The much improved Audi A3 Sportback demonstrates that class is permanent. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
This revised version of Audi's third generation A3 Sportback gets some improved petrol engines, the brand's classy Virtual Cockpit instrument display and upgraded media connectivity. Otherwise, its strengths remain as before, with excellent build quality, impressive refinement and decent five-door practicality. It's still very much an aspirational ordinary product.
If you're looking at an Audi A3, it's highly probable that you're looking at this five-door 'Sportback' version: the majority of UK buyers do. This third generation model dates back to 2012, when it was launched as a design that was significantly bigger than before. That gave it slight advantages over key premium compact hatch rivals like BMW's 1 Series and Mercedes' A-Class. In recent times though, both those models have been substantially revised, so it was necessary for Audi to follow suit, hence the car we're going to look at here. As part of these changes, Audi's latest Virtual Cockpit instrument display makes an appearance as a desirable option and Ingolstadt's latest know-how when it comes to media connectivity is paraded in the redesigned MMI infotainment system. More significantly perhaps, a frugal 1.0 TFSI petrol engine now props up the range - and there's an improved 2.0 TFSI petrol unit too. Evolution then, not revolution.
Lots of changes have been made on the petrol engine front, the range now beginning with a downsized 115PS 1.0-litre TFSI unit that, nonetheless, still generates a useful 200Nm of torque. Next up is the more family 1.4 TFSI COD engine with 150PS and the efficiency of its clever 'Cylinder-on-Demand' technology. If you want more power, then the next step is a 2.0 TFSI unit - this a new engine featuring 190PS and an innovative new combustion process. It can be ordered with a freshly developed 7-speed S tronic auto gearbox and there's the option of quattro 4WD. Near the top of the range, the S3 hot hatch also gets 2.0 TFSI power - in this case with power upped by 10PS to a 310PS total. The diesel line-up is more familiar from before, things kicking off with the usual 1.6-litre TDI powerplant developing 110PS and offered with either manual or S tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission. Above that sits the consistently popular 2.0-litre TDI unit, available, as usual, with either 150 or 190PS and the normal transmission choices. Top diesels also get the quattro option. As before, lowered firmer 'Sport' or 'S line Sport' suspension set-ups are available and buyers can specify a progressive steering system for sharper turn-in. The Sportback e-tron petrol/electric Plug-in hybrid variant continues on for those with an eye on their tax status.
Design and Build
Exterior changes to the A3 are slight but the front looks a little more purposeful, courtesy of sharper lines for the familiar and now broader Singleframe grille. The headlights are flatter, with distinctive outer contours and can now be ordered in Matrix LED form, so they are significantly brighter and constantly adapt themselves to avoid dazzling other road users, plus of course they never need to be dipped. Equally subtle changes at the rear aim to accentuate the width of this car - with the horizontal illuminated graphics of the rear lights and the separation edge above the redesigned diffuser. Inside, the 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this one as an option. This shows the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as before, with classy materials and strong build quality. Luggage space out back is 380-litres, rising to 1,220-litres with the seats folded.
Market and Model
A3 Sportback ownership requires a very reasonable premium of not much more than around £600 over three-door models - which means pricing starting from around £20,000 and ranging up to around the £30,000 mark, with customers choosing between SE, Sport and S line trim levels. You'll be very tempted though, to up the price of your car by adding numerous options. Not only the new Virtual Cockpit instrument display but also things like the LED interior lighting package, a panoramic glass sunroof, sports seats, heated seats, advanced key keyless access, deluxe electronic climate control and an adaptive lighting system for the xenon plus headlights, which can be supplemented with variable headlight range control. As for infotainment, well Audi reckons that this improved A3 sets fresh standards here. An 'MMI radio plus' set-up with an electrically extending 7-inch diagonal monitor is standard, while the 'MMI navigation' system is fitted from 'SE Technik' trim upwards. Go further and specify the 'MMI navigation plus with MMI touch in conjunction with the Audi connect' package (what a mouthful!) and you can have many online functions in your A3 at high speed via the super-fast LTE standard. They include, for example, navigation with Google Earth and Google Street View traffic information in real time, as well as practical information on parking, destinations, news or the weather. There's also a free 'Audi MMI connect' app that enables other services, such as online media streaming and transfer of a calendar from a smartphone to the MMI. Mobile phones with iOS and Android operating systems can now be connected with the car via the standard Audi smartphone interface.
Cost of Ownership
The A3 Sportback pins its colours firmly to the mast of improved efficiency and posts numbers that are markedly more impressive than its already creditable forebear. That's a given. As is the fact that it'll rival the very best in class for residual values. So far, so predictable. The usual drill now is to quote the faintly unbelievable economy figure of the most economical diesel model in the range to underscore that point, but petrol buyers are in for a treat with the 1.0-litre TFSI engine. Expect over 60mpg combined fuel economy and CO2 emissions getting down towards 100g/km. Although Audi will roll out even more fuel efficient diesels in the future, the current 2.0-litre TDI 150PS unit is no slouch. In the combined cycle test it covered 68.9mpg - equivalent to CO2 emissions of just 108g/km. The A3 range also encompasses a 1.6 TDI engine, promising 74.3mpg potential with CO2 emissions of just 99g/km. If you want to go further, then the Plug-in petrol electric Sportback e-tron hybrid continues on at the top of the range with its 176mpg and 37g/km CO2 capability.
The Audi A3 was the model that invented the premium compact sector way back in 1996 and since then, almost all the cars sold in this segment have had five doors. Vital then, that this important Ingolstadt model should be at its most desirable in this form. It still is. Indeed, 'why wouldn't you?' is the phrase that comes most readily to mind in consideration of this car. An A3 isn't cheap and you'll get so much more out of it in Sportback guise. The latest updates will help its cause, especially if you happen to be looking at a petrol model. And that Virtual Cocpit system is certainly worth a look: all your passengers will comment on it. Otherwise, things are much as before. Like its three-door stablemate, this Sportback is light in bulk, heavy in technology and as at home in Belgravia as it is in Brixton. And, as with that model, the interior is where this design really strides apart. You could be in a luxury car. You certainly wouldn't think you were in a run-of-the-mill Focus-sized family hatchback. For not a huge amount more than you'd pay for one of those, this car brings a touch of class to the compact segment. Which of course is why so many people want one.