Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - ANDREW CROWLEY
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – ANDREW CROWLEY

Five-door hatchbacks such as this were unassailable as Europe’s go-to family carriers. Compact, nippy, easy to park and own, the Golf/Focus/Astra/308 class is still Europe’s most popular, but SUV derivatives and upsized B-class cars and SUVs have taken great chunks out of the C-segment hatchback sales volumes.

And not so long ago this C-segment was a non-premium playground, but jealous green German eyes watched the march of mass-produced excellence making healthy profit, along with sufficient sales volume to provide a low-cost kit of parts for more new models both larger and smaller.

Finally, Mercedes produced the A-class, BMW its 1-series and Audi the A3 as “premium” alternatives to what they told us was non-premium – but in many cases the supposed humdrum was a lot better but didn’t bear a coveted badge.

The A3 first appeared in 1996 and sold OK ish, but few were under any misapprehensions that it was simply a posher Volkswagen Golf. Last year the fourth generation was launched, when the three-door bodyshell was ditched.

The word launch, however, has changed rather a lot in the last year, with electric cars now providing more news value as diverted investment cash pours in, traditional Ritzy car launches on foreign soil now a memory and, in the case of the Audi, there’s of course a new Golf model, the eighth generation of what has become an institution.

Frankly, the latest Golf hasn’t pulled up many trees, although the GTI version just arriving in the UK is a thing of rare technical wonderment.

Intelligent design

So here is the new A3, offering a chimera of technical virtuosity that goes with the four-ringed badge. From the dead front it looks like just about every other Audi, so when one is driving up your boot you’ll not know if it’s a Lamborghini-engined monster estate or a librarian popping down to the shops in a diminutive hatchback.

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - Andrew Crowley
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – Andrew Crowley

As the light catches the bodywork’s cuts and creases, you understand just what an intelligent design this is. Not that it’s uniformly lovely; the grille, for example, is far too large and pronounced, making it the Cyrano de Bergerac of hatches.

There will be three trim levels in the UK: Sport, Technik and S-Line, with a slightly tweaked exterior trim for each and the top-specification Vorsprung and Edition-1 versions arriving later this year. In time there will be hybrid and plug-in hybrid models and we’re due to see a 2.0-litre turbodiesel this year, but for the moment this is it, the 1.5-litre petrol four-cylinder.

The interior – like a stormy day

Climb in and the all-grey interior hits you like a stormy day, but the stark monochrome leaves the facia style to do the work and mostly it does, although parts of it, such as the air vents flanking the instrument binnacle, looked as if they’d escaped from the set of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds.

For the most part, however, it’s classy and sophisticated. An illuminated green keyline boldly splits the top and bottom of the dash, illuminated switches are a retro delight and everything from the gear lever to the hazard warning switch moves with such a satisfying click.

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - Andrew Crowley
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – Andrew Crowley

Graphics and colours on the touchscreens are as good as anything that’s come out of Mercedes-Benz digital studio in Stuttgart, while the colour choice is well thought out, too, so you can actually see when the headlight main-beam warning is on.

It’s not all great; the control logic of the generic VW Group touchscreens is frustrating beyond belief and a Lilliputian knurled plastic wheel on the steering wheel is not substitute for a proper radio volume control, especially if you have big fingers. Oh, and the connectivity system keeps up constant requests for reassurance – usually when you are concentrating on something else.

Having a separate panel for the heater controls is good practice, but the central touchscreen is still tasked with, erm, too many tasks. Thankfully there’s a button to turn off the intrusive self-centring steering.

Comfort and joy

Its sports seats are upholstered with a combination of leather and recycled PET bottles, and are good looking, comfortable and supportive with lots of adjustment, although the heated option costs £330 and the four-way lumbar support is another £260.

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - Andrew Crowley
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – Andrew Crowley

The driving position is excellent, however, with lots of steering-wheel adjustment and plenty of room around the well-spaced pedals. There’s also reasonably generous and useful storage space around the driver and front-seat passenger.

Not so on the rear bench where there’s head room but little leg room. Sitting behind myself, my knees were firmly buried in the seat backs. The boot seems larger than the previous model’s, although at 380 litres it’s the same; with Herbie the Labrador self-isolating, there’s no canine verdict for you on the luggage space.

There’s room for a spacesaver spare wheel under the boot floor, but none was included. The rear seats fold on to their bases so the maximum load bed isn’t entirely flat, and in the higher-specification models they are split 40/20/40 per cent rather than 40/60.

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - Andrew Crowley
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – Andrew Crowley

The most popular version is likely to be this, the 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol with 148bhp and 184lb ft. These are magic numbers, as from this point upward the A3 loses the twist-beam rear suspension of lesser versions and gains a technically superior multi-link independent set-up. The font is suspended via industry-standard MacPherson struts.

The top speed is quoted at 139mph, 0-62mph in 8.4sec, with WLTP fuel consumption of 45.6mpg (we got 44.6mpg) and CO2 emissions of 142g/km.

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line - tested January 2021 - Andrew Crowley
Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line – tested January 2021 – Andrew Crowley

On the road

It’s a smooth and quiet unit, with a gutsy throttle response, though there is a bit of lag and below 1,250rpm it doesn’t really want to know. Best is between 2,000rpm and 4,000rpm, where, with an imperious whoosh, the A3 easily accelerates past traffic or out of bends.

It’s well matched to the six-speed manual gearbox, which is a delight to use with a lovely positive gate.

On the passive steel suspension of our test car, there are only so many changes that can be wrought by the driving mode selections of: Efficiency; Comfort; Auto; Dynamic; and Individual, with throttle response and steering weight being the most notable. Dynamic settings are unconvincing, just adding weight and a strange over-centre feel to the steering.

the higher-specification models they are split 40/20/40 per cent rather than 40/60. - Andrew Crowley
the higher-specification models they are split 40/20/40 per cent rather than 40/60. – Andrew Crowley

Our car was fitted with £240’s worth of progressive steering and a £115 flat-bottomed steering wheel. Leave the latter in the brochure, but consider the former. In all its modes the variable-ratio steering isn’t over-endowed with feedback, but there’s enough to be able to predict behaviour and place the car on difficult roads, while allowing a speedier ratio to ease parking.

The chassis feedback adds to the sense of confidence the car imparts and while some will find the springing slightly harsh, the body control is first rate; supple and not crashy over bumps and potholes.

Even on 225/40/18 Bridgestone tyres, which aren’t always the finest-riding rubber, the A3’s ride quality is really good, though it is a bit noisy from the front.

Conclusion

Just occasionally, a particular model in the VW Group’s huge clutch of badges hits the spot; the stars come into alignment and a model surpasses its much-shared platform and parts, to remain in the memory as an exemplar of its type.

The new A3’s superlative ride and handling, in tandem with this modestly powerful and refined drivetrain, is a dynamic object lesson on what can be done with a set of quite similar components.

You wouldn’t feel short-changed with this car, or the victim of badge engineering. You might feel frustrated with the frankly awful touchscreen logic, however, and that’s why it only gets four stars – but in just about every way, this is a better Golf.

The facts

Audi A3 Sportback 35 TFSI 150PS S-Line

TESTED 1,498cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE range from £27,275, £30,830 OTR as tested/now

POWER/TORQUE 148bhp @ 5,000rpm/184 lb ft @ 1,800rpm

TOP SPEED 139mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.4sec

FUEL ECONOMY 45.6mpg (WLTP), 44.6mpg on test

CO2 EMISSIONS 142g/km

VED £215 first year, then £150

VERDICT It’s easy to poke fun at the Audi A3 as a piece of supreme badge engineering, given its Golf underpinnings, but this fourth-generation model in S-Line trim with the VW Group 1.5 turbo has genuine merit in its own right. It’s a fine and refined car, with a rare combination of ride quality and handling and (if you can live with the super-annoying touchscreen) interior excellence.

TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars four out of five

The rivals

Volkswagen Golf R-Line Edition 1.5 TSI EVO, from £27,030

Also built on VW’s MQB A8 platform, but with the old car so good, it’s hard to see where VW could improve and the new touchscreen interface is confusing and distracting. Rides and handles well, but the Audi has the edge and to get the Golf up there, you need to invest in full adaptive damping, which is nice, but expensive.

Peugeot 308 GT Premium 1.2 130PS, from £27,380

Yes, it’s a non-premium rival, but the 308 is a cut above, with a lovely interior and sleek looks. Reliance on the Group’s 1.2-litre engine leaves this model gasping a bit compared with the 1.5 VW unit, but it drives well and as long as you can get used to the Digital i cockpit it is a grown-up alternative.

Mercedes-Benz A-class 200 Sport, from £26,210

Punching out 160bhp from just 1.33 litres is a big ask, but it makes the Merc hatch feel punchier than the competition. The Sport trim level is about where you want to start as well, but if you spend enough on the options list you can have a superlative digital dashboard as well. The smallest Merc is by no means the least, but we’d be inclined to splash out on the A250.

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