Our favourite engine is the 148bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol, which can turn off two 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. It pulls strongly from low engine speeds and feels brisk when revved hard.
The entry-level 1.0 TFSI only has 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 powerful – though harder to recommend – 2.0-litre turbo petrol.
Of the diesels, the entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine is smooth but not very gutsy. The 148bhp 2.0-litre is much stronger and definitely worth the extra, while the 181bhp version of the same 2.0-litre is an absolute belter but too pricey to really recommend.
Meanwhile, the hot S3 and S3 Sportback have a 306bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine and four-wheel drive. Both will give a Porsche Cayman a fright away from the traffic lights, especially if you opt for the 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 the 1.4-litre petrol engine. It’s a first-rate hybrid that would be very easy to live with in cities, but it’s not cheap and its electric-only range is limited. Audi claims the e-tron 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.
Audi A3 Hatchback ride comfort
If you want the most comfortable ride, then go for SE Technik trim; it comes with relatively small 16in wheels and blend good bump and pothole absorption at low speeds with a really 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. An equivalent Volkswagen Golf, for example, is noticeably more supple. This problem is only amplifed on S line versions, which 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
The A3 changes direction more eagerly than, say, a Golf or Skoda Octavia. There’s also plenty of grip and body roll is kept neatly in check by class standards – even in versions fitted with standard suspension.
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 surefooted 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 their standard quattro 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 rear-wheel drive rivals such as the BMW M140i and M2.
Audi A3 Hatchback refinement
The A3 is as quiet as anything in the class apart from the Golf; the petrol engines are particularly hushed, but even the diesels are surprisingly muted. The only minor bugbear is road noise, something that models with larger alloys suffer from to a greater extent. That's another reason to stick with the more modest 16in and 17in rims.
The A3 Sportback e-tron, 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 change gear smoothly most of the time, they can be a bit jerky at parking speeds.
We've yet to try this 1.5-litre petrol engine, which can shut down half of its cylinders when cruising to save fuel. However, based on our experience of the engine in the rival VW Golf, it should be a cracker.
1.6 TDI 116
This is one of the best engines in the line-up for CO2 emissions, so it's an appealing choice for company car drivers. It’s also smooth and has enough low-down punch for comfortable motorway cruising. Comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but can also be had with a seven-speed auto 'box.
1.4 TFSI e-tron S Tronic
This hybrid powertrain is available only in the five-door Sportback. It combines an electric motor, a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine and a six-speed automatic gearbox. You can travel around 18 miles on electric power alone (a full recharge takes four hours via a domestic plug socket), and super-low official CO2 emissions make it an enticing company car choice.
2.0 TDI 184
This more potent version of the 2.0-litre diesel is offered only in Sport and S line trim levels, so you have to pay a fair amount for it. It brings a bit more mid-range shove, but it’s not worth the extra cash over the 2.0 TDI 150. Comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but can also be had with a seven-speed auto 'box.
We think the 2.0-litre diesel engine (in this 148bhp tune) is worth the premium over the 1.6 because it’s a little smoother and offers punchier performance. It should still return more than 50mpg, too, keeping running costs down.
Unique to the high-performance, four-wheel-drive S3 and S3 Sportback, this 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor produces more than 300bhp – enough to take the S3 from 0-62mph in around 5.0sec. It has only a little turbo lag and a terrific exhaust note.
The 2.0-litre petrol engine has lots of power and low-rev shove – more than enough, in fact, to make the A3 a fairly swift hatchback. It’s not much faster in the real world than the 1.4, though, and it’s more expensive to buy and run. It is, however, available with four-wheel drive, whereas most A3s are front-wheel drive.
This three-cylinder entry-level A3 engine has enough punch for use around town, but you’ll find yourself working it harder to keep up with motorway traffic and thrashing it to make quick progress on A-roads. Like all A3s except the auto-only e-tron, it can be combined with a manual or an automatic gearbox.