Audi's class-defining upmarket hatchback gets a fresh look and some new digital technology

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The Audi A3 was the original upmarket family hatchback and it now has 25 years and several model generations of success behind it. It remains Audi UK's biggest-selling car by some distance, outselling its nearest in-house rival by about a factor of two.

So while it's no longer Britain's favourite compact premium operator (take a bow, the Mercedes A-Class), it's still very much the kind of smallish car that's rather a big deal for its maker.

Now halfway through its fourth generation, the car has been treated to a mild nip and tuck and an equipment upgrade in a bid to bolster its ability to compete with its key rivals. Just like its Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf relations, it continues to use an evolution of the Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous MQB platform, with enhancements to accommodate a wider spread of powertrain options that include mild hybrid, plug-in hybrid and, whisper it, even old-fashioned diesel-engined variants.

The A3 remains available as a (curiously popular) compact saloon or, as driven here, in five-door Sportback guise - and while neither has been radically reinvented, a decently extensive package of visual, technological and mechanical revisions make this a tangibly different proposition from the outgoing car, which was itself updated as recently as 2021.

Changes to the standard car are particularly subtle – at least until a heavily upgraded plug-in hybrid is added to the ranks in late 2024 – but the hot Audi S3 has been more tangibly overhauled. 



Audi A3 Sportback badge2

Few facelifts are so literal: the obvious giveaway here is the slightly higher-mounted, slimmer-looking four-ringed badge on the front. But there's also a wider grille and a new mock rear diffuser on sportier-looking S Line and Black Edition models; loads of new colour and trim options; and trick new headlights that let you choose from one of four customisable LED running light 'signatures'. As a feature, it's farily technically impressive, though it's unlikely to cut much mustard when you're justifying what you like most about it.

Perhaps it's no great surprise that Audi has chosen to avoid a more drastic restyle for one of its stalwart models, particularly when it wasn't in dire need of updating visually in the first place.

I'm pleased to see Audi sticking with a diesel engine in a car like this, which gives people choice on what kind of economical option best suits them. The list of manufacturers who've dropped them from their hatchback ranges – BMW, Honda, Citroën, Cupra, Hyundai, Kia and Vauxhall – gets longer and longer.

This remains a conventionally handsome and convincingly premium take on the hatchback formula. The revised A3 has more than enough of an opulent aura to mark it out as a cut above its Skoda and Volkswagen cousins – and that remains true even of smaller-wheeled, lower-specification models. It's very much a mid-sized car within its class, so it offers enough cabin space for growing kids and smaller adults but won't pack in people and luggage as the likes of a Skoda Octavia or Honda Civic can. And then, of course, there are C-segment crossover SUVs like the Nissan QashqaiKia Sportage and new Mini Countryman for those with a desire for greater space and convenience to consider – and plenty clearly are.

Of particular kerb appeal among the A3 line-up is the rugged new A3 Allstreet, which has no real off-road credentials but has the necessary cladding, raised suspension and softer damping to suit the UK’s knackered, hedge-lined B-roads nicely. Shame it’s not coming here, then.

The updated A3 comes with either 1.5-litre petrol or 2.0-litre diesel engines, all mildly hybridised and carried over from the pre-facelift car. There's a sub-£30k, 1.5-litre, 114bhp 30 TFSI entry-level model, with a manual gearbox, for those keen on value; and then the two 148bhp, 35 TFSI and 35 TDI models. Later in 2024, Audi's revised 45 TFSIe plug-in hybrid will arrive as well, likely with a significantly improved electric-only range.  

Meanwhile, the 35 TDI still stands up as a commendably long-legged proposition, with an obvious economy edge: 58.9mpg on the WLTP cycle plays the 35 TFSI petrol’s 54.3mpg, and that contrast will be starker still if you spend a lot of time at 70mph.


Audi A3 Sportback dash

Anyone stepping out of the relatively minimalist cabin of the previous A3 and into this new one will be in for a shock, albeit mostly a pleasant one. There is a wider variety of materials and a dashboard that is, to a degree, split in two, with a more driver-focused design.

Audi acknowledges that this generation of A3 has been criticised since its 2020 launch for the finish and design of its interior, and the priority for its mid-life update was to give the cabin a quality and charisma boost. So there are now illuminated door panels (30 colours available), redesigned air vents with optional chrome surrounds, a smaller gearshifter and a raft of new upmarket materials and colour schemes.

Plus, the infotainment runs the latest generation of Audi’s software – giving access to in-built apps, 5G data connectivity and various paid-for functions on demand – and the standard kit list has been extended to include a wireless phone charger, ambient lighting, and comfort air-con.

The result is a cabin environment that straddles the contentious digital-physical divide to great effect. The touchscreen – nicely integrated and unobtrusive – has crisp graphics and swift processing speeds, with its menus laid out sensibly, and easy access to the functions you’ll want to use on the move. But it’s far from omnipotent, with the A3 retaining a healthy smattering of physical toggles, switches and buttons across the dashboard, console and steering wheel - each sensibly placed and with a satisfying tactility about it. 

Top marks too for the ADAS integration: you only need to press one physical button to bring up the electronic driver aids, so turning off the speed limit and lane keeping bongs is the work of five seconds and doesn't distract you any more than it absolutely needs to.

As in other smaller models in the Audi range, there isn’t a secondary touchscreen for the climate control settings. Instead, there’s a small cluster in the lower section of the dashboard with easy-to-reach physical buttons that make frequent adjustments possible without glancing away from the road. This is the preferable set-up in our opinion.

Aside from that, and as there was before this facelift, there’s 6mm more elbow room in the front than the pre-2020 car, and 3mm more in the rear, thanks to an increase in the car’s width. A 7mm increase in front head room and 2mm more shoulder room are also welcome, if small, improvements.

The boot capacity of the A3 Sportback remains the same as in the previous generation, at 380 litres, and this increases to 1200 litres when the rear seats are folded forward.


Audi A3 Sportback panning

For now, there's a bit of a chasm between the kind of performance offered by the 35-badged A3s and the newly powerful S3 hot hatchback. The 45 TFSIe will help to plug this when it arrives but, as it is, if you like a premium proposition with a bit more oomph than the average bear, Audi isn't catering for you particularly well.

Go for an A3 Sportback 35 TFSI S-tronic like our test car, for example, and the performance level feels adequate but a little way short of being assertive or assured. The 1.5-litre TSI engine works away quietly at normal revs, yet it can become a slightly strained at higher revs and loads and, while perfectly acceptable, it never really lifts the A3 above a sense of the ordinary in anything that it does.

Audi's 2.0-litre TDI lump is still a bit of a grumbly chugger by comparison, although there’s plenty of torque in reserve at the low end, and it’s paired with a quick-witted seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox that shifts smoothly and quickly enough to take the edge off this powertrain’s rougher edges. (It pairs equally well with the 35 TFSI petrol.) 

Audi's plug-in hybrid A3 is set to offer more than 60 miles of electric range when it arrives. So we’d hesitate to name a pick of the bunch at this stage, but safe to say the A3 has most bases covered already – with perhaps the choicest powertrain still to come. 


Audi A3 Sportback frontcorner2

Audi hasn’t enjoyed a stellar reputation for making its cars involving to drive. But while the A3 isn’t pitched as the last bastion of engaging dynamics, most buyers are likely to have little cause for complaint about how it gets down the road.

All of the models we drove came equipped with Audi’s optional Progressive Steering, which uses a variable-ratio rack. This makes the steering more direct the more you turn the wheel, which is great for parking, because you can get from lock to lock speedily, but it also makes the A3 feel fairly keen when attacking a sequence of especially tight corners. The variable ratio allows this without making the steering overly sensitive at or near the straight-ahead position. It’s a worthwhile upgrade no matter where you spend most of your time driving. Incidentally, the standard power steering system is electromechanical with speed-sensitive assistance.

Drivers can further adjust the feel of the steering by toggling through the different modes in the Drive Select function. We found that it was only the sportier Dynamic mode that made any real difference, predictably weighting up the steering to require more input force from the driver. And actually, as you wind on lock in this setting, there’s an unpleasant amount of resistance, so we feel the steering is best left in the default mode.

Entry-level, Sport-specification A3s come on 17in wheels and standard suspension. S Line and Black Edition versions get lowered sport suspension (15mm lower than standard) and 18in alloys. Audi offers a third, adaptively damped suspension option in other markets, but it isn't available in the UK – and it's a bit of a miss. Because our Black Edition test car was certainly quite noisy- and coarse-riding over more resonant surfaces, and while it didn't feel uncomfortably firmly suspended or harsh over bumps, it would certainly have benefited from some extra adjustability in its ride. 

The sophistication of the suspension underneath the car varies a little in other ways across the line-up. If your A3 has less than 148bhp, it gets a torsion-beam rear axle. The more powerful variants benefit from superior multi-link suspension with a separate spring and damper design. We will report on the influence of the cheaper rear axle when we test a 30 TFSI.


Audi A3 Sportback frontcorner1

The A3 Sportback 35 TFSI is capable of returning 50mpg at a mixed cruise without particular effort and the 35 TDI can hit 55mpg in comparable running. That's competitive economy for a combustion-engined hatchback in 2024, but no better.

Audi's 45 TFSIe is expected to do better, depending on regular charging, although the car's benefit-in-kind tax performance is likely to be what sells it.

Prices start from just under £29,000, which is competitive enough, but expect a typical A3 to cost mid-£30,000s, with a 45 TFSI e unlikely to give you change from £40,000.

Entry-level cars now get heated front seats, three-zone climate control, digital instruments, wireless device charging and USB-C charging ports for the back seats. Go for an S Line instead and you now get colour-selectable ambient lighting among other things.


Audi A3 Sportback static

However it’s propelled, and largely irrespective of its specification, the A3 remains one of the biggest-feeling small cars around. It’s generously equipped in all forms, is finished with excellent attention to detail, rides firmly (and a little noisily, depending on spec) but never harshly, and holds up impressively in long-distance running. It's still expensive, but justifiably so in plenty of ways. 

Some would probably prefer more powerful mid-range engines and more assured performance, but more powertrains are coming on stream over the next few months, and we're particularly interested to measure the real-world efficiency and performance of the new plug-in hybrid.

But we'd wager you'd be pretty well served by whichever Audi A3 you decide is right for you, so long as you choose the trim level carefully. S Line and Black Edition models come with some refinement compromises and it's a shame Audi UK isn't offering adaptive damping. For many, sticking with Sport trim will make sense in more ways than just financial.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi A3 Sportback First drives