Published on Sunday 1 May 2016 18:26
Ten Second Review
The Audi A3 recipe is one that's reasonably familiar to customers. Even this latest model doesn't diverge from the template of high quality and a big car feel miniaturised into a compact hatchback shape. What has changed is the market the A3 competes in. This generation car now has to work harder than ever to win sales. Fortunately for Audi, it seems up to the task, especially in the 1.6 TDI entry-level diesel form that these days gives you 110PS and the option of a frugal 'ultra' variant able to deliver over 80mpg and under 90g/km of CO2.
Why pay over the odds for surplus you don't need? It's a philosophy that works for all the big purchases you'll ever make, whether it be a house, a holiday or a car. Especially a car. It's so easy to be seduced into going large, just on the off chance you might one day need to carry five passengers or negotiate a muddy track. Then after a few years with the car, we realise that we only did that thing once or twice and would have been better off with something less ostentatious. Something like this Audi A3 1.6 TDI maybe.
The formula for the A3 hasn't changed a great deal since it first appeared in 1996. It weathered the accusations that it was a Volkswagen Golf in a posh frock then and it continues to do so today. Both cars are built on the same MQB modular chassis and while this generation A3, launched in the summer of 2012, doesn't look radically different to its predecessor, it steps forward quite a few degrees in the way that it drives. Let's check it out in affordable diesel guise.
The very first thing that strikes you when driving the Audi A3 is how quiet it is. That has traditionally been something that manufacturers of compact cars have struggled with in the past. Building suspension systems down to a price, packaging engines and ancillaries where it would have been nice to have extra soundproofing and the busy ride inherent in a short wheelbase vehicle were usually key contributing factors to why smaller cars never really felt like big cars to drive. That's changed with the latest generation of premium hatches and the A3 is probably the best of the bunch in this particular regard.
It's wholly competent, if not a major entertainer. Should you want a bit of fun behind the wheel, the BMW 1 Series feels a more extrovert character and the Mercedes A-Class a more rewarding steer, but the A3 isn't far off that pace. It feels beautifully resolved when you thread it through a series of bends in that way that only seems to come from Audi. It's hard to ruffle it in any particular way, the control systems keeping a cap on any antics and the car feeling slightly disdainful at being manhandled along. Rest to 62mph takes 10.5s on the way to 124mph flat out. That's not far off the 8.6s and 134mph figures you'd get in the pricier 140PS 2.0 TDI variant. There's also the option of quattro 4WD if you want it.
Design and Build
Park the latest A3 next to its predecessor and it's like looking at a film starlet when she was ten years younger. It's just tauter and prettier. The finely detailed front lights give a quality look to the front end and there's more shape in the flanks. It is in fact 12mm wider than its predecessor (at 1777mm), the same 1421mm height and a mere 1mm shorter than the Mk2 A3, but there's more space inside as the wheelbase has been stretched by 23mm and the boot now houses 365 litres of luggage which betters its predecessor by 15 litres.
The interior is familiar fare to anybody who speaks fluent Audi design language, with a typically spare look for the interior, with four circular air vents punctuating the dash and a sat-nav screen that emerges from the top. This is controlled by the latest generation of MMI dial, with a very clever feature. The touchpad that first appeared on the A8 is now integrated into the top of the rotary controller.
This A3 is the very acme of understatement. You only have to open the door and get inside to realise this. Your first thought is "Where are all the controls?" Then you realise that Audi has been confident enough not to feel the need to festoon the dash with buttons in order to make the car look well equipped. The penny starts to drop. Here's a car that isn't trying too hard and that seems a good definition of a cool car if ever there was one. If you thought some Audis were a little bit brash, here's one that dials the extroversion back quite a few notches.
Market and Model
Pricing for this entry-level 1.6-litre TDI diesel A3 diesel starts at around £21,000 - or around £21,500 if you want the five-door Sportback version. There's a choice between SE, Sport and S line trim levels. For a quattro variant, you'll need at least a £23,000 budget. As for bodystyles, apart from the three and five-door hatches, there's also a saloon version and even a cabriolet option. Even the SE is decently equipped, including a 5.8-inch extending slimline colour display, Bluetooth, a driver information system with onboard computer, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated door mirrors, a body-coloured roof spoiler, air conditioning and a leather trimmed multifunction steering wheel. Step up to a Sport model and you'll find 17-inch wheels, firmer suspension and the Audi Drive Select system, front sports seats, dual zone climate control and some aluminium highlights splashed about the interior which does lift the look and feel. S Line buys you 18-inch alloys, a combination cloth/leather upholstery set, a body kit and Xenon plus headlights.
Numerous options are also available in the passenger compartment, including the LED interior lighting package, a panoramic glass sunroof, sports seats, heated seats, advanced key keyless access, deluxe electronic climate control with economy mode and adaptive light for the xenon plus headlights, which can be supplemented with Audi's amazing variable headlight range control.
Safety-wise, there are the usual twin front and side adaptive airbags, plus a very good latest generation ESP stability control system. Driver-rest-recommendation technology debuts in this A3. This assesses the driver's driving style and shows a warning if it detects a decline in attentiveness. The system activates above 40mph, but can be switched off if required.
Cost of Ownership
Start cranking a bunch of options onto an A3 and you'll put a dent in what might be its biggest asset - the way it clings onto its value. It wouldn't require too much effort to push the cost of this 1.6-litre TDI A3 above £30,000 which, after a night's sleep, must feel vaguely terrifying. Better to stick with the standard equipment and add a couple of options that used buyers will increasingly look for such as navigation or Internet connectivity services.
As it stands, the A3 has one of the best residual figures around. Buy an entry-level A3 2.0 TDI now and three years down the road it will still be worth around 46 per cent of what you initially paid for it. That's what makes this car worth paying the extra over, say, a well-equipped Focus or Astra, both of which have closed the gap in terms of quality in recent years. As long as you can afford the initial outlay, the Audi is going to work out cheaper to own.
Perhaps the smartest thing about the Audi A3 is its efficiency. You'll have already justified the asking price of the car in terms of its build quality, equipment and power output, so getting excellent efficiency almost feels like a bit of a bonus. The 1.6 TDI diesel manages a combined fuel figure of 70.6mpg with emissions of just 105g/km, so this is clearly going to be hugely popular with fleet and private buyers alike. Many of these people are going to want to look as the especially frugally-focused 'ultra' version, which improves those figures to 83.1mpg and 89g/km. In quattro form, an A3 1.6 TDI manages 60.1mpg and 127g/km. That's quite a difference, so many business users will want to stick to the 2WD ultra model and make sure that they gain the benefits of this variant's super-low CO2 emissions - namely nil rate Vehicle Excise Duty and a drop in BIK band from 17 per cent to 16 per cent, contributing to an annual liability for a 40% tax payer of £1,331.84, or just over £110 per month.
The Audi A3 isn't the sort of car that naturally grabs the headlines, especially in this 1.6-litre TDI guise. It's just a little bit too sensible for that. The driving dynamics won't have magazine road testers getting all unnecessary and the styling isn't going to sell too many posters. It's the unsexy stuff that the A3 does so well. It studiously leverages the power of Audi's cherished brand. It's safe, efficient, discreet and makes sense financially when its crushing residual values are taken into account.
So, a car that you buy with the head rather than the heart? Not entirely. The coldest pragmatist would gravitate to a Golf then realise that even better value could be had with a Skoda or a SEAT. No, the Audi A3 is all about walking a very fine line balancing value and badge equity. My personal take is that perhaps the A3 has become a little too cool and could do with a few more fireworks to really grab the buyer but you may well disagree. What's not up for debate is that this is a compact car that goes large on quality, refinement and maturity. Will it outsell the Mercedes A Class and the BMW 1 Series? You'd be foolish to bet against it.