What's the used Audi A3 hatchback like?
'Desirability' isn’t a word that looms large when you buy a family hatchback –practicality and reliability are usually the only qualities you can fairly expect. The first two Audi A3s were indeed practical and reliable, but this third-generation model added the driving pleasure and comfort levels that make this a premium car that's highly desirable too.
It was a lighter, stronger and more efficient car than its predecessors, and a much better one in nearly every area. Shortly after its launch in 2013, it won What Car?'s overall Car of the Year Award and in its last full year on sale (2020), it was our overall Used Car of the Year.
That success wasn’t surprising. While the A3 was based on the same underpinnings as the Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Octavia – both more everyday Volkswagen Group cars – it carried with it an air of quality and an upmarket appeal that they couldn't match.
Better still, it offered a wide range of impressive engines. The petrols included an entry-level 103bhp 1.2-litre, a 123bhp 1.4-litre unit, a 178bhp 1.8 and a 148bhp 1.4-litre that could automatically shut off two of its four cylinders at a cruise to save fuel. Diesels included a 103bhp 1.6 TDI, and 148bhp and 181bhp versions of a 2.0 TDI.
There was even a plug-in hybrid, the A3 Sportback e-tron, which mixed a smooth 1.4-litre petrol engine with electric power. You could also choose the sporty 296bhp 2.0-litre S3 model or the fire-breathing, range-topping, super-sporting 394bhp 2.5-litre turbo version, the Audi RS3.
In 2016 the A3 was facelifted, with a refreshed look, some engine updates and the option of a new digital instrument display. It also received a number of new safety systems, including a semi-autonomous traffic jam assist function. A sweet and lively 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine was added to the range, effectively replacing the earlier 1.2-litre unit. The facelift also meant the popular 1.4 TFSI 150 petrol engine was replaced by a more efficient 1.5-litre TFSI unit, and the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in the Audi S3 gained an extra 10bhp, taking it to 306bhp.
At its original launch, the A3 was available in a choice of three trims: SE, Sport and S line. An SE Technik trim was added to the range soon afterwards, and in later versions it replaced SE as the entry-level trim. Over the years, there have been a number of limited editions and special trims with various cosmetic and equipment upgrades, most notably the Black Edition.
If you opt for an earlier SE A3, you'll get 16in alloys, xenon headlights, cruise control, rear parking sensors and auto lights and wipers fitted as standard. Inside, there's air conditioning, an auto-dimming rear view mirror and Audi's MMI infotainment system with a 7.0in display, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, plus as smartphone integration. Upgrading to the SE Technik trim added sat-nav and a three-month trial to Audi's online connected services.
Sport trim gains 17in alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, front sports seats and touches of aluminium, while S line cars get LED headlights, a sporty bodykit, lowered and firmed-up suspension, ambient interior LED lighting, part-leather upholstery and 18in alloys. Topping the standard range is the Black Edition models, which get fancy 18in alloys, an improved audio system and lots of gloss-black exterior styling.
On the road, you'll find that every version, no matter what its age, is great to drive. The 1.4 TFSI was smooth and powerful and reasonably economical. The replacement 1.5 (badged in later cars as the 35 TFSI) balances strong, flexible performance across the rev range with decent economy. Of the diesels, the 114bhp 1.6-litre engine (later called the 30 TDI) provides solid pace and makes for relaxed progress. The 148bhp 2.0-litre engine (badged as the 35 TDI) pulls harder across the rev range and the more powerful 187bhp 2.0-litre (called 40 TDI) is useful if you need even more oomph. The six-speed manual and the automatic gearbox option both shift cogs effortlessly and smoothly.
You still have to be careful when choosing which one to buy, though, because the S line models have larger wheels and firmer suspension that can make the ride too fidgety (although some will have been specified with the regular Dynamic suspension, which is the more forgiving set-up). The firmer suspension does help the A3 stay even more upright through tight twists and turns, but the handling benefits are small and, because of the degradation in ride quality, we'd stick with the softer Dynamic suspension for the sweetest ride and handling compromise.
Overall, though, this is an impressively refined car that’s also supremely agile and a pleasure to drive, with precise steering and surefooted handling. 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, especially in its latest version. There are also four-wheel-drive variants (badged quattro) for added traction in slippery conditions.
Inside, the A3 is spacious and practical, either in three-door or five-door Sportback guise, and it has a beautifully made interior that’s more than practical enough for the needs of most families. The driving position is spot on. There’s more than enough leg and shoulder room for a couple of tall adults up front, and even six-footers should be reasonably happy with the amount of leg and head room available.
The Audi A3’s boot has almost exactly the same amount of space as the Mercedes A-Class, and both can fit up to six carry-on suitcases. While that’s pretty decent for the class, it's miles away from the class champion, the Skoda Octavia, which can take 11. It’s also worth noting that quattro four-wheel-drive models suffer a 40-litre reduction in boot space because of the extra oily bits underneath.
It's fair to say that the A3 is so good that desirability might be its only problem: demand on the used car market is high. The A3 wasn’t a cheap car to buy new (it was certainly more expensive than the Golf and Ford Focus), but it's actually very good value compared with premium rivals such as the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class. It’s worth looking out for a facelifted A3 for its improved equipment levels, as well as the minor updates to the interior and exterior.
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