New spy shots of the car testing show the Ingolstadt brand is following the lead of the platform-sharing Mk8 Volkswagen Golf, which hit the headlines by shedding its camouflage wrap earlier this year.
We can see that the new A3 features an evolutionary look, borrowing the geometric front-end shape from Audi's latest models, and doesn't adopt the smaller A1's bonnet vents. Yet there's one distinctive design detail we weren't expecting: chrome strips running the length of the bodywork on each side from the headlights to the tail-lights, wrapping around the tailgate.
It's not clear yet if this will make production or if Audi is just experimenting ahead of the finished design. But if it does appear when the car is unveiled, as expected, at next March's Geneva motor show, it will mark a distinct departure from the rest of the firm's range.
Exterior design boss Andreas Mindt has already promised 'big-time' exterior design changes for Audi's Mercedes-Benz A-Class rival when talking to Autocar earlier this year.
On the new car, which will be built on the second-generation Volkswagen Group MQB architecture first entering production in the Golf, Mindt said that the company “had some really good ideas” for its new staple hatchback, promising “it’ll change, big time”.
The new A3 is one of two new compact Audis in development, the other being an electric car built on the new MEB architecture. As before, the A3 will spawn a whole range of variants, including a new five-door liftback version to rival the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLA and upcoming BMW 2 Series Gran Coupé. A disguised S3 hot hatch prototype has also been spotted testing.
Mindt believes that compact cars have a big future still, despite the rise of SUVs. “I can see growth of compact cars and a future, absolutely,” he said. “We have really good ideas for that segment and to push it.”
The five-door hatchback will be the first new A3 to arrive next year, replacing the model that was introduced at the 2012 Geneva motor show. The final variant will be the five-door liftback, which isn’t expected until 2021 – the third year of the fourth-generation A3’s lifespan. The regular hatchback will be longer and wider than the current model, with the same track width but wider wheel arches and carriers.
Facing fresh competition from the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class Saloon, the next A3 Saloon will be introduced in 2020.
The new A3's engine range will include 1.0-litre, 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol units, as well a 2.0-litre TDI diesel unit in three different states of tune. A plug-in hybrid model will also come, using the same driveline as the new Volkswagen Passat GTE. There won't be an electric version, though, because Audi is developing a dedicated electric hatchback model for release in 2021. Until then, the forthcoming Q4 e-tron SUV will be the brand's smallest EV.