Audi A3 Hatchback (2012 - ) Expert review
Read the Audi A3 Sportback (2012 - ) car review by Auto Trader's motoring experts, covering price, specification, running costs, practicality, safety and how well it drives compared to its nearest rivals
- High-quality fit and finish
- Composed handling
- Low running costs
- Not as sporty to drive as some rivals
- Expensive optional extras
- Styling may be a little too conservative for some
At a glance
Everything about the five-door Audi A3 Sportback is neat 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 too. If you go for the SE model though, then you miss out on the classy LED running lights and big alloy wheels that come fitted as standard on the more expensive models. The e-tron version can be distinguished by its unique grille and aerodynamic alloy wheels - but the charging port for the batteries is discreetly concealed behind the four-ringed badge.
If you could pick just three words to sum up the A3’s interior, they would be “quality, simplicity and technology”. The materials are all soft to the touch, but solid in their construction, and everything is laid out in a way that makes it very easy to use. Every A3 has a central display screen and an rotary infotainment controller between the front seats, allowing menu-driven access to all major functions. The on-screen graphics are sharp and smooth, although the iDrive system fitted in all BMWs is easier to use while driving. These menus allow the dashboard to be remarkably free from clutter and needless extra buttons. The four jet-like circular air vents can diffuse air or channel it into a stream with a push or pull of the central control. All in all, it’s the smartest cabin in the class.
Although the A3 Sportback and three-door hatch 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 narrow 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. There are more spacious family cars around though - and buggies and other long items will not fit in as easily as they would in cars like the Skoda Octavia and Peugeot 308.
Ride and handling
Audi has gone to great lengths to make the A3 as light as possible, and it can really be felt on the road. The car is quick to change direction, 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 feeling 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. The standard suspension offers lots of agility, but the more compliant ride gives the car a more relaxed nature, and makes it a lot more comfortable on coarse or uneven roads. If you’re a hot hatch fan, the S3’s rather benign character will be something of a disappointment.
There’s an engine to suit all tastes and budgets in the A3 range. Even the smallest petrol, the 108bhp 1.2 turbo is smooth, flexible and quick enough, while the 1.4 turbos, with either 123bhp or 148bhp, feel impressively brisk. They’re so strong, in fact, that they make the 178bhp 1.8 turbo seem rather pointless. The diesel choices include a 1.6 with 108bhp which is not particularly refined, or smoother 2.0-litre units with 148bhp or 181bhp respectively. While the 1.6 has enough pace to get by, its no class leader, and the 2.0 seriously ups the ante in both areas. The more powerful version is quick enough to worry most hot hatches, but noisier when you work it hard. The S3 has a 2.0 turbo with 296bhp, and it sends power to all four corners thanks to a sophisticated four-wheel drive system. While it’s undeniably quick, it doesn’t feel as devastating as the numbers suggest. There is a plug-in hybrid version that combined petrol and electric power which is supposed to offer performance and economy in equal measure. It's very refined, but not particularly fast, and feels hampered by the weight of the battery pack, although initial acceleration is very impressive thanks to the instant torque delivered by the electric motor.
This is another area in which the A3’s lightweight body pays big dividends. All the engines are up there with the class best for fuel economy and CO2 emissions, so running your car, whether it’s a private buy or a company car, will be very affordable. Audi now offer a plug-in hybrid version called the e-tron; which has a large battery pack paired with an electric motor to back up the 1.4-litre petrol engine. This version is expensive, but emits just 37g/km of CO2 - so is a perfect choice for company car buyers. It also has an electric only range of around 30 miles, enough to cover most drivers' daily commute. 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, so it will be worth more than a lot of its rivals when the time comes to sell it on.
Audi’s engineers appear to have an obsessive attention to detail, and both the build quality and choice of materials in this latest A3 seem top notch - however Audi never does particularly well in the JD power satisfaction survey, which means long term reliability might not match up to the initially robust impression. The engines and gearboxes are evolutions of existing products that are used throughout the Volkswagen group, with few known faults reported, although the durability of the e-tron hybrid model is more of an unknown due to its untested technology, the expensive battery pack is covered by an eight-year warranty that is separate from the three-year cover for the rest of the car.
Although the regular A3 Sportback has not been tested, Euro NCAP have tested the e-tron version, which received the same maximum five-star score as the three-door Audi A3. The three-door 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.
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 indeed - so exercise stern self control at the dealer.
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 - its one of the best family hatchbacks on sale, whether you're after a hot hatch, a plug-in hybrid, or just a smart, hassle free car with a premium image.