The luxury hatch niche just keeps adding to its appeal, with the latest Audi A3 Sportback boasting a raft of high-end features and premium grade materials that mirror its larger, more expensive siblings.
While Audi was one of the first to offer luxury features in a small car package with the A3’s launch in 1997, these days it’s a hotly-contested segment with similarly positioned German rivals offering an equally impressive bang for their buck.
So it’s no surprise that all three German luxury carmakers offer the same $35,600 (plus on-road costs) price tag for entry-level vehicles in this popular segment.
Audi’s contender is the third-generation A3 Sportback 1.4-litre TFSI Attraction, which goes head-to-head with BMW’s second-generation 1-series 1.6-litre 116i and the third- generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class 1.6-litre A180.
Siting one level above in the A3 hierarchy is the 1.4 TFSI COD Attraction (tested), priced from $37,900.
Commanding a $2300 premium over the base model with the same 1.4-litre displacement, it adds more power and torque (up 13kW and 50Nm respectively), as well as Audi’s cylinder on demand technology – promising better fuel economy and lower emissions.
It also manages to trump rival offerings by at least several thousand dollars, with the BMW 118i priced from $42,500 and the Mercedes-Benz A200 from $40,900.
Mind, for almost $6000 less than the Audi, you can also pick up the latest – and exceptionally good – seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf 103TSI Highline, with almost identical mechanicals and performance credentials.
Like many of Audi’s latest designs, the A3 looks decidedly conservative against the avant-garde styling of the A-Class, but that doesn’t mean it lacks panache.
It’s got a muscular-enough stance with clean lines and beautifully tight panel gaps, though you get the same deep-set front apron and gaping grille that you’ll find on every other model in the Audi range.
Our test vehicle was also fitted with the $2000 Style package that includes xenon plus headlights with Audi’s trademark LED daytime lights – just about the most vivid light signature of any make or model available today.
Also part of the same package is a set of 17-inch alloy wheels (up from 16 inch), further filling out the wheel arches for a sportier look.
Any perceived blandness with exterior styling is more than answered once inside the A3 Sportback.
The interior is beautifully appointed and ergonomically perfect. It’s not just the impeccable workmanship or wonderfully tactile switchgear; the look and feel of all the soft-touch plastics and metallic inlays shout absolute top-notch quality.
Volvo might lay claim to Scandinavian minimalism when it comes to uncluttered facias and centre stacks, but Audi does it with equal flair, if not more.
The Audi A3 we sampled featured the optional seven-inch monitor that rises from the dashboard (in less than 3 seconds) and which features satellite navigation, Audi parking assist with rear-view camera, and an upgraded sound system.
It’s a slick piece of contemporary design that stands in stark contrast to the static (even retro-looking) screen found on its A-Class rival.
At night, a ring of light encircles the pad/dial, as with the two front cup holders that sit in front of the drive mode selector.
It’s a nice touch. Even in base model trim, the Audi A3 Attraction is lavishly equipped by any standards.
Highlights include leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control with digital display and rear-seat vents, MMI radio system with an electrically retractable 5.8-inch display with eight speakers, rain-sensing wipers and auto headlamps make up just some of the creature comforts on board.
There are six relative good value option packages available throughout the A3 range, offering features such as S-line exterior/interior enhancements to adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems.
Up front, seating comfort is hit and miss. While the front buckets are extra wide, they do lack sufficient bolstering to be properly useful during more enthusiastic driving.
It’s a similar story with the rear seats. While they’re certainly comfy and there’s reasonable legroom, the A3’s rear-seat passengers miss out on a centre armrest and cup holders.
On a purely positive note, there’s a useful 380 litres of luggage space in the boot, which expands to 1220 litres when split-fold rear seats are folded flat. It’s more than enough to accommodate three adults and their luggage for several weeks overseas – as tested.
Like its competitors, the A3 line-up includes a range of four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel variants, matched with either a six-speed or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission as standard.
The 1.4-litre turbocharged four with COD under the bonnet of our test car is one of the more technologically interesting.
At partial loads, it runs as a two-cylinder engine, switching into four-cylinder mode the moment you apply more throttle. And it does so imperceptibly – you simply cannot pick the changeover.
The system is said to provide a fuel saving of about five per cent over the 90kW version of the same engine, falling from 5.0L/100km to just 4.7L/100km on a combined cycle.
Despite its fuel-sipping characteristics, there’s no shortfall in the A3’s performance.
It’s not quite in hot hatch territory, but the 1.4-litre motor is both gutsy and wonderfully flexible, giving the feel of a bigger-displacement engine.
At the same time it’s also smooth and refined, even under strong acceleration. Turbo lag is a non-event, with the A3 pulling hard from just 1500rpm and capable of maintaining peak torque through to 3500rpm.
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is also superb, providing quick and seamless shifts throughout the ratios.
Selecting Sport mode and using the steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters means enthusiastic drivers can have even more fun with perfectly timed throttle blips on the downshifts. There’s also a satisfyingly sporty soundtrack on offer from around 4000rpm.
The Audi A3 is underpinned by Volkswagen’s MQB platform and, just like its Golf cousin, the ride quality is measurably better than any of its key competitors.
You can feel the extra stiff chassis and lightweight body (1235kg) at work over uneven roads and potholes, but the ride is surprisingly soft, and all the better for it.
We also like the A3’s evenly weighted and accurate electromechanical steering.
You can place this car exactly where you want in corners and it feels agile and stable.
The A3 also gets all the usual active and passive safety gear including seven airbags (with driver’s knee airbag), electronic stability control, ABS brakes with traction control and electronic differential lock.
There’s an optional Assistance package available from $1800, which adds Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, high beam assistant and side assist to the A3’s crash-avoidance inventory.
Representing a sharper value proposition than its German rivals, along with inherent superiority in ride quality and interior appointment, the Audi A3 1.4 TSFI COD represents smart buying in the luxury compact segment.