The A3 is a premium compact sedan (or 5-door hatch) from German automaker Audi that brings quality, technology, and a prestige badge to the small hatch market, with the Sportback being a more practical alternative to the 4-door saloon of this third-generation A3.
The A3 in itself was originally conceived as a hatch-only when it first debuted back in 1996, though Audi hadn’t tacked on the Sportback moniker in those days. Following the above average update for the 2017 model year, the new A3 wears some newer gloves to jab at the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Outside its home country, competition also comes from Volvo’s V40 and the MINI Clubman.
Built on the MQB platform shared with many other Volkswagen Group vehicles, it’s no surprise that the A3 feels and even looks - in terms of the footprint it occupies on the road - rather familiar. Straddling the line between a compact Golf-like hatch and full-blown wagon, the A3 Sportback is the more spacious of the two most popular body styles and even offers slight practical advantages over its fellow Germans classmates, but not enough to really consider it a cut above.
In other respects, though, the A3 approaches the market it dwells in much like every other Audi is doing, especially with respect to its recent refresh that does carry some welcome visual updates focused around the car’s fascia and a more modern interior layout, though on the whole shouldn’t really make the majority of us stand up in curiosity.
As always, it excels as an all-rounder: a practical, handsomely styled, safe, very well built hatch that’s also loaded with tech and can be impressively rapid if specified correctly. But has Audi moved the A3 Sportback far enough along that it’s no longer seen as a pricier, more posh Golf?
“…the new A3 gets a reshaped single-frame grille that matches the form of the slightly larger and freshly redesigned A4’s mug.” - Car and Driver
One could argue that pretty much every car under the Volkswagen Group could do with some form of radical change, but nowhere is this more evident than the ‘new’ A3. With the MQB platform underpinning pretty much every mainstream model of theirs, there’s no getting around the familiarity and semi-annual incremental improvements rolled out seemingly in unison.
That said, the A3’s new front and rear treatment does give it a look that’s subtly pleasing enough to have most of us ignore that it’s essentially the same car underneath as before. Others may counter that the older pre-facelift car, parked side by side, actually looks more modern, and could potentially formulate a sufficiently convincing case. The newer car, though, better resembles the current crop of newer Audi, and that assimilation and perceived newness could be enough to sate brand loyalists.
For Audi, it luckily has the advantage of not really lagging behind its competitors in the aesthetics arena, therefore the sameness only mildly aggravates a tiny percentage of the buying market, many of which will be more than willing to forego this criteria for the A3’s other positive attributes, of which there are many.
It’s still a smart looking thing on the road, and compared to less expensive cars on the road of a similar size, can still seem head and shoulders beyond them in terms of class and presence. The brand recognition that Audi has carved out for itself pays dividends with the A3 Sportback. Hopefully, the all-new fourth-generation version will wow us more upon first blush.
Engine and Drivetrain
“Performance is strong across the range, with only a handful of models unable to complete the 0-62mph sprint in less than 10 seconds.” - AutoExpress
The spread of engines for the A3 are a comprised of a strong line-up of turbocharged petrol motors that are all paired to 7-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox.
While this transmission pairing is an efficient one, and by all accounts the VW-developed DSG derivative is one of the quickest-shifting on the market, the slow speed smoothness is occasionally a hit or miss, with some jerkiness that requires more finesse to counteract. Ironic, as the vast majority of the A3’s life will be spent stomping around city streets.
The range kicks off with the 1.0-litre turbo three-pot TFSI that’s only available in the base A3 Sportback. It’s a frugal little number (4.8-litres/100km claimed) if not pushed too hard, and quite a peppy soundtrack to match its generally effervescent character with 85kW and an impressive 200Nm torque peak.
Four-cylinder TFSI units litter the rest of the A3 spectrum, Sedan or Sportback. The step up over the punitive 1.0 is 1.4-litre that should be familiar with VW engines. It generates 110kW and 250Nm of torque, but because of its clever cylinder deactivation feature, it can operate as a 0.7-litre two cylinder at low-load situations such as highway cruising to deliver a claimed combined fuel economy of 5.0-litres/100km.
Lastly we have the well-proven EA888 2.0-litre TFSI that powers the higher-end A3s. Tuned to deliver 140kW and 320Nm, it endows the A3 with hot hatch like urge, taking 6.8-seconds to reach 100km/h in the front-driven sport or, thanks to the extra grip, 6.2-seconds in the range-topping A3 quattro S-Line.
“Road noise remained an issue, albeit a minor one, but it was again enough to detract from the ambience of the beautifully-designed cabin…” - CarAdvice
Wearing the premium four-ring Audi badge carries with it some responsibility, thusly an upmarket interior full of soft and or plush materials and high quality construction is a must. All Audis are built well (above the competition, actually), but his third-generation A3’s cabin looks so much more cohesive over the one it replaces.
And as a result, spending time in the A3 - whether barely moving in traffic or on a long highway journey - is a pleasurable, even luxurious experience. Small details like switchgear tactility are married with great ergonomics, good all-round visibility, and a pair of rather comfortable seats.
Indeed, the controls are raised to have them more easily fall to hand, but this does little to interfere with the cabin’s sense of spaciousness, which is better in the 5-door Sportback. Tall rear passengers in the Sedan, though, aren’t as lucky as those up front and may have to sit at an angle to not graze the roof liner - good job the seats are comfy. Legroom, meanwhile, is adequate but far from ample.
The boot, thankfully does impress as both the Sedan and Sportback offer plenty decent cargo volumes with the seats upright. The Sedan’s longer overall length does mean a wider floor area but the Sportback does have a larger loading aperture and can be filled higher if the parcel shelf is removed. Rear seats in both, annoyingly, do not fold flat.
Behind The Wheel
“…the handling is light-footed and playful in a way no mainstream Audi has yet managed. It grips hard, hardly understeers, even generates a semblance of feedback through the steering.” - Top Gear
The A3 drives with poise and composure not uncommonly associated with Audis and even the certain Volkswagens that it shares a fair few bits with. It’s comfortable and quiet inside, but reasonably nimble enough to mask the car’s pace
With a good amount of grip, only slight body roll, and understeer well-tamed unless you go poking it around a sharp corner, the A3 is more than capable of tackling any typical driver’s needs and benefits much from the lightweight material used in its construction that leads to a much less burdened front end. However, it delivers pace and agility in an unhurried manner that makes it more relaxing to drive than many rivals.
Despite the body style name ‘Sportback’ suggesting some amount of on-road thrills, it becomes quite obvious after only a few minutes spent driving the car that there’s a considerable leaning toward comfort. This is the car you’d want to spend time in cruising the highway or stuck in traffic over the Merc and Bimmer.
The S-line trim does increase the ride firmness slightly and the quattro all-wheel drive system there does grant it an all-weather ability, but it only gets markedly stiffer if you move to the S3 or bonkers RS 3 which isn’t the topic of this review.
Safety and Technology
“Audi has upped its game, adding a new MMI system to the A3 that’s more intuitive to control through a combination of rotary button in the centre console and steering wheel controls.” - Motoring.com.au
Following it’s strong performance in Euro NCAP’s crash tests, ANCAP gave the A3 a 5-star safety rating and a high overall score of 36.41 out of 37 when it was tested in 2013. Dual frontal, side chest and side head airbags (curtains) and a driver knee airbag are standard, and since 2015 so is a reversing camera and parking sensors.
More advanced features such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) are only given the higher-spec 2.0-litre TFSI Sport and S-line variants, but can be optioned by selecting the Assistance Package, which also brings adaptive cruise control and rear cross traffic alert.
None of those receive the excellent Audi Virtual Cockpit, however, which replaces the analogue instruments with a super-wide digital cluster. Only selecting the Technik package will give you access to it.
However, all variants receive the much improved 7-inch MMI infotainment system with navigation via a screen that retracts into the dashboard when not in use. Audio is emitted via 8-speakers but a Bang & Olufsen 10-speaker setup is, again, reserved as an optional extra.
As the way it with many Audis these days, the new A3 isn't all that visually new from the older A3. But as facelifts go, the 2017 refresh was quite substantial enough to move the needle along to make it a top contender again, this time with an much improved interior layout and list of tech features.
Ingolstadt also tweaked the A3’s handling to make it a better all-rounder. Make no mistake, it’s still more adept as comfortable cruiser or city weaver, but there’s a new edge to the suspension and steering that makes those processes, even the very countryside blast, a little more enjoyable - or, rather, enjoyable enough.
And with good engines and all-wheel drive at the top of range, along with decent practicality and a near tectonic sense of build quality, the A3 is quite the consummate premium small car.
Car and Driver - 4/5 - “The bite-size A3 wraps up everything we love about Audis in a handsome, nice-handling package. Steering is precise, the ride composed; fit and finish are superb.”
CarAdvice - 8/10 - “The A3 is an assured car, offering premium German quality and an engaging driving experience at a relatively affordable price. It is the segment leader in Australia and this new update should see it maintain its place at the top of the pecking order.”
Top Gear - 7/10 - “The definitive example of rock-solid, sensible, impeccable German engineering…latest version of the car that defined the premium hatch sector. Stays classy”
AutoExpress - 4/5 - “Audi’s premium family hatch offers strong efficiency, a decent drive and interior that's a class above the BMW 1 Series.”
Motoring.com.au - 83/100 - “…while its styling has not really altered, the A3 just got a lot more substance thanks to newly available technology and powertrain changes.”
CarsGuide - 3.5 - “The update has been subtle on the cosmetic front, but the new A3 is quieter, better value and a bit more fun into the bargain. Whether it can maintain its lead with such a quiet visual change remains to be seen, but a good car is now better.”
What Car - 5/5 - “The Audi A3 is an outstanding car in almost every respect, and the Sportback version is a terrific choice as family transport.”