Audi A3 2019 35 tfsi s line plus

2019 Audi A3 review: 35TFSI Sportback S line plus

Rating: 7.8
$43,300 Mrlp
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Audi has sweetened the A3 Sportback with a new S line plus version. But does a new swag of features make the ageing hatchback a smarter buy?
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Audi Australia has sprinkled some fairy dust across its small-car sedan and hatchback range for 2019. So, we’ve decided to take the 2019 Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI S-tronic S line plus, as it's officially named, for a spin through the CarAdvice garage to see how the hatch’s newly blossomed spec suite measures up as a smartly priced premium runabout.

Essentially, the ‘S line plus’ bit of its, ahem, punchy namesake adds, Audi says, up to $11K worth of extra goodies to certain A3 variants. The cheapest S line plus-equipped model is the front-drive ‘35’ hatch, whose package's goodies include S line exterior appearance tweaks, 18-inch wheels, digital driver’s instrumentation, MMI Navigation plus-grade infotainment, keyless entry with push-button start, as well as blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert smarts.

All up, the ‘35 S line hatch’ – for brevity – lists for $43,300 before on-roads. Not a bad pitch given all and sundry above adds just $2600 to the regular Sportback 35 S auto ($40,700 list) you’d possibly be mad to opt for.

But… There’s a ‘but’. Or two. The lower-grade 35s such as our test car miss out on some gear fitted to pricier 40 S line versions, which exclusively fit LED headlights and tail-lights, wireless ‘phone box light’ smartphone charging, heated and fully electric front seating and auto folding mirrors. So, not quite $11K worth of extra goodies, then. Further, our car does fit wireless phone charging but wants an extra $250 for it, plus $1190 for its retina-burning Tango Red metallic paint, bumping the outlay up to $44,740 list.

Yep, that’s a lot of fiscal cost-benefit consideration while you’re sitting here reading this thinking “Look, I'm just after a nice small hatchback with an Audi badge”. But please bear with me, because there are a few other things to consider.

The A3 is no spring chicken. Its current and quite handsome form is the 2017 facelift of the third-generation range dating back to 2012. Given we’ve been spotting the next generation in testing since last year, there’ll be a new one along sooner rather than later. So, yes, you get many appealing extras for the $2600 extra spend, but does it counterbalance other areas of the ageing A3 package? And does it all come together for its sub-$44K ask?

While the ‘S3-lite’ exterior looks smart and contemporary enough, the xenon lights and static mirrors seem a bit low-rent when LEDs and electric-folding hardware can be had on non-premium-branded small cars asking for low-$30K.

Inside, the general design is showing its age more conspicuously, though Audi has clearly put decent effort into modernising features and details. The deep-spoke TT-esque wheel, the Virtual Cockpit display, and the pop-up infotainment screen lend freshness to the window dressing. And there’s a dignified ambience, even if the circular air vents look a little too plastic-y and the sheer overall greyness – a lack of colourisation and separation – leaves the cabin feeling a touch dour.

The S line vibe outside doesn’t extend to seating or accoutrement inside, the partial leather front pews with their full mechanical adjustment a little on the down-market side for a forty-something small car wearing any marque’s badge. But seating in both rows is quite comfortable, there’s segment-middling space in row two, and there’s ample storage throughout, which extends through to the 380L boot space.

The upgraded MMI Touch plus infotainment is a bit of a mixed bag. At 7.0 inches, it’s a small screen and the pop-up format will only please some buyers, but the look and content, updated for the 2017 facelift, is generally pretty impressive. It asks too many questions on start-up – about privacy policy, really? – yet has decent proprietary content to complement the normal apps Apple and Android mirroring bring to the party. Despite this high-grade system’s inclusion as a feature highlight, it strangely lacks digital radio functionality.

Then there’s the topic of the rotary console controller and shortcut buttons. Their fitment, as found here in the A3, has long signified a premium step up from touchscreen-only formats found in the mainstream. Somewhat controversially, though, Audi’s stance has flipped, the company starting to remove hardware interface and now favouring touchscreens only as a more premium experience proposal, as seen in the latest A4.

Which is actually better? It’s really going to be a matter of end-user preference, but I prefer convention as fitted to the A3 here, even if merely by logic of the more you pay, the more stuff you should get. That said, my main bugbear about omitting touchscreen functionality is with CarPlay mirroring: I can see all the smartphone apps up on the screen, but I have to use a clunky rotary-controller interface with which to navigate through them.

While we’re at it, that $250 inductive charging option is somewhat redundant if you’re intending on using CarPlay. That’s because today’s iPhone 10, like mine, and other smartphones, won’t fit squarely atop the inductive charging pad located in the console bin, if you have the phone cable attached. And you need the cable attached to connect CarPlay, right?

Such features and functionality do matter, because you’re not buying into the A3 35 experience for white-knuckled driving thrills. Of course you’re not. That’s because, for what’s essentially Golf GTI or Hyundai i30 N hot-hatch money, you’re opting for modest 110kW and 250Nm outputs from just 1.4 litres of turbo-four motivation… Which becomes a 0.7-litre two-cylinder off throttle and low engine loads to save fuel with what Audi calls ‘CoD’, aka ‘cylinder on demand’. You’re chasing that rosy 5.0L/100km combined fuel consumption benefit.

Frankly, it takes a long and leisurely piece of highway and a touch of tailwind to get near those glorious fives. And it’s closer to 8.0L/100km consumption around town, where you tend to throttle the powertrain a bit not in the hope of returning shove, where the 1.4 is enthusiastic enough, but to overcome the dull response of the turbo-four and seven-speed dual-clutch powertrain.

This is a well-rehearsed gripe for what’s now a very familiar engine and gearbox package shared throughout the Volkswagen Audi Group family. In normal D for Drive, the powertrain is too reluctant to harness the engine’s 250Nm sweet spot, leaving response a touch lazy and recalcitrant. Activate S for Sport, via a quick tap of the transmission controller, and the powertrain surges harder, if still with some degree of hesitation, then remains too hyperactive for leisurely driving. The tricky CoD smarts, when they chime in, merely exacerbate the pause between throttle activation and action stations.

The engine pulls well and the transmission slips between cogs smoothly, provided you’re already on the move. Off the mark, though, there’s just too much clutch scrabbling or thudding as the gearbox attempts forward progress. Getaways in Sport can be frankly alarming, wheelspin and all, and digging in with the right foot to elicit the desired response takes its toll on fuel consumption.

I’ve spent enough time in the 140kW/320Nm '40 TFSI’ 2.0-litre to believe it befits the premium small-car experience more convincingly. And its more accessible torque band means getting close to its combined 5.7L/100km fuel consumption claim is a little more feasible. Problem is, that A3 version demands you dig seven-grand further into your pocket…

As an all-rounder, the A3’s on-road character is quite decent. Ride quality errs on the firmer side but not to the point of unpleasantness, while the one-inch-larger 18s – usually optional on the A3 ‘35’ – seem to trade a small amount of compliance for an incrementally sharper sense of connection in steering and dynamics. It’s pleasant enough, with shades of enthusiasm around its edges.

If there’s some hyperactivity, it’s some kickback and fidgeting through the steering wheel, more often than not caused by some mild wheelspin from its slightly grumpy off-the-mark behaviour. But with full traction, the A3 is tangibly swift enough, seemingly more sprightly than its 8.2sec 0–100km/h performance claim suggests. It’s no rocketship, but it does return handy and usable pace.

The three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty might be par for the premium-marque course, but looks a bit slim compared to, say, mainstream-badged offerings such as a high-end Volkswagen Golf – with its five-year surety – that many shoppers might logically wish to cross-shop. Meanwhile, servicing is a decent $1540 for three years/45,000km inclusive, on a 12-month/15,000km per visit schedule (by comparison, a Golf Highline with parity in powertrain wants for $1356).

There’s a certain perspective here, particularly if you’re chasing Audi badge ownership, that you mightn’t perhaps care about, but you ought to know regardless. Key rival the Benz A-Class is new. And German contemporary, the BMW 1 Series, has a new generation arriving locally in a matter of weeks at the time of writing. So, while the A3 35 S line hatch is quite a nice and very likeable prospect, it really starts to feel its age once you peer outside of the Audi bubble.

Inside the Audi bubble, this A3 stacks up well in some regards, mostly as you get a swag of nice extra features for its modest $2600 premium. But there’s a lot of stuff you don’t get – LED lighting, DAB+, electric seats, leather trim, adaptive cruise control, electric-folding mirrors, the list goes on – though you really should if you look at small hatchback alternatives around, or even well under, this A3’s $43,300 ask.

We feel that at this point in its life cycle, the value equation for the A3 should be a little sweeter still in certain areas, be it on the features list or under the bonnet, than what the S line plus presents.