The new Audi A3 is a hugely important model, because it's the replacement for Audi's biggest seller in the UK, and it arrives at much the same time as the all-new Mercedes A-Class, new VW Golf and Volvo V40.
Perhaps that's why the designers have played it safe with the exterior styling. The new A3 has slimmer headlights and sharper body creases than its predecessor, but it looks much like a face-lifted version of that car.
Don't be fooled, though. The latest A3 is built on a brand new platform that will also underpin the next-generation Volkswagen Golf. There are big efficiency gains; engine stop-start is now standard across the range, and Audi has used aluminium and high-strength steel to help make the new car up to 80kg lighter than the old one.
What's the 2012 Audi A3 like to drive?
The A3's weight loss is good news for agility as well as efficiency. We drove cars in both SE and Sport trim – with standard and 15mm lower sport suspension, respectively – and body roll was well controlled throughout.
The new Audi A3 is up to 80kg lighter than the car it replaces
It copes well with corners, too, handling securely and giving a real impression of solidity on the road. The steering is a little slow, though, so the A3 doesn't feel especially sporty. However, it always reacts in a predictable way and the steering weights up reassuringly when you put the Drive Select system (standard on Sport and S line models, and an option on SE versions) in Dynamic mode.
At low speed, on the other hand, the steering is light and combines with the good all-round view to make manoeuvring a doddle.
Despite the mild styling makeover, the 2012 Audi A3 is built on a brand new platform
Sadly, the price you pay for such good body control is a firm ride – and it gets firmer the lower the suspension is, which means SE models represent the best balance. Although Sport models do turn into corners a little more sharply, their firmer ride makes them less pleasant to live with on a daily basis.
All the cars we tried made decent motorway cruisers – tyre noise is the only complaint, although it's far from excessive – but once you're away from the main roads, SE models prove the most comfortable. On the other hand, the good news is that, if you want the style of Sport or S line models, you can specify the higher-set suspension for a more comfortable ride.
Three engines are available at launch: 121bhp 1.4 and 178bhp 1.8 turbo petrols and a 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel. We drove both of the larger engines in the UK, and the diesel is a strong and flexible performer that's happy to pull from well below 1500rpm; while it transmits some vibration into the cabin at idle, it's smooth and refined at cruising speeds.
It comes with a six-speed manual gearbox and, although the gearing is long in the interests of economy, the engine always pulls strongly unless you let the revs drop well below 1500rpm.
The 1.8 petrol comes with Audi's seven-speed dual-clutch semi-automatic S tronic transmission. This generally works very well, moving swiftly and smoothly from gear to gear when you're pressing on, but can occasionally be slow to react when caught out in the wrong gear at slow speeds in town. It's at its best when used in manual mode, changing gears with either the wheel-mounted paddles or the gearlever.
As you would expect, with less torque than the diesel, the 1.8 needs to be worked harder, but it spins up easily and as long as you're prepared to use plenty of revs, it gets the A3 from A to B very quickly and makes for easy overtaking.
We have also previously tried two engines that will shortly be joining the line-up. The 103bhp 1.6 TDI – which arrives in November this year – has CO2 emissions of just 99g/km, yet it's incredibly smooth and flexible, even from low revs.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the 138bhp 1.4 petrol, which goes on sale next spring. This turbocharged engine is as strong and punchy as you'd expect, yet emits just 106g/km of CO2 thanks to a clever 'cylinder-on-demand' system, which shuts off two of the engine's four cylinders when cruising to save fuel.
Three engines are available at launch: 121bhp 1.4 and 178bhp 1.8 turbo petrols and a 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel
All versions are very refined at a steady cruise, with a touch of wind noise around the door mirrors being the only disturbance.
When the new A3 goes on sale, it will be available in front-wheel-drive form only. However, four-wheel drive will be offered as on option later on more powerful models.
What's the 2012 Audi A3 like inside?
The old A3 had one of the classiest cabins in the small family car sector, but the new one takes things to a whole new level. It's built from the sort of materials you'd usually expect to find in an executive saloon, while beautifully weighted switchgear, and a super-slim infotainment screen that glides out of the top of the dash add to the impression that no expense has been spared.
That slimline screen forms part of Audi's Multi Media Interface, which comes as standard and lets you control most of the A3's major functions via a central control dial and a small collection of buttons.
The system is now more user-friendly than ever, because Audi has raised some of the shortcut keys, allowing you to find the one you want simply by touch. However, it still isn't as intuitive as BMW's iDrive, which features fewer buttons and clearer menus.
The quality of the 2012 Audi A3's cabin has been taken to a whole new level
People of all sizes should be able to find a comfortable driving position in the A3, thanks to generous front space and a huge range of adjustment on both the driver's seat and the steering wheel.
Rear space is less impressive (both the Golf and the BMW 1 Series offer more) but six-footers can fit without too much discomfort. Remember, though, that if you want a bigger A3, a five-door Sportback version will be unveiled at the Paris motor show later this month, before going on sale in the UK next spring.
The boot in this three-door car will take 365 litres, making it one of the biggest in the class. It also comes with an adjustable floor that reduces the load lip and ensures there's no step up to the rear seats when they're folded forward.
Entry-level SE cars come with alloy wheels, Bluetooth, voice control and manual air-con, while Sport models add dual-zone climate control, sports seats and the 15mm lower sports suspension (the standard SE suspension is available as a no-cost option). Sports suspension is also standard on range-topping S line models – in this case, 25mm lower than the standard car's – but the SE and S line suspension set-ups are no-cost options, and S line cars are the only ones that get a bodykit and xenon headlights.
Should I buy one?
The new A3 is significantly better than the car it replaces, yet most prices have risen by only a few hundred pounds and running costs will be lower. For example, the 2.0-litre diesel averages 4.7mpg more than its predecessor and sits two company car tax bands lower, despite having more power.
Still, as impressive as this is, we reckon it's worth waiting until later in the year when the range will expand to include the 1.6-litre diesel engine, or until spring 2013 when Audi will introduce the 'cylinder-on-demand' 1.4.
Overall, though, we have no doubt that the A3 is one of the very best cars in its class.
Our reviews are based on hard data and thorough testing in the real world.
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