With its third generation A3, Audi decides not to mess too radically with a winning formula . Jonathan Crouch tries the pokey 1.8 TFSI variant.
Ten Second Review
The third generation A3 shows Audi at its slick, intelligent best. Its styling might be low key and the engineering eminently sensible, but there's a polish to this vehicle that escapes virtually all of its rivals. Efficiency and economy are excellent, even with some of the punchier engines like the 180PS petrol 1.8 TFSI we're looking at here. And some of the high-tech options available are extremely tempting.
I started off feeling a bit sorry for the third generation Audi A3. Its international unveiling at Geneva was thoroughly upstaged by the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, yet Audi didn't seem too perturbed by the fact. You could say they were quietly confident. But then the A3 has always been a car that's all about quiet confidence. You don't buy one of these if you're an attention seeker or want to show off quite how much money you've spent. It's a car that blends in with real panache and its owners quite like that. Nonetheless it was amusing to see the knotted brows of people looking at the new car and wondering whether Audi had played an elaborate practical joke on them by putting the old car on the stand instead. It's very evolutionary in its exterior lines, but put the two generations side by side and you can see how all of the major dimensions have been incrementally tautened, teased and primped. Let's check it out equipped with pokey 180PS 1.8-litre TFSI petrol power.
Although most A3 models get a reasonably sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox, one of the reasons I wanted to try a petrol 1.8 was the option this variant offers to try Audi's impressive 7-speed S tronic twin-clutch automatic set-up with its wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The auto transmission certainly doesn't dull performance, 62mph from rest dispatched in just 7.2s. This chassis on offer here is no carry-over from its predecessor and has been designed from a clean sheet to offer a smart balance between comfort and dynamics. The old RS3 showed how talented the last A3 could be when extended to its limits but the latest generation car moves the game on again. There's an electromechanically assisted steering system and a next-gen stability control package which includes an electronic limited slip differential for composed deployment of power. The Audi drive select system lets the driver vary the throttle response, steering weighting and where, as here, the S tronic transmission is present, the gearbox shift points. What's more, it can also be upgraded to manage the optional Audi magnetic ride system with its clever magneto-rheological fluid-filled dampers. Audi promises they're more noticeable when switching between modes than the first system which had many scratching their heads and wondering if it was working.
Design and Build
There's a lot to be said for pragmatism. Recognising that the costs of developing cars was spiralling out of control, Audi has utilised the Volkswagen Group's MQB platform to underpin this third generation A3. It's shared with the Golf Mk7 and by creating an interchangeable kit of parts from which can be spawned a variety of cars, the build time can be slashed by 30 per cent. As well as savings in time, and cost, there are also savings in weight, thanks to a hybrid of steel and aluminium panels, that pares 40kg from the weight of the outgoing car. It's like removing fifteen years of bloat from a modern hatchback and it comes with all manner of benefits to agility and efficiency. The exterior of this MK3 model is recognisably an A3 but looks a little sharper, with the squinty front lights that have become a contemporary Audi design signature. If you really want that R8 overtaking presence, LED daytime running lights are an option, and you can even go for a full LED headlight package. The third A3 incarnation is 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 fresh air (up from 350), a figure that can be extended to 1,100-litres by pushing forward the rear bench. That's for the three-door version I tried. For the larger Sportback variant with its lengthier wheelbase, the figures are 380 and 1,220-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 7in 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. Slick, but then what did you expect?
Market and Model
Though A3 pricing as a whole starts at just under £20,000, this 1.8 TFSI petrol variant doesn't come in entry-level form, so you can only order it in smarter 'Sport' or 'S line' trim at pricing that'll see you need a £25,000 budget. Given that this includes the excellent 7-speed S tronic auto gearbox, that's not uncompetitive for the premium compact class. There's the option of both three and five-door hatches and even a saloon. All the basic equipment items you'd expect are present and of course, 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 variable headlight range control. Where Audi has made the biggest strides in recent years is in connectivity of electronic systems and the A3 fully embraces these advances. The Audi connect system bundles all infotainment technologies that let the driver network with the Internet, infrastructure and other vehicles. The central component is the Mobile phone preparation. It produces the connection to the Internet and passengers can conveniently surf and email with up to eight mobile devices via an integrated WLAN hotspot. Watch your roaming charges though.
Cost of Ownership
Forgive me if you've heard this script before, but the latest A3 is quicker, more economical and emits less carbon dioxide than its predecessor. All well and good but you might think that saddling this car with an automatic gearbox or a powerful turbocharged engine would put paid to efficient fuel returns. Not so. Take the 1.8TFSI petrol model I tried with its efficient S tronic 7-speed auto gearbox. Here, the returns are 50.4mpg and 130g/km of CO2. So how has Audi done it? Well, it's not all down to the weight saving programme. There's also a Stop/Start system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. And a host of other little detail touches. Like brake energy recuperation which recycles energy you'd otherwise lose when braking or cruising. Then there's a climate control system that can be used in a highly economic 'eco' mode. The 'efficiency' setting you can choose on the 'drive select' vehicle dynamics system. An 'efficiency' programme you'll find on the onboard computer that gives you fuel-saving tips. A gearshift indicator. And small spoilers in front of the wheels that help to better guide the air flow. The CO2 savings achieved as a result of all this will, Audi reckons, reduce a typical A3's greenhouse gas emissions by about two metric tons over its lifetime. It's also worth pointing out that at the end of its life, over 95% of this car can be re-cycled.
The power of the brand. It's something Audi muses on at some length and it's the driving force behind the success of the A3. After all, this is a Golf in a posh frock and which commands a significantly heftier asking price. That won't change with this latest model. Nor will the fact that there will be many quite happy to pay that premium. Forget all the numbers that surround this latest A3. What Audi continues to do better than anybody else is tap directly into the often deeply illogical subconscious of the buyer. It sows seeds of desirability that are hard to bat away with simple financial rectitude and the result is that the A3 is an artfully laid trap that most of us can't wait to blunder into, especially in the desirable 1.8-litre TFSI petrol guise we've been looking at here. Is that wrong? Is it cynical? Not really. The A3 serves a need and serves it very well. The third generation model is, by any reasonable measure, a smart, admirable and technically brilliant thing. The intelligent people who will buy it will nevertheless have the self-awareness to ask themselves whether they have been seduced into their purchases, if only just a little. Mind you, those with typical Audi owner self confidence probably won't mind either way.