI 190 petrol and both 2.0 TDI diesels, and is standard in the S3 and RS3 performance models.
Speaking of which, the S3 comes with a 306bhp turbocharged petrol engine and, combined with that four-wheel-drive system, is the real McCoy when it comes to high-performance saloons. As for the RS3, its 395bhp is enough for performance that would shame a supercar of yesteryear.
Audi offers the A3 Saloon with Sport and S line trims, avoiding the more basic SE that you can get on A3 hatchbacks. There’s a trick to getting the most comfortable version; opt for Sport and then pick the no-cost option to deselect sports suspension. That will get you a suspension set-up that blends good bump and pothole absorption with a decent level of body control.
S line brings 18in wheels as standard (up from 17in ones), while the S3 Saloon is lower and stiffer again; neither set-up is unbearable but they are undeniably firmer than the regular setting, especially at low speeds on the UK’s poor road surfaces. Even the RS3 is bearable on crumbling asphalt.
The A3 Saloon changes direction eagerly and there’s enough grip for the car to stay easily in line if you’re trying to hustle it along a twisty B-road. You won’t suffer too badly from body roll, either – even if you deselect the standard sports suspension.
Regardless of which set-up you go for, the A3 Saloon’s steering is precise and has consistent weight, although it doesn’t offer a huge amount of feedback.
The whole package is capable and composed; you’d need to spend a lot on a BMW 3 Series to get anything more agile or involving to drive.
Audi offers Magnetic Ride adaptive shock absorbers as an option on Sport and S line versions (the S3 gets them as standard, while the RS3 does not), but the regular mix of body control and comfort is so good that we wouldn’t bother ticking that box.
The A3 Saloon needs to offer a hushed environment if it’s to deliver on its promise as a smaller, cheaper executive option – and, in the main, it does.
The 1.5-litre petrol is smooth at a cruise, but even the diesels – 1.6 or 2.0 – aren’t too vocal once you’re up to motorway speeds and are smoother than those in a 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
It’s worth noting, however, that larger wheels do bring a bit more road noise, and this is one of the A3 Saloon’s weaknesses. It’s better on the smaller 17in alloy wheels, but even here it’s nowhere near as hushed as its bigger, traditional rivals, not least the A4. Wind noise isn’t too bad, however.
Instead of disguising its engine noise, the S3 Saloon celebrates it; one of its driving modes activates a sound actuator that feeds more of the motor’s roar into the cabin. It’s easy to turn off if you want a quieter cruise, though. The RS3 is noisier still but acceptable for a performance car.
The manual gearboxes are slick, but while the automatics change gear smoothly most of the time, they can be a little jerky when you’re manoeuvring.
No one should have a problem getting comfortable behind the wheel of the A3 Saloon. The steering wheel can be moved in and out as well as up and down, and there’s a wide range of adjustment to the seat. The seatback angle is adjusted via a dial controller, too, so it’s possible to make small alterations easily. It’s disappointing that adjustable lumbar support – which is electrically operated – is an option on all models, but at least the seat’s chunky side bolsters give good support in corners. Should you want even more luxury, fully electric seats are optional.
The dashboard looks sparse, but in fact it’s brilliantly simple to use, with all of the major switches clearly marked and easy to reach from the driver’s seat.
There’s little to worry about if you’re trying to look ahead or to the side from the driver’s seat; slim front pillars and large windows mean visibility is perfectly acceptable. The rear window is pretty shallow, but it’s still easier to see out of the back than it is in, say, a Mercedes-Benz CLA.
Audi offers a number of parking assistants, including a reversing camera and an assist system that will identify a suitable space alongside the vehicle and reverse the car into it. Most of these upgrades cost extra, although all models do at least get rear parking sensors.
Audi’s Multi Media Interface (MMI) lets you operate most of the A3 Saloon’s major functions via a control dial and a small collection of buttons by the gearlever. It’s a pretty simple system and some of the shortcut keys are raised, allowing you to find the one you want by touch.
The display is a 7.0in unit mounted high up in the centre of the dashboard, which slides down into the fascia out of sight when you want it to.
Key items, including a DAB radio, sat-nav, USB socket, Bluetooth and Audi Smartphone Interface – which lets you mirror and operate your phone’s apps via the screen – are standard across the range.
Audi offers a variety of upgrades, including a technology package that brings better satellite navigation, a higher-resolution screen and MMI Touch, which turns the top of the MMI dial into a touchpad that you can use to scrawl characters when entering destinations into the sat-nav.
Upgraded sound systems are available as extras, including a Bang & Olufsen surround-sound set-up. You can also opt for a 12.3in digital display to replace the analogue instruments in front of the driver. This is configurable and can show sat-nav, music and other data.
The A3 Saloon’s interior is the benchmark for how a small saloon should look and feel; the whole interior is built from the sort of high-grade materials you’d expect to find in a far more expensive executive car. You’ll really struggle to find harsh plastics anywhere, including low down by knee level, and the materials in your direct line of sight are a tactile treat, with lots of plush plastics and aluminium flourishes.
Everything feels wonderfully screwed together, while the switches are beautifully weighted and the super-slim infotainment screen adds to the impression that no expense has been spared.
There’s more than enough leg and shoulder room for a couple of adults up front, and if you steer clear of the optional sunroof, even six-footers aren’t likely to complain about head room.
The simple dashboard design doesn’t have a huge number of cubbyholes, but there are storage areas in front of the gearstick and under the central armrest, as well as a couple of cupholders beneath the ventilation controls. The door pockets are each big enough for a large water bottle.
Two adults will be comfortable enough in the back, with decent head, leg and shoulder room. They won’t necessarily welcome a third occupant, though, because the interior is fairly narrow for three adults. In this area, more than any other, the A3 Saloon’s smaller dimensions compared with standard executive saloons such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class become evident – but it’s not a horrendous compromise.
There are few storage areas in the rear, but at least the door pockets are big enough to hold a small drinks bottle.
The A3 Saloon’s rear seats aren’t especially innovative – but then, few saloons offer many tricks in this area. The good news is that the 60/40-split rear seats fold down almost completely flat, opening up a useful load space for bigger items.
Every version comes with a height-adjustable front passenger seat, although you can’t get a folding seatback that would allow you to load particularly long items.
The A3 Saloon’s boot capacity is 425 litres with the rear seats in place and 880 litres with them folded down; both figures are a little way off what you can expect in a 3 Series or C-Class. However, there’s still more than enough room for the weekly shop or a couple’s luggage to sit alongside a compact baby buggy.
It’s worth noting that accommodating the oily bits of the quattro system means four-wheel-drive A3 Saloons take a 35-litre hit on boot space.
A through-load hatch is available as a cost option. This allows you to accommodate lengthy items such as skis without folding down either of the outer rear seats.
Audi has used a combination of aluminium and high-strength steel to help keep weight down and every model comes with engine stop-start technology. These measures ensure the A3 Saloon’s fuel economy and CO2 emissions are up there with the best in the class. The diesels, especially the 1.6 TDI, are most frugal; but if you prefer petrol, then the 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol is pretty good as well.
The A3 Saloon’s list prices aren’t cheap, but they’re lower than those of larger rivals such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Throw in tempting PCP and lease deals, along with impressive CO2 emissions, and it becomes an attractive company car option.
The A3 Saloon has excellent resale values, too, so private buyers could also find it a slightly cheaper option than many rivals over three years.
Depending on what sort of journeys you usually do, service intervals can be up to every two years or 19,000 miles.
Audi has pitched the A3 Saloon further upmarket than its hatchback stablemates; it has only Sport and S line trim levels, and no basic SE. However, that does mean all A3 Saloons are well equipped. Sport trim offers the best value for money and comes with dual-zone climate control, 17in alloys, a DAB radio, voice control and Bluetooth.
Step up to S line and you get 18in alloys, a bodykit, part-leather seats and LED headlights with LED daytime running lights.
The S3 is a standalone high-performance model, but it comes with 19in wheels, bespoke suspension settings and body styling, as well as full-leather upholstery. The RS3 is similarly plush.
There’s an extensive options list, but nothing comes particularly cheaply, so you’ll need to be careful to avoid adding a hefty percentage to your final bill. You may want to add one or two carefully chosen optional extras, though, such as automatic lights and wipers.
The A3 Saloon was one of the most reliable executive cars in our latest reliability survey, beating all but the Lexus IS in its class and gaining five stars. Audi as a brand was ranked 12th out of 32 manufacturers.
The car comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty and three years’ roadside assistance as standard. That’s decent enough compared with the industry norm, but it’s some way short of the five-year cover offered by Hyundai and Toyota, and far behind the seven-year protection provided by Kia. You can pay extra to cover your A3 Saloon for up to five years or 90,000 miles for a reasonable price.
All A3 Saloons get stability control as standard, as well as front, side and curtain airbags, a driver’s knee airbag and a pop-up bonnet that helps to minimise injuries to pedestrians. However, it’s a bit frustrating that Audi’s Pre Sense system, which includes autonomous emergency city braking to automatically activate the brakes if it detects an impending collision, is an optional extra. Other optional kit includes rear side airbags and lane-keeping assist, which warns you if you start to wander from your lane.
The A3 hatchback received a maximum five-star crash rating from Euro NCAP in 2012, with a particularly strong score for adult protection. Euro NCAP says it is satisfied that the A3 Saloon would offer a similar level of protection.
An alarm, deadlocks (which prevent a door from being opened, even if the window is smashed) and an engine immobiliser are fitted as standard, and the A3 Saloon received the maximum five stars from security experts Thatcham Research for resistance to being stolen. It also scored four out of five for guarding against being broken into.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here