A founding member of the premium hatchback segment, the Audi A3 returns with a fresh new look for 2020 and beyond that shakes off the conservative image of old and comes loaded with tech and a vastly improved interior.
In the metal
This fourth-generation Audi A3 has taken what is arguably the biggest step forward in design of any previous version. A larger grille is a recurring theme for Audi models of late, so it's no surprise that the A3 also gets the enlarged 'singleframe' look. Every panel on the body of the A3 is new and these carry more curves and contours than its predecessor. It's a good look, and in the right colour the sculpted lines catch the light nicely. Adding to the appearance are new headlights with different LED daytime running light signature depending on the specification grade. Higher-spec models will include headlight units including a panel of 15 LEDs that illuminate with different patterns to denote the trim level.
As refreshing as the A3 looks from the outside, it's the interior that may be more of a surprise to people. The dashboard has a very modern look to it, with a more driver-centric layout that includes a standard 10.25-inch digital instrument display with two air vents set high on either side. That 'Virtual Cockpit' is upgradable to a larger 12.3-inch screen that already features across other models in the Audi range. All A3s also get a 10.1-inch touchscreen display for the infotainment system, which is angled slightly towards the driver.
Below that screen is a small bank of physical buttons for the climate control and optional heated seats, while beneath that are the hazard light switch and Drive Select button, as well as other optional items like parking assist. In the case of cars with the S tronic automatic gearbox, the traditional drive selector is replaced with a much smaller switch. As the transmission has moved to a shift-by-wire system, it can now operate with this smaller shifter, which in turn frees up more space between the front seats on the centre console. The engine start button is located here, along with a touch-sensitive circular controller for the audio volume functions, much like a scroll wheel on an old iPod. In the space ahead of this, there is storage for your phone and an optional wireless charging pad. Otherwise, there are also USB-A and USB-C ports.
There are reasonable amounts of passenger space in the back, with the two outer seats offering enough leg- and headroom for most average adults. Only the middle position has to compromise, due to being a little higher and having a transmission tunnel to contend with for foot room, though this is the case with most cars in this segment of the market.
You can have the Audi A3 as a 35 TFSI with a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 150hp on its own, but there will also be a mild hybrid version, which we're driving here. It is mostly the same engine save for some hardware changes in the form of a 48-volt electrical system that includes a small battery under the front passenger seat and a belt alternator starter (BAS) that connects to the engine's crankshaft. The result is not a system that powers the car via the battery, as hybrids like the Toyota Corolla would, but instead, it allows the engine to switch off when coasting. Audi says that this will decrease fuel consumption by around 0.4 litres/100km, which isn't huge, but it does help. The added refinement that the BAS and 48-volt system provides will be of greater appeal to some than the overall fuel saving. Audi is also going to offer the A3 with a plug-in hybrid system that will provide far more significant fuel savings and will benefit from a lower rate of motor tax.
In the meantime, the mild hybrid system works quite well, providing smooth running that's helped by the dual-clutch automatic seven-speed transmission. When driving at slower speeds around town and the like, it switches through gears very smoothly and seems quite responsive to throttle inputs in its default setting. Most A3 models will come with Audi's Drive Select function, which lets you choose from a selection of different characteristics. As you come to a halt in traffic, the engine quietly drops away to a stop and cleverly restarts itself, almost imperceptibly, when the car in front begins to move away. By doing this, there is no hesitation or delay in moving off. Light, but direct steering makes navigating city traffic a cinch and the removal of any effort in changing gears thanks to the S tronic transmission makes the A3 a relaxing drive.
In a bid to increase the sense of refinement, all Audi A3s will benefit from acoustic windscreens to help reduce wind noise on the move. There is still some road noise coming through the floor of the car at higher speeds, but it's far from being uncouth. The four-cylinder engine is happy to rev though it rarely seems that strained in pulling the A3 along. It's helped away from the line by the BAS that can add up to 50Nm of additional shove, though it's more of an assistance than an always-on power boost, so you don't notice it all that much.
When you do lift off the accelerator, the system is usually quick to switch off the engine and coast, using the battery power to keep all the essential systems working. For the most part you can only tell this is happening by spotting the digital tachometer resting at zero with the start/stop symbol displaying. When you touch the throttle pedal, the engine's restart is a seamless one. The only downside to the A3's mild hybrid act is that the brake pedal doesn't have a very conventional feel to it, with little action happening in the first moment of touch and then a more sudden braking force coming in as you tend to press harder. The reason for this is that the BAS tries first to recover energy to the battery and does apply some braking force by doing so, after which the physical brakes then take over. It's a smart idea, but its application needs some more refinement. In comparison to the diesel mild hybrids Audi offers, there is a more noticeable frequency in how often the engine switches off, and those chasing fuel economy records will be lifting off and coasting wherever they can.
Powertrain aside, the A3 rides with real composure. We experienced it with the more basic torsion beam rear suspension setup in the 30 TDI model and the other end of the spectrum with the optional adaptive dampers in this 35 TFSI car. The latter is a new system that replaces the magnetic system of old for a new, simpler technique that enables its dampers to operate over a broader window. It also reduces the ride height by 10mm compared to the standard suspension. The result provides for increased comfort levels that are gentle and progressive in energy absorption while still being able to firm up to give a sportier feel when either switched to Dynamic mode or when the system detects more energetic driving.
What you get for your money
With exact pricing still in the process of being confirmed, you'll have to come back for an update to this section closer to the car's launch in Ireland. Initially, the A3 is due to go on sale in 35 TFSI and 35 TDI guises, with this mild hybrid model following later on, potentially alongside a more economical 30 TDI diesel. We expect that the plug-in hybrid version will go on sale later in 2020.
The Audi A3 is now an even more appealing prospect thanks to its fresh and modern design, surpassing the BMW 1 Series and giving the Mercedes-Benz A-Class a real run for its money. Crisp handling and a good range of engines will undoubtedly broaden its appeal over the coming years.