Audi A3 hatchback performance
Our favourite engine is the 148bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol, which can turn off two of its four cylinders at a cruise to save fuel. It’s a refined motor that is hushed at a cruise and sends few tremors through the controls while you're driving. Performance wise, it pulls strongly from low engine speeds and feels brisk when revved hard.
The entry-level 1.0 TFSI has just three cylinders, but it's a sweet engine that's very well suited to town driving. You do have to work it fairly hard on fast A-roads, but it never feels too short of puff. There’s also a more powerful – though harder to recommend due to its additional costs – 2.0-litre turbo petrol.
Of the diesels, the entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine isn't gutsy per se, but it's marginally quicker outright than a Mercedes-Benz A180d and, relative to the lacklustre BMW 116d, it's akin to a flying machine. The 148bhp 2.0-litre unit is much stronger and definitely worth the extra, while the 181bhp version of that engine is an absolute belter, but too pricey to really recommend.
Meanwhile, the hot S3 Sportback has a 306bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine and four-wheel drive. That's enough to give a Porsche Cayman a fright away from the traffic lights, especially with its standard quick-shifting S tronic automatic gearbox.
If that’s still not enough power for you, then the turbocharged five-cylinder engine in the supercar-baiting RS3 is seriously rapid – it'll fire you to 62mph from a standstill in just 4.1sec and won’t let up until you hit 155mph, or 174mph with an optional speed limit increase.
The A3 Sportback e-tron is a plug-in hybrid that mixes electric power with a 1.4-litre petrol engine. It’s a first-rate hybrid that is very easy to live with in cities, but it’s not cheap and its electric-only range is limited. Audi claims that the e-tron model is capable of up to 29 miles on a single charge, but we managed around 18 miles in the real world. The added electric power does make the car pretty swift, though.
Audi A3 hatchback ride
The A3 has a generally sportier, and therefore slighlty firmer, ride than the most cosseting family cars (such as the Volkswagen Golf), but it's well controlled and far from harsh. If you want the most comfortable ride, go for SE Technik trim; it comes with relatively small 16in wheels and blends good bump and pothole absorption at low speeds with a controlled and settled ride on A-roads and motorways.
Move up to Sport trim and you get 17in wheels, which make the ride a bit bumpier around town. This problem is amplifed on S line versions that come with 18in wheels and stiffer sports suspension. However, you can opt to have regular suspension instead for no extra cost; we'd definitely recommend taking Audi up on this.
The sporty S3 and RS3 versions are stiffer again; unsurprisingly, you feel more of the bumps as they pass beneath you. However, compared with similarly focused hot hatches, both ride pretty well.
Audi A3 hatchback handling
It has to be said that these days the A3 isn't the youngest of family cars, but it's still one of the most dynamic. It'll change direction more zealously than, say, a Golf or Skoda Octavia, there’s buckets of grip and body roll is kept neatly in check. Only a Ford Focus 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, we think the standard suspension is a better bet. Fortunately, you can choose to have this fitted to S line models for no extra charge.
Regardless of which suspension you choose, the A3’s steering is precise and pleasingly weighted, although selecting Dynamic (rather than Comfort) mode makes it too heavy and reduces your sense of connection with the front wheels. 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.
With sports suspension and added traction out of corners due to standard four-wheel drive, both the S3 and RS3 models hold the road incredibly well, although they aren’t quite as much fun to drive as other hot hatchbacks, such as the Honda Civic Type R or the rear-wheel-drive BMW M140i and M2.
Audi A3 hatchback refinement
The A3 is as quiet as most rivals in the class, including the Mercedes A-Class, with only the Golf proving noticeably more tranquil. The petrol engines are particularly hushed; while the 1.6 TDI is the noisiest of the diesels, it isn't dreadfully coarse, and the rest are surprisingly muted. The only minor bugbear is road noise – something that models with larger alloy wheels suffer from to a greater extent. That's another reason to stick with the more modest 16in and 17in rims.
The e-tron variant, meanwhile, is an extremely accomplished performer. There’s no electric motor whine to speak of, so if you’re running in all-electric mode around town the only noises you’ll hear will be a bit of road noise and other traffic passing by. Even when the petrol engine kicks in, it’s remarkably quiet.
The A3's six-speed manual gearbox is slick, and while the automatics can be a bit jerky at parking speeds, they change gear smoothly most of the time.