What was less of a surprise was that the engine powering the car was the familiar 2.0 TDi unit. This is the big seller in the range, available with two different power outputs, of 148 bhp and 177bhp. Mine was the less powerful of the two. This is a unit which was new with the launch of this generation of the A3, with belt-driven needle-bearing low-friction camshafts, belt-driven ancilliaries and twin balancer shafts all intended to improve overall refinement. Over the years, the noise generated by diesel engines has been reduced massively from the rather unpleasant sounds that they used to generate, and most of the time, there is little audible difference between derv powered and petrol units these days, but there are times when it is hard to hide the fact that the car will have visited the black pump to fill up. The most obvious of these is at start up, and from outside the car, or if you happen to have a window open, you will be in little doubt as to the fuel type. Inside the car, things are far quieter, with just a small audible clue. Get underway, and the noise pretty much disappears and indeed my notes record that cruising on the motorway or dual carriageway, it was road noise that was the most discernible, though even this was nicely muted. 148 bhp is bang on average for a car of this size and weight, so you are not going to get anything which is particularly rapid, but nor is the car in any way underpowered. It was well able to keep up with the traffic flow, from my relatively limited testing. The full benefit of the torque does not really cut in til around 2000 rpm, so the trick is to use the first couple of gears to get going, and then to drive it more like a petrol-engined car than you might think would be appropriate, though going much beyond 4000 rpm will not achieve much as the peak is in that middle rev range, where the car will be its liveliest. Where it is not like a petrol, of course, is when it comes to refuelling. Something you will not be doing that often. Stop/Start is fitted as standard, and there are plenty of other tricks, so the car’s emissions rating is a very impressive 106 g/km CO2, and this translates into good fuel consumption as well. I averaged just under 60 mpg in a test which included a mix of motorway and urban driving and some stop/start driving when I was doing the photos. That is a good result by any standard, and is one reason why this car is so popular. There are plenty of other reasons, which will become apparent as you read on. Although the 7 speed DSG automatic gearbox is an increasingly popular option, the test car came with the 6 speed manual. Every manual Audi I have driven seems to have a slicker gearchange than the last and this one did not buck that trend. The lever really does slide from ratio to ratio like the proverbial knife through butter, with just the right amount of feel so you can tell what is going on, but no resistance at all. The gate is quite narrow, but even so, I never once got the wrong plane, and selecting reverse, by pressing down and pushing the left lever and forwards alongside first was also very smooth.
The one thing which I did not like about this model’s predecessor was its steering, which, at least in the model I drove, was far too light and vague feeling. I recall asking my neighbour of the time, who owned a similar car, if he had ever come to terms with it, and he just shrugged his shoulders, saying it made the car easy to manoeuvre. That may have been true, but it was one reason why the ever-critical UK press really did not take to the A3. I noted that they were much more positive about the third generation model, so guessed that it was perhaps rather better in this respect. And it so it proved to be. You can alter the steering set up using the Drive Select system with four settings available but even on the heaviest setting, the A3 still does not have the precision and perfect feel of a Ford or a Mazda, but it is far better. You can now tell what the front wheels will do as result of your movements of the wheel, and as you turn it, the system does gain weight in quite a nice linear way. One consequence of the MQB platform is that the position of the engine and gearbox relative to the front axle is fixed. It has meant that petrol and diesel models now have the engine mounted in the same way (the petrol was inclined forwards and the diesel rearwards in the previous generation), tilted 12 degrees towards the rear. As well as reducing the size of the engine bay and front overhang, this change was also intended to improve the handling, something that the press also found not to their liking in previous models. Despite the S-Line badging, this is not a sports car or even a particularly sporty car. That means that you will get tidy and controlled handling, with a tendency if you push really hard, for understeer. Will this be evident in ordinary motoring? Probably not, so although the press continue to make a big deal out of it, owners generally do not, and I certainly did not find any issue the way I drove the car. This being an S-Line, riding on 18″ 225/40 tyres, you may fear for the ride quality, but in fact this Audi proved generally very compliant, and as good as anything else in its class or above at dealing with the varied and often poor road surfaces of Britain. There was never anything wrong with the brakes before and there still is not. There is a good feel from the pedal, with progressive pressure bringing the car nicely to a halt. The conventional handbrake of the previous generation has been replaced by an electronic system with a button in the centre console. I dislike these arrangements, especially when combined with a manual gearbox, as the system is not fool-proof and it does make manoeuvres on even quite modest gradients far more fiddly and difficult than they used to be. Visibility is generally good. There are quite thick C pillars on the 3 door A3, but these did not constitute much of a problem and there was a good field of view from the door mirrors.
Whilst the outside of this third generation A3 may have represented something of a cautious evolution from its predecessor, inside there has been a more radical change. The clues as to the future direction of the Audi cockpit came with the much slimmer dash of the latest A6 and A7 models launched a year previously, and the trend continues in this car. Quality standards – never anything short of excellent and class-leading – have taken another giant leap forwards, as well. Many have wondered just how Audi can offer something quite so beautifully produced in a car that lists for under £20,000, but they have. It means that this will be a very nice place to spend a lot of time in, something which a lot of (business) users will doubtless be doing. The restrained simplicity combines with soft-touch, perfect plastic mouldings, augmented by classy brushed aluminium inlays and well-considered use of chrome highlights to produce something that is way better than any rival. The steering wheel had a flat bottom to it. It is leather wrapped, as you would expect, and was particularly pleasant to hold. There is a single cowl covering the instruments, which number two large dials: speedometer and rev counter. Set in the bottom right quadrant of these are a series of illuminated dashes in curved bar chart style displays for fuel level and water temperature. All are clearly marked and easy to read. Between the dials is the information centre which shows not just the odometer and trip readings, outside temperature and the time, but also an area which can show average speed and consumption data or a digital repeat of your speed, which you select by pressing the buttons on the left hand steering wheel spoke. Column stalks which are identical to those you will find in all current VAG Group products operate indicators and the cruise control on the left and front and rear wipers on the right. Lights are controlled by a rotary dial on the dash to the right of the wheel. The centre of the dash has two chrome-ringed circular air vents in the style of a jet fighter’s exhaust, which match the pair mounted at either end of the dash, below which are a thin line of switches for minor controls like the hazard warning lights and Stop/Start system, and below this another thin line with three small rotary knobs that flank switches for the climate control system. There is a slim 7″ colour display screen for the Audio system, and Sat Nav when fitted, which powers up out of the top centre of the dash when the ignition is switched on. It manages to look like it was planned, as opposed to the “stuck on iPad” look of some rivals. You operate this using the MMI controls in the centre console, which comprise a mix of mouse-like turn wheel and four buttons which surround it and also incorporates a new MMI Touch function where the top of the controller is a contact pad on which you can trace letters for the sat nav or phone. It is all very simple and intuitive. There are small repeater buttons for common audio functions on the steering wheel boss.
Space is not lacking in the front of the A3. There is plenty of adjustment for the seats, and you can sit really quite low, lower than was possible in the old model. You adjust the seats manually, with a looped lever under the base of the seat for fore/aft adjustment, and a turn wheel on the side for backrest rake and a height adjuster also there. The column had in/out and up/down adjustment, so getting the perfect driving position was easy. The seat itself, trimmed half in soft touch leather, with cloth central sections, proved very comfortable. Getting in and out of the back on this three door car is not that easy, as there is quite a narrow space to clamber through, but once installed, there is a decent amount of space for the occupants. Three might prove a squeeze if they were broad-shouldered, and leg room is an issue for anyone in the middle of the seat as there is a centre console which extends well back, but for the outer seat occupants, there is ample space. Headroom is sufficiently generous. There are a pair of cup holders that spring out from the lower part of the centre of the seat squab and armrests in the side of the bodywork. I can’t help but think that if you regularly carry passengers in the back, certainly adults, you would be better off with the 5 dor Sportback, though the three door would be fine for children, and has the advantage that they are securely in place with no doors to open when you did not want them to do so. The boot is slightly larger than on the last generation car. The false floor is flush with the opening lip, meaning that there is a bit of space underneath for odds and ends to go around the space saver spare wheel. The boot is a nice regular shape, with squared off sides, which means that there are various cubbies in the side, in which you can also store bits and pieces where they will not roll around the main luggage area. More space can be created by folding down the asymmetrically split rear seat backs, which creates a platform which slopes up very slightly, but is otherwise level. There is no protection for the front seats from anything that slides forward such as under emergency braking. For odds and ends inside the cabin, there is a decently sized glovebox, bins on the front doors, a cubby under the central armrest, and a pair of cupholders in front of the gearlever. Rear passengers get useful little cubbies in the side mouldings under the armrests.
There is a long list of A3 models to choose from, even when you’ve narrowed down the body style. First thing to choose is the engine. The available units has changed over the years, with the 2015 range consisting of an array of petrol and diesel models, as well as the e-tron hybrid, and the sporting S3 and RS3 cars. Petrol choices include a 110 bhp 1.2 TFSi unit, a 1.4 TFSi in two power levels of 125 and 150 bhp as well as the 1.8 TFSI 180 bhp unit, the 2 litre Turbocharged S3 and the 5 cylinder 2.5 litre RS3, whilst the big selling diesels are offered in 110 bhp 1.6 TDi regular and super-efficient Ultra guise as well as the larger capacity 2.0 TDi offering 149 or 177 bhp. Some models are offered with Quattro all-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox is available, again with some engine and trim combinations. Once you get to the trim, then the starting point is the SE, which is followed by SE Technik, Sport and then S-Line. Not all trims are available with all the engine choices, with the more costly trims only offered with the more powerful engines. Even the SE model is decently equipped these days, with the standard spec including: an alarm; 16″ alloy wheels; xenon headlights; front fog lights; electric front windows; heated mirrors; manual air conditioning; cloth seats, MMI Infotainment with the 7″ retractable screen, DAB radio, 8 speakers, 1x SD reader, CD slot and MP3 player, AUX and Bluetooth, leather trimmed steering wheel, front centre armrest; split folding rear seats, light and rain sensors. Upgrade to an SE Technik, and you gain: a different design of 16″ alloy wheel, cruise control; rear parking sensors; MMI Plus building on the standard offering with added Navigation and a space saver spare wheel. The Sport adds 17″ alloys, sport suspension lowered by 15mm compared to the standard Dynamic Suspension, with stiffer suspension and damping for more direct contact with the road and sportier handling, dual zone automated climate control, a flat bottomed leather wrapped steering wheel and sports seats; aluminium interior elements which mean an aluminium finish in the following areas: air vents, electric window switches, glove compartment release, wing-mirror adjustment switches, frame around the inside door handle, control buttons for the parking brake and the hold-assist button. S-Line brings with it the S-Line badging, 18″ alloys, partial leather seat trim, brushed aluminium trim inlays, stainless steel pedals; black headliner; the LED Interior Lighting Pack which in addition to the standard interior lighting gives illuminated vanity mirrors, Illuminated cup holders, courtesy lighting on the exterior door handles for easy entry and exit in the dark, ambient lighting in the centre console, lighting for footwells, reading lights and active door reflectors; the Storage Pack which includes storage nets on the backs of the front seat backrests, a storage net in the front passenger footwell, storage compartment under the rear seat, a 12V socket in rear console and in the luggage compartment: an additional multi-fastening point and net in the side compartment (excludes quattro engines), a luggage securing net , 12V socket and LED luggage compartment light. There are pages and pages of options, starting with colour of the exterior paint and interior trim and extending through wheel designs, and some pricey features such as the Sat Nav system, as well as plenty of ones which are more personal choice. It would be easy to get carried away and end up with a car which costs far more than the quoted list price, something which certainly happens with Press Fleet cars, but less commonly with dealer cars or the ones that people actually buy.
That the third generation A3 has continued the sales success of its predecessors should surprise no-one, Whilst not exactly an exciting car in this spec, but then nor are any of its rivals, either, this is a supremely competent car that is beautifully finished, comfortable, and pleasant to drive. Couple that with a combination of low lease rates, tax-efficient emissions ratings and decent fuel economy, and you can see why this is now the sort of car which dominates business fleets in the way that the Focus and Astra used to do. It has no real weaknesses, and would be a pleasure to own.