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Audi A3 Sportback (2012 – ) expert review

By Andy Pringle, 14th November 2012

The verdict

With its combination of decent practicality, smart (but understated) good looks, excellent quality and low running costs, the Audi A3 Sportback is worth considering by anyone looking for a car in this market.

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Expert rating:

4.2

Pros

  • High-quality fit and finish in cabin.
  • Strong performance and economy.
  • Class-leading technology.

Cons

  • Not as sporty to drive as BMW 1 Series.
  • Models with sport suspension ride less comfortably.
  • Styling may be a little too conservative for some.

Full Review

1. Exterior

Everything about the Audi A3 Sportback is taut and precise, from the crease along each side, to the sleek, angular headlamps. Some may feel that the styling is too conservative, but there’s no question that the car looks smart and sophisticated. This will still be the classiest hatchback in the car park, even next to the BMW 1 Series and Lexus CT200h. Select the S line model with its beefed-up bumpers and skirts, and it’ll also be one of the sportiest.

Our rating: 4

2. Interior

If you could pick three words to sum up the A3’s interior, they would be “quality, simplicity and technology”. The materials are soft to the touch, but solid in their construction, and everything is laid out just as you’d expect. Every A3 has a central screen and an MMI controller between the front seats, allowing menu-driven access to all major functions. The on-screen graphics are pin sharp and smooth, powered by an advanced processor, similar to those fitted in smart phones and tablet computers. These menus allow the ‘wing’ dashboard to be remarkably free from clutter. The four circular air vents are a new design and can diffuse air or channel it into a jet with a push or pull of the central control. All in all, it’s the smartest cabin in the class.

Our rating: 5

3. Practicality

Although the A3 Sportback and three-door hatchback are pretty much identical in the front seats – very comfortable, with impressive head- and legroom and a wide range of adjustment on the driver’s seat and steering wheel – the Sportback has more room for rear-seat passengers. A couple of six-foot adults will fit in comfort, although the large transmission tunnel in the floor limits the foot space for anyone in the middle seat. The boot, too, is impressive, expanding from 380 to 1220 litres when the 60/40 split rear seats are folded down. They don’t sit completely flat, but at least there’s no lip in the floor, and the boot’s wide opening, square shape and low sill make it easy to load and unload. There are also some neat touches, such as the cargo floor that can be installed at two heights, the way you can prop the floor upright when putting items in the cubbies underneath, and the lights built into the sides of the boot to illuminate it.

Our rating: 4

4. Ride and Handling

Audi has gone to great lengths in its manufacturing processes to make the A3 as light as possible, and it can really be felt. The car is very quick to change direction, while there’s also lots of grip, taut body control and light, accurate steering. Standard, Sport and S line suspension is available, depending on which trim level you go for, and each step increases the stiffness for a sportier drive. Audi will also allow Sport and S line buyers to delete the firmer suspension in favour of the softer setting if they so wish, and we’d recommend it. Even the standard suspension offers lots of agility, but the more compliant ride gives the car a more relaxed nature, which suits the A3 well. If you’re a hot hatch fan, the S3’s rather benign character will be something of a disappointment.

Our rating: 4

5. Performance

There’s an engine to suit all tastes and budgets in the A3. Even the smallest petrol, the 103bhp 1.2 turbo is smooth, flexible and quick enough, while the 1.4 turbos, with either 120bhp or 138bhp, feel impressively brisk. They’re so strong, in fact, that they make the 178bhp 1.8 turbo utterly pointless. The S3 has a 2.0 turbo with 296bhp, but while it’s undeniably quick, it doesn’t feel as devastating as the numbers suggest. The diesel choices include a 1.6 with 103bhp or 2.0-litre units with 148bhp or 181bhp. While the 1.6 has enough pace and refinement to get by, the 2.0 seriously ups the ante in both areas. The more powerful version is quick enough to worry most hot hatches, but it’s noisier.

Our rating: 4

6. Running costs

This is another area in which the A3’s lightweight stature pays big dividends. All the engines are up there with their class-leading equivalents for fuel economy and CO2 emissions, so running your car, whether it’s a private buy or a company car, will be affordable. The prices look steep at first glance, but compare them like-for-like with competitors like the VW Golf, and the difference is no more than a couple of hundred quid. The A3’s desirable badge and prestige image will also help ensure some of the strongest resale values in the class.

Our rating: 5

7. Reliability

Audi’s engineers appear to have an obsessive attention to detail, and both the build quality and choice of materials in this latest A3seem top notch. The engines and gearboxes are evolutions of existing products too, so we’d be highly surprised if many faults were to come about.

Our rating: 4

8. Safety

Although the A3 Sportback has not been tested, the three-door Audi A3 received a maximum five-star score from Euro NCAP. It was given a particularly impressive 95 per cent rating in the adult occupant protection category, 87 per cent for child occupants, 74 per cent for pedestrian safety and 86 per cent for its level of active safety equipment. Every model has six airbags, ABS and stability control, while the options include adaptive cruise control, lane assist and side assist, which warns the driver if another car is in his blind spot.

Our rating: 4

9. Equipment

In line with the three-door model, the Sportback has a choice of SE, Sport and S line trims, all offering high levels of standard equipment. Even the most basic – SE – has alloy wheels, air-conditioning, Bluetooth, voice control and a 5.8-inch colour pop-up display as standard. Sport gives you larger alloys and upgrades the air-con to climate control, as well as adding Audi Drive Select (which lets you tailor the way the car drives to your liking), sports seats, lowered suspension, and extra chrome trim. Range-topping sporty S line models have 18-inch alloys, cloth/leather upholstery, a body kit, xenon headlights with LED running lights and a sports steering wheel. Among the options are Comfort and Technology Packages, sat-nav and DAB radio, as well as Audi Park Assist and cruise control. However, be warned: it’s easy to get carried away ticking boxes on the options list and end up with a very expensive car.

Our rating: 4

10 Why buy?

The three-door A3 hatchback is already a fine car in its own right, with low running costs and excellent quality. However, on top of that, the Sportback adds some very welcome extra practicality without any great loss of style or driving appeal.

Our rating: 4

Expert review 4.2stars

  • Exterior4
  • Interior5
  • Practicality4
  • Ride and handling4
  • Performance4
  • Running costs5
  • Reliability4
  • Safety4
  • Equipment4
  • Why buy?4

Our recommendations

Best on a Budget:

Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TFSI SE

Cheapest model has decent performance and plenty of kit

Best seller:

Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI [150PS] S line

Sharp looks go with sharper handling and surprisingly good economy

Blow the Budget:

Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI [184PS] Quattro

Quick enough to worry hot hatches, and with the benefit of four-wheel drive

Given the extra practicality it provides, the Sportback looks good value, only a few hundred pounds dearer than the equivalent three-door