Entry-level 1.6-litre TDI diesel versions of Audi's A3 premium compact hatch now get an 'ultra' badge with engineering that delivers under 90g/km of CO2 and well over 80mpg. The experts at Car & Driving check it out.
Ten Second Review
Audi's ever popular A3 gets cleaner and more frugal in the 1.6 TDI ultra guise we look at here. A few small changes have added up to substantial improvements in economy and emissions while still keeping prices affordable. With the A3 already popular, eco conscious buyers should like this one enough to ensure it stays that way.
Since its introduction back in 1996, Audi's A3 has offered a premium motoring experience to those after a small three or five-door hatch. Although basically the same underneath as cheaper hatchbacks in the Volkswagen Group such as the Golf, the four rings on the nose and the promise of a classier interior often persuade potential buyers to spend much more on an A3. So successful has this formula proved that BMW and Mercedes have followed it in recent years with their A-Class and 1 Series models. The third generation A3 was launched back in 2012 and was the first car to use the Volkswagen Group's lighter, stiffer hi-tech 'MQB' platform. This can also be found underneath the Mk7 Golf, the SEAT Leon and Skoda's Octavia amongst other models. This third generation A3 is typical of its brand, with an evolutionary approach to styling hiding a comprehensive mechanical overhaul. Compared to its predecessor, it's up to 80kg lighter even with increased levels of equipment and safety, a platform perfect for the creation of this super-frugal ultra variant, based on the 1.6-litre TDI diesel model. The changes made have reduced the CO2 reading to just 99g/km and improved fuel consumption to 74.3mpg on the combined cycle. That Audi's engineers have done all of this without making complex and expensive changes or resorting to hybrid technology is impressive.
If we're honest, you'd never pick an Audi A3 because it offered an involving driving experience that left you gagging for winding roads. That's not to say the A3 handles badly: you can always count on precise steering, a much comfier ride than previous generations and a sense of overall stability, even without quattro all wheel drive. Grip will be slightly reduced with this ultra model thanks to high efficiency low rolling resistance tyres, although rather curiously for an eco-model, sports suspension is standard. This isn't to aid handling as you might expect: instead, the lower ride height reduces aerodynamic drag and therefore improves mpg and CO2. There's only one engine offered if you want ultra specification and that's the smallest 1.6-litre TDI turbo diesel. Unlike some eco specials that see cars fitted with engines far smaller than is really practical, the A3 has what Audi would refer to as a 'right-sized not downsized' motor. With 110PS (the same as the standard non-'ultra' variant), it manages 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds (or 10.7s for the five-door 'Sportback' version). And you get a top speed of 124mph, even though there's a longer final drive ratio in the gearbox to help economy. Yes, there are similarly-powerful rival premium compact diesel models that are able to beat this time but they can't do so by very much. Anyway, torquey turbo diesels like this Audi's 1.6-litre unit have a habit of feeling brisker in the real world than the numbers suggest. As you might expect with this eco- variant, there's no option of quattro 4WD. You can fit that drive layout to the standard 1.6-litre TDI A3 variant, but doing so has a big impact on running cost efficiency.
Design and Build
If the driving experience isn't the reason for buying an Audi, design and build certainly is. The A3 gets only the most sophisticated bits of the brand's part-steel, part-aluminium MQB platform and even entry-level A3s like this one get sophisticated multi-link rear suspension as opposed to the simpler torsion beam set-up found in more basic Golfs and Leons. Styling is unchanged on this ultra model and its range identity will pass unnoticed except by those with eyes keen enough to spot the lowered suspension and discreet badging on the bootlid. You could argue the styling pushes no boundaries and is very derivative of every other Audi but buyers seem to love the Russian doll looks. The three-door A3 has a reasonable 365-litres of boot space, while the five-door Sportback adds another 15-litres of capacity. Fold the seats forward and the three-door's capacity increases to 1100-litres - or 1220-litres for the Sportback. Moving up front, there's a typically Audi cabin, which is about as high a level of praise as you can give to a mass market premium car. Everything not only looks of premium quality and is beautifully designed but really feels it too. Even this affordable ultra variant gets some pleasing metallic effect trim and well placed chrome detailing to lift the ambience. If you do feel like more luxury, then there's a massive list of options that you can plunder to add thousands to the price. Both three-door and five-door Sportback variant offer bags of room up front, although three-door owners may find rear space a little tight. All the more reason to spend more on the Sportback of course.
Market and Model
All lower order-trimmed 1.6 TDI diesel versions of the A3 are now ultra models, which means that buyers must have their cars with a manual gearbox and front wheel drive and get the choice either of SE or SE Technik specification. Wheel size is limited to 16" to achieve those emissions figures: if you want larger rims, you'll have to go for the normal 1.6 TDI and take the hit on fuel economy and emissions. This means you'll pay about £21,000 for the cheapest A3 ultra variant, the three-door in SE spec, with the Sportback commanding a premium of just over £500. Jump to SE Technik spec and you'll pay about £800 more. The Mercedes A-Class in most efficient A180 CDI trim is just shy of £22,000, less fuel efficient and dirtier, although does have the option of an automatic box with no environmental penalty. The BMW 116D Efficient Dynamics Plus is less fuel efficient than both but does have a CO2 figure between the two. While more expensive than both, it's well equipped and probably the only choice for the keen driver. Highlights of SE spec for the ultra model include Bluetooth connectivity, a DAB radio, a 5.8" colour display, manual air-con, leather steering wheel, electric windows and a monochrome 'Driver Information System' in the instrument binnacle. Go for SE Technik and you gain snazzier wheels, a high res colour 'DIS', sat-nav, parking sensors and cruise control. For the sat-nav alone, this seems a wise upgrade. Safety features include 'Adaptive' brake lights that flash in an emergency stop, ABS with EBD, traction control, 'Electronic Stabilisation Control', Isofix seats, the usual wall of airbags and even a 'Rest Recommendation System' that can tell if you're nodding off behind the wheel.
Cost of Ownership
This is where the A3 ultra plays its trump card. Not only is it one of the cheaper options in the range, but it's by far and away the most fuel efficient. Fuel economy is a staggering 83.1 mpg on the combined cycle and it only produces 89g/km of CO2, best in class figures. In comparison, the figures for the standard 1.6 TDI variant are 70.6mpg and 105g/km. Insurance sits in group 18E. The warranty is 3 years or 60,000 miles, although you can pay extra for a 4 or 5 year warranty with mileage capped at 75,000 and 90,000 respectively. What else? Well, start cranking a bunch of options onto any 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.
Over the last couple of decades, Audi has slowly become one of the most desirable mass market motoring brands out there, rivalling those other heavyweights BMW and Mercedes. The A3 ultra will no doubt help the company in times of increased environmental awareness, offering a premium interior and good looking, if unadventurous, styling along with the kind of economy that would have been unheard of just a few years back. Although there are more outwardly desirable models in the A3 range, we think this ultra variant will sell strongly as fleet and private buyers get to appreciate its running cost advantages. As usual, it's a thoroughly engineered piece of vorsprung durch technic.