Audi A3 Review
The Audi A3 needs no introduction. Over the past couple of decades, it has become a key player in the family hatchback segment, its popularity driven by the classy image and even classier cabin, as well as the wealth of standard equipment and competitive lease deals.
So this latest-generation A3 has a lot to live up to. Like its predecessor, it’s based on the ever-popular Volkswagen Golf, but it wears a much smarter suit and Audi’s brilliant engineers have done their level best to ensure the build quality is as solid as ever.
Audi has seemingly ticked all the boxes, then, but with more technology and a selection of new and more eco-friendly engines on board, is the new model really a more attractive proposition than its predecessor?
Select's rating score* - 4.0 / 5
At a Glance
The A3’s design is certainly evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but the A3 looks great. The more aggressive front end, sharply angled body panels and chunky silhouette make it a sporty, modern-looking thing, giving it unquestionable kerb appeal.
Whether you choose the Saloon or the Sportback hatchback version, it’s a roomy, practical car with plenty of boot space and a modern, high-tech cabin. The quality is impeccable, and although it isn’t as minimalist as its predecessor, it still feels every inch the premium hatchback.
That’s helped by the high level of standard equipment. Even the basic Technik trim level comes with satellite navigation, parking sensors and alloy wheels, while high-end versions come with pretty much everything you could ever ask for.
Including a wide range of engine options. You can have one of the conventional petrol or diesel engines, or you can go for the company car-friendly plug-in hybrids. And if you’re a real speed freak, try the S3 or RS3 models, which both come with four-wheel drive and high-performance engines producing 310hp and 400hp respectively. In short, there’s an A3 to suit everyone.
Our favourite A3 feature has to be the Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster. It sets the standard for every other car on the market, and it has yet to be beaten. A hugely customisable display, it lives in a high-resolution screen and provides all the information you could possibly need. So much so that you could almost get away without having the central touchscreen at all. In fact, the Audi R8 supercar does exactly that.
Anyway, the Virtual Cockpit gives you a choice of displays, including a conventional set-up with virtual dials and some trip information between them, but you can choose whatever suits your needs. If you’d rather have the in-car media information between the dials, so be it. If you want smaller dials and more focus on the information between them, you can do it.
The satellite navigation display is particularly useful, especially if your passenger likes fiddling with the touchscreen, and satellite navigation is exactly the right word. Because instead of providing a simple map, like you might get in a BMW, the Audi gives you a Google Maps-style satellite view, showing you the landscape around the car, as well as just the roads. Maybe it’s a gimmick, but it’s a cool one.
Performance & Drive
With so many versions to choose from, it’s difficult to pin the A3 down to one single characteristic. Choosing a base-spec A3 Sportback with the least powerful engine gives you something very different to the outrageous RS3 Saloon with all the trimmings. But that breadth of choice is part of the A3’s appeal. If you want a premium compact saloon for pottering about town, you can have one. If you want a ridiculously powerful hot hatch for lapping race tracks, you can have one of those, too.
The only problem is choosing the engine that suits you, because the choice is massive and the naming policy is more or less unfathomable. Basically, the bigger the number, the more powerful it is. Usually.
Anyway, things kick off with the basic 30 TFSI, which is a 1.0-litre petrol engine with 110hp and accordingly leisurely performance, as well as a choice of manual and automatic gearboxes. Above that is the 1.5-litre 35 TFSI petrol with 150hp and, again, a choice of transmissions. With a 0-62mph time of 8.7 seconds, it’s as fast as you need it to be, and it’ll top 50mpg on a long run. For most, it’ll be the perfect powertrain.
Also lurking at this end of the range is the 30 TDI diesel. Despite being a 2.0-litre engine, it only has 116hp, and that makes it a little sluggish. It is economical, though.
Further up, you might consider the 2.0-litre 40 TFSI Quattro, which comes with an automatic gearbox as standard and all-wheel drive, rather than the front-wheel-drive systems seen elsewhere in the range. With 190hp, it offers excellent performance, but it will guzzle fuel as a result.
For more economy, we’d choose either the 35 TDI with 150hp or the 40 TDI with 200hp and all-wheel drive. Both will offer decent fuel-efficiency and strong performance, especially if you do a lot of motorway miles.
But for company car drivers, the plug-in hybrids will probably have the most appeal. You can choose between the 40 TFSIe with 204hp or the 45 TFSIe with 245hp, but both use a 1.4-litre petrol engine and an electric motor, which can run independently for around 40 miles, according to the official figures.
If, however, you want something more powerful and more exciting, you have to have the S3 or RS3 models. The S3 uses a 2.0-litre petrol engine to produce 310hp, which is sent to the road through all four wheels. That means it can sprint from 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds and hit a top speed of 155mph.
But the RS3 is even faster, with a characterful 2.5-litre petrol engine producing 400hp. Like the S3, it has four-wheel drive, but it shaves a whole second off the S3’s 0-62mph time. And, if you choose the Vorsprung version, it’ll keep accelerating to 174mph.
That more or less sums up the straight-line speed, but there’s more to performance than acceleration. The A3 – S3 and RS3 models aside – is not a fundamentally sporty car, with the Golf-based underpinnings providing composure and security, rather than agility and poise. It feels safe and predictable, but it isn’t exciting in any meaningful way, so if you want a hatchback that’s fun on your favourite B-road, look elsewhere.
That said, the S3 and RS3 have a bit more about them and will be more entertaining, while the base models have other strengths that make them worthy of consideration. The ride, for example, is quite supple, and the seats are incredibly comfortable on long motorway slogs. The engine range is strong, too, so most models will feel refined and punchy on the road.
Running Costs & Emissions
If you want to keep running costs to a minimum, there are two different paths you can choose. If you do lots of long journeys, the diesels will be the most appealing propositions, with the 116hp unit offering well over 60mpg on the official economy test. And even the more powerful diesels will top 50mpg without breaking a sweat when you’re on a long drive.
Alternatively, if most of your journeys are quite short or you’re looking at a company-funded A3, we’d suggest the plug-in hybrid. The official range of around 40 miles is plenty for trips into town, a short commute or the school run, so you may never need to fill up during the week. Assuming you can charge at home, that is. And because of its low emissions, the A3 40 TFSIe will keep your tax bills at rock bottom.
All that being said, we wouldn’t choose either route. For most customers, the 35 TFSI petrol engine will be perfectly adequate in terms of performance, and it’ll achieve more than 50mpg on a long run, assuming you don’t drive like your hair's on fire. It’s a kind of jack of all trades.
Interior & Technology
This has long been the forte of all Audis, and particularly the A3. The previous-generation car had one of the best interiors of any car on the market, let alone in its class, with impressive quality, a minimalist design and excellent materials.
With this model, however, Audi has changed tack. The materials are generally still very good, and the way they’re stuck together hasn’t changed, but the design has changed from quiet minimalism to a more angular and futuristic design. The overall effect has made the cabin feel fussier, but more modern.
Whether that’s an improvement will be a question of taste, but there’s no denying the quality on show. Admittedly, a few of the materials feel a little cheaper than before, but it’s still up there with the best in its class, on a par with the gorgeous Mercedes-Benz A-Class and refined BMW 1 Series.
The technology on show is better than you’ll find in either of those vehicles, though. All A3s, regardless of trim level, come with a 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system that uses the Volkswagen Group’s latest technology, and that means you get satellite navigation and the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration kit as standard.
You also get the glorious Audi Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster, which is a pin-sharp display with a range of customisable screens. That means you can more or less tune the display to look exactly the way you want, with larger or smaller instrument dials, a satellite navigation screen or trip computer information.
It might sound like a gimmick – particularly as we found the conventional ‘big dials’ display the most intuitive and most useful – but it has its moments. If your passenger wants to muck about with the radio when you’re approaching a complicated junction, having a navigation screen in front of you is incredibly handy.
So don’t go thinking Audi has fitted technology simply for technology’s sake. Unlike sister company Volkswagen, the climate control dials are all physical switches, which means you don’t have to worry about poking through menus in the touchscreen to turn the heating up. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s a luxury compared with some modern cars.
Practicality & Boot Space
With such close ties to the Volkswagen Golf, it’s no surprise to find the A3 scores solidly on the practicality front. Both the Sportback and the Saloon come with roomy cabins that offer some neat cubby holes and handy storage bins, while rear space is adequate enough. There’s a reasonable amount of legroom, although it’s hardly class-leading, and headroom is also unremarkable.
Further back, the boot space really depends on whether you’ve chosen the Sportback or Saloon version. Opt for the latter, and you get a relatively generous 425-litre boot. That sounds big compared with the Sportback’s 380 litres, but the boot opening is smaller and the space is less practical, so the Sportback remains the more commodious choice for most. Particularly when you can fold the rear seats down to free up 1,200 litres.
Just beware, however, that not all A3s are equal, and the plug-in hybrid A3 and the go-faster S3 models both have smaller boots than the standard car.
As you would expect, the Audi is solidly built and as safe as can be. Like its predecessor, the A3 managed a top-end five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash test, with solid scores across the board.
And there’s bags of equipment to help make sure you never need to test that score out. Even the basic A3 comes with autonomous emergency braking tech, which can automatically hit the brakes if the driver fails to react to a hazard, and a collision avoidance system that helps the driver swerve to avoid an obstacle.
Lane departure warning is also fitted as standard, along with cruise control and rear parking sensors. Further up the range, Audi will also fit goodies including blind-spot monitoring systems and a reversing camera.
The first decision you have to make is what kind of A3 you want. You can have the ‘standard’ Sportback model, which is a five-door hatchback, or you can have the four-door Saloon model. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can have one of the S or RS models, which come with their own standard equipment and high-performance engines.
If you stick with the conventional cars in Saloon or Sportback form, you get a choice of trim levels. Technik is the base model, offering 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and the 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system. You also get rear parking sensors and Audi’s gorgeous Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster.
Moving up to the Sport model gets you bigger alloy wheels and two-zone climate control, rather than the Technik’s manual air conditioning. You also benefit from the addition of leather upholstery and Audi’s Drive Select system, which essentially gives you a kind of ‘sport mode’.
Then there’s the trim we all want: S Line. With 18-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass and a sporty body kit, it’s the most desirable model in the range – and that’s before we come on to the flashy (pun semi-intended) scrolling indicators. You also get sports seats and stainless steel pedals. Finally, the Vorsprung model caps things off with all the accoutrements of the S Line, plus larger 19-inch wheels, black exterior trim and a Bang and Olufsen premium sound system.
Above that, it’s just a question of the S and RS models. The S version is the go-faster version with extra power and some sporty tweaks, whereas the RS is the all-out hooligan-spec car.
If you pick the S, you get a choice of standard S3 and S3 Vorsprung models, with specifications roughly in line with the A3 S Line and Vorsprung models. But both come with even more dramatic styling and fancy suspension.
The RS3 is more of a departure. You get a choice of three versions: RS3, RS3 Carbon Black and RS3 Vorsprung, with each offering 19-inch alloy wheels and bespoke styling, as well as model-specific Nappa leather upholstery. As the name suggests, the Carbon Black gives you some black styling features and carbon trim, while the Vorsprung gets all the features of the Carbon Black and A3 Vorsprung, plus some extra black trim for good measure.
The A3’s main competitors are the usual suspects: the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and the BMW 1 Series. Both are brilliant, which makes the A3’s job harder, but they fulfill very different roles. The A-Class is the classy, luxurious one, while the BMW is the sporty and executive one. The A3 sits somewhere in the middle, promising quality and technology.
Which of those you prefer will come down to taste, but it’s worth remembering there are other options. The Volkswagen Golf is an increasingly premium proposition and, if you peel away the badges and bodywork, it’s pretty much identical to the A3.
The Mazda 3 is also worth a look, offering a surprisingly luxurious interior, stunning looks and an even more impressive driving experience. With the possible exception of the BMW 1 Series and the Ford Focus, it’s the best-handling hatchback you can lease. Speaking of the Focus, that definitely shouldn’t be discounted. It may not have the class of the others, but it drives beautifully and in top-end Vignale trim, it has all the goodies you could ask for.
It’s also worth considering a few compact SUVs, which offer similar space to the A3, but sit slightly higher off the ground. At this level, you shouldn’t expect anything in terms of off-road capability, but you might find them easier to get in and out of. Among the best options are the Mazda CX-30, the Volkswagen T-Roc and the Lexus UX, which comes with the added bonus of eco-friendly hybrid power or, if you;re ready to take the plunge, an all-electric powertrain.
Verdict & Next Steps
The A3 may not be the market leader it once was – primarily because other brands have caught up over the past few years – but the new model is still a great car. Some of the equipment on show is first-rate, and the whole car feels very easy to live with. Yes, the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class are more attractive propositions than ever, but if you want quality, technology and style, in one compact but premium package, then the A3 is the car for you.
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**Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Audi A3.
**Correct as of 05/11/2021. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £2322.63 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.