Audi A3 Hatchback (2016 - ) review
The Audi A3 is a premium family car that places refinement, technology and comfort at the forefront, and takies on the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes A-Class and VW Golf.
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Everything about the Audi A3 is neat and precise, from the crease along each side, to the sleek, angular headlamps. Not much has changed in the mid-life facelift but a new grille design, different alloy wheels to choose from and sleeker headlights keep things looking fresh. Some may feel that the styling is too conservative, especially compared with the Mercedes A-Class, 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. The five-door Sportback version also manages to build on the three-door's practicality without ruining the looks. Select the S line model with its beefed-up bumpers and skirts, and it’ll also be one of the sportiest. Every car in the range has Xenon headlights and LED running lights as standard. The e-tron version (available only in Sportback form) 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. High-performance S3 versions get brighter colours including a matte grey and bright yellow, plus 18-inch alloys, beefier brakes and four exhaust pipes jutting out from the bumper.
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 simple, logical way. Every A3 has a central display screen (which comes in two different sizes depending which trim you go for) and a 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 are wonderfully intricate and precise, and as part of the optional advanced technology pack, you can have the 'Virtual Cockpit' display from Audi TT, which removes the dials and replaces them with an interactive screen. It looks fantastically futuristic, but it's also pretty expensive. All-round visibility is excellent, and it's easy to get comfortable behind the wheel.
The three-door hatch and five-door Sportback are pretty much identical in the front seats, which means both are very comfortable, with impressive head- and legroom and a wide range of adjustment on the driver’s seat and steering wheel. The three-door also has enough room for a pair of six-footers to fit comfortably in the back, while the Sportback gives a shade more rear space as well as easier access. Both versions, however, have a large transmission tunnel in the floor that limits the foot space for anyone in the narrow middle seat. The Sportback also has a shade more space in the boot, giving 380 litres compared with the three-door’s 365. Drop the split-folding rear seats, and these figures rise to 1220 litres and 1100 litres, respectively. The seatbacks don’t sit completely flat, but at least there’s no step 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
The A3’s suspension comes in a range of flavours. The SE model’s is the softest, and therefore, the best. The ride is comfortable enough to suit pretty much any buyer, yet the car still feels very sharp in the corners, with excellent suppression of body roll, lots of grip and steering that’s weighty and direct. Sport models have the same suspension, but you also get Audi Drive Select, which changes the behaviour of things like the steering and throttle according to which driving mode you select. S line models come with a lower suspension than the others, which makes the ride much harsher and should be avoided. Sensible S line buyers will deselect this suspension in favour of the softer setup, which is available as a no-cost option. Those with no sense will specify the optional S line suspension, which is even lower and gives an even more punishing ride. The other option is Magnetic Ride, which uses adaptive dampers to let you tailor the behaviour of the suspension depending on the driving mode selected. It works, and it works well, but it’s a needless expense if you choose your passive suspension wisely. Like the rest of the range, the range-topping S3 is a good car to drive, but die-hard hot hatch fans will feel a little underwhelmed as it doesn’t deliver the sharpness or involvement that you expect.
There’s an engine to suit all tastes and budgets in the A3 range, all of which are turbocharged. Even the smallest petrol, the 1.0 with 113bhp, is smooth at most speeds, and just about quick enough to keep up with the pace of traffic, while the 148bhp 1.4 feels impressively brisk. They’re so strong, in fact, that they make the 187bhp 2.0-litre seem rather pointless, even though it does offer a fine combination of hot hatch performance with temptingly low running costs. The diesel choices include a 1.6 with 108bhp and 2.0-litre units with either 148bhp or 181bhp. While the 1.6 has enough pace to get by, performance can feel pretty breathless and not all that smooth or quiet. The 2.0 engines seriously up the ante in both areas. The more powerful version is quick enough to worry some performance hatches, but noisier when you work it hard. The S3 has a 2.0-litre petrol with 306bhp, 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. The e-tron plug-in hybrid version combines petrol and electric power, and 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 brisk thanks to the instant torque delivered by the electric motor. Whichever engine you choose, refinement is the A3's real strength, and its petrol engines are especially impressive in this regard. All the engines come with the option of either a six-speed manual or dual-clutch gearbox, but there is little compromise to be made in choosing the auto; in many cases, the S tronic A3s are quicker and cleaner than their manual counterparts.
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 offers 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 has an electric-only range of around 30 miles, enough to cover most drivers' daily commute. The prices for most versions 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 few hundred pounds. 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. Still, the prices appear to be on a sliding scale; while lesser engines and trims compare favourably with rival hatches, one or two steps up the range is enough to make the A3 seem needlessly expensive.
Audi often seem to struggle in this area, with the impeccable fit and finish of the interiors usually at odds with a patchy reputation for mechanical and electrical durability. This latest A3 seems top notch, but Audi never does particularly well in the JD Power satisfaction survey. The engines and gearboxes are by and large evolutions of existing products that are used throughout the Volkswagen group, with few known faults reported. Owners of the current car on our own website are all fairly positive in their reviews and reported no serious problems. The durability of the e-tron hybrid model is more of an unknown due to its untested technology, but the expensive battery pack is covered by an eight-year warranty that's separate from the three-year cover for the rest of the car.
Although the regular A3 Sportback has not been tested, Euro NCAP has tested the e-tron version, which received the same maximum five-star score as the three-door Audi A3. Every model has an extensive collection of airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control, while the options include adaptive cruise control, lane assist and side assist, which warns the driver if another car is sitting in the blind spot.
A3 buyers have 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 6.5-inch colour pop-up display as standard. Along with cruise control, a three-spoke multifunction steering wheel and automatic lights and wipers. Pay a few hundred quid more for the SE Technik model, and you get sat-nav and rear parking sensors, too. 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, part-leather upholstery, a body kit, bright LED headlights and interior LED ambient lighting. Among the options are Comfort and Technology Packages, sat-nav and DAB radio, as well as Audi Park Assist, an Advanced Technology pack, driver assistance pack and so on. However, be warned: it’s easy to get carried away ticking boxes on the options list and ending up with a very expensive car indeed.
The three-door A3 hatchback is a fine car, 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, so that makes it our pick. Either way, the A3 is 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. Remember, though, that the sweet spot in the range is definitely found with the cheaper petrol models, which are great to drive and represent the best value for money.