What is it?
It’s the all-new, third generation Audi A3. It is notable not only because it is Audi’s biggest-selling model in the UK and a big-selling staple in the global market, but also because it is the first VW Group model to get the new MQB platform.
This ultra-flexible platform will be used to underpin everything from superminis to executive saloons. It won’t only be prolific; it also results in a new, cheaper and more efficient way of manufacturing, allowing different models to share more common parts and production facilities than before. So expect to see it in just about all of the big-selling VW brand models.
We’re testing the Audi A3 2.0 TDI, in mid-range Sport trim and complete with front-wheel drive, standard 17-inch alloys, the 2.0-litre turbodiesel (now substantially lighter and modified to produce 148bhp and improve emissions) and the optional, £1480 seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch 'auto.
Trim levels are the usual SE, Sport and S line, and all but SE get 15mm lowered suspension as standard. However, this option can be deleted in favour of a standard suspension setting at no cost, which is exactly the version we’re testing here.
What is it like?
Very good. On first acquaintance it’s actually the clean lines and simple ergonomics of the interior that most impress. Undoubtedly the high spec of our test car, which came with the full navigation system and leather interior amongst other optional extras, played a part in the premium sensation. But even the basic architecture oozes high-class appeal. The seats could be a bit more supportive, but otherwise the A3 is easy to get comfortable in, intuitive to use and feels appropriately solid in every respect.
Those concerned about rear passenger space will undoubtedly want to wait for the five-door model that arrives later this year. This three-door model is perfectly adequate (if unexceptional) in terms of its rear accommodation and usefully-shaped 365 litre boot.
The dynamics have improved, too, even if the A3 remains a slightly sterile drive. The ride in particular is much more pliant at low speeds. It’s a little unsettled over bigger vertical intrusions at higher speeds, but even over off-camber roads and with cornering forces involved, the A3 remains planted but forgiving. On this early evidence, deleting the sports suspension is a good move. Body control is a little soft by typical Audi standards, but it’s never even remotely unsettling and undoubtedly it’s a very fair trade for the good ride comfort.
The A3 still handles well. Both SE and S line (which will account for the majority of sales) get 'Audi select' as standard, which brings with it a variable steering and gearbox setting. Select dynamic and the steering weights up substantially, and with the S tronic 'box in 'sport' the A3 2.0 TDI sings along in a stable, grippy and flowing fashion. It’s not hugely involving, but it is a pleasant and predictable thing to drive quickly, and the venerable 2.0 TDI provides a decent mid-range swell on which you can make rapid progress without difficulty.
The new A3 generally feels more light-footed than its predecessor – potentially due to the weight that has been saved by the use of aluminium. The A3 remains pretty much the same size but for a marginally longer wheelbase.
Stick in auto, and the steering is too often on the light and disconnected side, and the gearbox can be caught out, too, feeling a touch lethargic generally, and dim-witted in its down-changes under more vigorous use. Still, in unhurried driving the A3 2.0 TDI is notable for its refinement. Engine noise is very audible under throttle, but otherwise it’s well suppressed by big diesel standards.
Overall, though, we’d avoid the automatic in favour of the sweet-shifting manual, not only for the savings made on purchase price, but also because it’s a more pleasant drive and a cleaner car – a very impressive 68.9mpg and 106g/km next to the 62.7mpg and 119g/km that the auto' manages.
Should I buy one?
Yes. The A3 is not cheap, with this model coming in at over £24k (it’s £22,730 without the auto 'box), but Sport models are reasonably specced to include climate control, various aluminium style highlights, sports seats, multi-function wheel and a colour infotainment screen.
Ultimately, the new A3 is not a dazzlingly different experience to the old A3. But it has been improved in exactly the areas it needed improving, and it is now a more comfortable, better looking and even more pleasant and efficient place to cover many miles. The planted, accessible handling bodes well for other models using the MQB platform, and it is undoubtedly one of the most rounded cars in this class.
Audi A3 2.0 TDI Sport S tronic
Price: £24,210; 0-62mph: 8.5sec; Top speed: 134mph; Economy: 62.7mpg; Co2: 119g/km; Kerb weight: 1280kg; Engine type: 1968cc, 4cyl, turbodiesel; Power: 148bhp at 3500-4000rpm; Torque: 236lb ft at 1750-3000rpm; Gearbox: 7spd S tronic.