Audi has become synonymous with making beautifully crafted interiors, and the Audi A3 Sportback – read: hatchback – is no exception. From the inside it's not just a cut above its rivals in this family car class: when you're sat behind the wheel you could quite easily imagine you're in something considerably more expensive.
But this previous winner of our coveted What Car? Car of the Year award is no one-trick pony. For instance, you can choose from a broad line-up of engines. These include everything from small, turbocharged petrol and diesel engines that help keep economy and running costs in check, all the way up to more performance-focused models, such as the S3 that will set your pulse racing. It’s just a shame that the even hotter RS 3 or the more efficient plug-in hybrid models are currently not on sale — they're waiting to be put through the new WLTP fuel economy tests.
So, what else should you be thinking about along with the A3? Lots, as it happens, because while the A3 is good, so is the opposition. The Mercedes-Benz A-Class and BMW 1 Series match the A3’s badge swagger, while the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Skoda Octavia are good enough to pose a serious question: do you get value for money by spending potentially more on a premium badge?
Don't forget, the A3 isn't only a family hatchback. While the Sportback is the subject of this review, if you fancy an executive car or a convertible, there's also the A3 Saloon and A3 Cabriolet to think about, and you can read our dedicated reviews of those by clicking the links.
Remember, too, that you could save yourself thousands by checking out the latest Audi A3 Sportback deals on our New Car Buying service. But first, read on to find out if this is really the car for you.
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Our favourite A3 engine is a punchy 148bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol (badged 35 TFSI). It balances strong, flexible performance across the rev range with decent economy — it can shut down two of its four cylinders to save fuel when you’re cruising along. It's a better match for the A3 than the 114bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol (30 TFSI) if you spend a lot of time on the motorway, but don't discount that engine, either; it's plenty pokey enough around town, you simply need to rev it harder to keep up with faster-moving traffic. The 2.0-litre with 187bhp (40 TFSI) proves decidedly quick, but make sure you can justify the extra running costs.
The diesel options will be more likely to attract company car users, and have plenty of merit. The entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine (30 TDI) provides solid pace at low to mid-range revs, which you can utilise to make relaxed progress. The 148bhp 2.0-litre engine (35 TDI) pulls harder across the rev range and is our diesel of choice for the A3, but there's also a more powerful 187bhp 2.0-litre (40 TDI) if you need even more oomph.
Another A3 feature is Audi’s four-wheel-drive system, quattro, which helps you to get off the line quickly in slippery conditions. It’s available with the 40 TFSI petrol as an option, and standard on the 40 TDI, S3 and RS3 performance models. If you want to know more about the performance of the S3 and RS3, click the links to read our dedicated reviews.
Suspension and ride comfort
The general rule of thumb is that a Golf is the best-riding car in this class, but the A3 can be almost as good if you follow this key advice: make sure you have the softer Dynamic suspension fitted. That will get you a suspension set-up that blends good bump and pothole absorption with fine body control that won't bounce you around at speed on an undulating country road. It's standard on SE Technik and our favourite Sport trim, but be careful you don't accidentally select the no-cost option for stiffer, lower Sport suspension. Although this is bearable, it's noticeably firmer and harsher over patchy roads.
Sport suspension comes as standard on S line trim, but there's the no-cost option that reverts it back to that better Dynamic set-up; so again, if you're buying an S line, we’d make sure that is selected. It's also better to stick with 16in or 17in wheels; the bigger 18in wheels that come with S line also hurt the ride.
Adaptive dampers are an option on S line trim and standard on the S3. If you set the adaptive dampers to their softest setting the ride is pretty decent on all but the poorest of the UK’s roads.
These days the A3 is no spring chicken, but it's still one of the most dynamic cars in the class. It'll change direction with more zeal than, say, a Golf or Skoda Octavia, there’s buckets of grip and body roll is kept neatly in check. It's really only the Ford Focus that offers keen drivers more fun.
S line models have stiffer sports suspension that helps the A3 stay even more upright through tight twists and turns. But the handling benefits are small and, given the degradation in ride quality (see above), we'd stick with the softer Dynamic suspension for the sweetest ride and handling compromise.
Regardless of which suspension you choose, the A3’s steering is precise and pleasingly weighted — providing you don't hit the sport mode, which adds too much heft. Four-wheel-drive quattro versions feel sure-footed whatever the weather but, unless you live in an area where it snows regularly, we’d stick to front-wheel drive.
Noise and vibration
The petrol engines are particularly hushed, and while the 1.6 TDI is the noisiest motor in the range, even that isn't exactly coarse. The 2.0 TDI, on the other hand, is superbly refined.
Most versions come with a six-speed manual gearbox. The gear lever is both light and reasonably slick, plus the clutch biting point is well defined, so you shouldn't suffer the shame of stalling. The automatics can be a bit jerky at parking speeds, but they change gear smoothly the rest of the time.
A minor bugbear is road noise, but it's only a particular issue on models with larger 18in alloy wheels. Stick to versions with more modest 16in and 17in rims and you'll find they're a lot quieter on the motorway. Wind noise, or lack of it, is up there with other quiet cruisers, such as the Mercedes A-Class; it's only the ultra-tranquil Golf that's notably better.