Audi A3 saloon performance
Our favourite petrol motor is a punchy 148bhp 1.5-litre turbo that can shut down two of its four cylinders to save fuel when you’re cruising along. It’s more refined than the entry-level 114bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit and feels more flexible across the rev range. The 2.0-litre TFSI with 187bhp proved quick in the A3 Sportback but high running costs count against it here.
The diesel options are more likely to attract company car users, though, and it’s a strong line-up. The entry-level 114bhp 1.6-litre engine isn’t as gutsy as the bigger units, but it seldom feels underpowered and has a smooth power delivery. The 148bhp 2.0-litre engine is strong across the rev range and we think it’s an absolute belter. So much so, in fact, that while we’d agree the pricier 181bhp version does have a more defined surge as the turbo kicks in, the 148bhp one is so effective that it makes the higher-powered diesel an unnecessary extravagance considering its added cost.
The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual that has a precise shift action and Audi’s S tronic automatic transmission is available on all engines. It offers super-fast shifts, but the 'box doesn’t always react quickly enough to your commands when you try to use it in manual mode.
Another feature is Audi’s four-wheel-drive system, quattro, that gets you off the line quickly in slippery conditions. It’s available in the 2.0 TFSI 190 petrol and both 2.0 TDI diesels, and is standard in the S3 and RS3 performance models.
Speaking of which, the S3 comes with a 306bhp turbocharged petrol engine and, combined with that four-wheel-drive system, is the real McCoy when it comes to high-performance saloons. As for the RS3, its 395bhp is enough for performance that would shame a supercar of yesteryear.
Audi A3 saloon ride
Audi offers the A3 Saloon with Sport and S line trims, avoiding the more basic SE that you can get on A3 hatchbacks. There’s a trick to getting the most comfortable version; opt for Sport and then pick the no-cost option to deselect sports suspension. That will get you a suspension set-up that blends good bump and pothole absorption with a decent level of body control.
S line brings 18in wheels as standard (up from 17in ones), while the S3 Saloon is lower and stiffer again; neither set-up is unbearable but they are undeniably firmer than the regular setting, especially at low speeds on the UK’s poor road surfaces. Even the RS3 is bearable on crumbling asphalt.
Audi A3 saloon handling
The A3 Saloon changes direction eagerly and there’s enough grip for the car to stay easily in line if you’re trying to hustle it along a twisty B-road. You won’t suffer too badly from body roll, either – even if you deselect the standard sports suspension.
Regardless of which set-up you go for, the A3 Saloon’s steering is precise and has consistent weight, although it doesn’t offer a huge amount of feedback.
The whole package is capable and composed; you’d need to spend a lot on a BMW 3 Series to get anything more agile or involving to drive.
Audi offers Magnetic Ride adaptive shock absorbers as an option on Sport and S line versions (the S3 gets them as standard, while the RS3 does not), but the regular mix of body control and comfort is so good that we wouldn’t bother ticking that box.
Audi A3 saloon refinement
The A3 Saloon needs to offer a hushed environment if it’s to deliver on its promise as a smaller, cheaper executive option – and, in the main, it does.
The 1.5-litre petrol is smooth at a cruise, but even the diesels – 1.6 or 2.0 – aren’t too vocal once you’re up to motorway speeds and are smoother than those in a 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
It’s worth noting, however, that larger wheels do bring a bit more road noise, and this is one of the A3 Saloon’s weaknesses. It’s better on the smaller 17in alloy wheels, but even here it’s nowhere near as hushed as its bigger, traditional rivals, not least the A4. Wind noise isn’t too bad, however.
Instead of disguising its engine noise, the S3 Saloon celebrates it; one of its driving modes activates a sound actuator that feeds more of the motor’s roar into the cabin. It’s easy to turn off if you want a quieter cruise, though. The RS3 is noisier still but acceptable for a performance car.
The manual gearboxes are slick, but while the automatics change gear smoothly most of the time, they can be a little jerky when you’re manoeuvring.