Audi A3 Sportback 35 TDI S tronic S line 2020 review
1 April 2020 - autocar
Bolder design, more choice and improved driving dynamics make the A3 stand out more than ever.
What is it?
Since its introduction in 1999, the Audi A3 has been the conservative and consistent, if somewhat predictable, option in the premium family hatchback class. Now into its fourth generation, there's no longer a three-door body, but to compensate, the designers have delivered a more appealing design for the five-door Sportback version.
Just like its new-generation Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf relations, the new A3 uses an evolution of the Volkswagen Group's ubiquitous MQB platform, with enhancements to accommodate a wider spread of powertrain options that will include mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants.
Three main specifications will make up the A3 offering: Sport, Technik and S line, with each receiving subtle exterior styling differences. In the case of Technik and S line, the headlights feature a small panel of 15 LEDs that provides different light signatures for each version to give greater visual differentiation. Audi distinguishes the S line exterior further with larger honeycomb structures for the side vents and the three Quattro-inspired (blanked-off) slots in the front of the bonnet. Higher-spec Edition 1 and Vorsprung versions will arrive after the start of sales.
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.
Every A3 will come with a 10.25in digital instrument display as standard, with Audi offering a larger 12.3in version (as already featured in several of its other models) as an optional upgrade. There's also a 10.1in touchscreen that runs Audi's latest MIB3 infotainment system. Smartphone mirroring for Android and Apple devices is available, although not wirelessly at launch. Usefully, there are both USB-A and USB-C ports in the centre console and an angled wireless device charging pad.
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.
The A3's seats are also new and, in a bid to improve its environmental credentials, Audi now uses materials for the inlays that are manufactured from recycled PET bottles. According to the company, each A3 uses 45 discarded 1.5-litre plastic bottles in every set of seats with the new material.
Aside from that, there's 6mm more elbow room in the front 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 remains the same as in the previous generation, at 380 litres, and this increases to 1200 litres when the rear seats are folded forward. From Sport specification up, these are split 40:20:40, rather than 40:60.
What's it like?
Audi hasn't enjoyed a stellar reputation for giving its cars involving steering feel, but while the A3 isn't pitched as the last bastion of engaging dynamics, most buyers will likely have no cause for complaint.
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 incredibly biddable 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 (available from Sport trim). 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.
Better in operation is the adaptive suspension, again an option, which lowers the ride height by 10mm. It uses a new system with specially designed valves in the dampers to alter the rate of flow, thus allowing for a greater difference between the Comfort and Sport settings than previous systems. Driven back to back with an A3 on passive suspension, the greater distinction between the settings is immediately obvious. However, the standard setup still offers a good compromise between comfort and body control, so the upgrade isn't strictly necessary.
An 11mm-wider track raises cornering speeds and stability across the board, in comparison to the outgoing A3, but the sophistication of the suspension underneath varies considering 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. Finally, the S line comes with a stiffer passive set-up as standard, reducing ride height and the centre of gravity by 15mm. All of the A3's engines have been re-engineered, and in the case of the 35 TDI (2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel), this has resulted in quieter operation. It certainly feels smoother than previous iterations of this unit did, too. When matched with the S tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox, it makes for an ideal long-distance driver. All diesel A3 engines also gain a twin-dosing AdBlue system to help reduce NOx emissions, especially at higher speeds.
A few months after initial rollout in the UK, the A3 line-up will expand with the introduction of a 114bhp diesel version (still a 2.0-litre but badged 30 TDI) with a more tempting BIK tax rate - as low as 21% depending on spec - that will undoubtedly appeal to company car drivers. While maintaining a similar power output to the older 1.6-litre TDI engine, the only noticeable area that this 2.0-litre unit concedes to its more powerful relation is outright acceleration. Once up to speed, it clips along nicely, and a drive with the six-speed manual confirms that this less potent version still makes for a sensible buy.
Smoother still is the 48V mild-hybrid petrol 35 TFSI. Its BAS (belt alternator starter) ensures near-seamless engine restarts at the traffic lights and can provide for engine-off coasting at up to 100mph to save fuel. The only blot in its copybook is a wooden-feeling brake pedal, presumably due to how it links with the mild hybrid system to provide energy recuperation when slowing. The turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine will be available without the BAS, featuring the cylinder-on-demand technology that enables it to run on two cylinders during lighter engine loads.
Should I buy one?
Regardless which engine you go for, the A3's core strengths are its exterior design, a significantly improved interior and a more polished driving experience than before. It bodes well for the model line as it expands to sportier S3 models and beyond.