The handsome new A3 hatchback is cut from the same top-quality cloth as Audi's A8 flagship
Smart 3 Piece Suit PHOTOS: TORQUE

If the Volkswagen Golf Mk 7 is indeed the sliced bread of the continental hatchback buffet, the Audi A3 Mk 3 would be a designer eclair, with fresh icing on top. Both are “baked” from the same basic “dough” (a brand-new VW Group platform called MQB), but the Audi “bakery” uses superior ingredients and exercises greater care during production, because the A3 has always been more expensive than the equivalent Golf.

The dimensions and proportions of this third-generation A3 appear identical to the preceding model’s at first glance, but a second look would reveal the more sophisticated styling. For instance, the wing mirrors are now mounted on the doors (as with the TT and the R8), the flanks have ditched the dated colour-coded rubbing strip in favour of a “dynamic” design line above the sill, and the door handles have been changed to
the more substantial grab-type.

At the front, Audi’s signature single-frame grille is flanked by the most striking light clusters in the business - the A3 is also slated to be the fi rst car in its category to offer full LED headlamps as a (costly) factory option. As always, an S line exterior package – which includes a high-gloss black grille, angular side skirts and a bigger spoiler lip at the edge of the roof - is available to sharpen the car’s appearance.

Audi’s engineers have not only made the A3 prettier, they’ve also made it lighter. The 80kg weight reduction is signifi cant in a compact hatch, with positive spin-offs in fuel efficiency and overall performance. The A3’s “slimming diet” includes making the occupant cell with light but stiff form-hardened steel (saving 18kg), using aluminium for the bonnet, fenders, front and rear crossmembers (saving almost 11kg in total), and
creating a set of flow-formed 18-inch alloy wheels that weigh the same as the 17-inch set.

Even the 1.4-litre TFSI engine has been made lighter, with an aluminium crankcase that saves 15kg compared to the previous unit. The 1.8-litre TFSI powerplant sticks to a cast-iron crankcase, but it’s 2.4kg lighter thanks to a thin-wall casting process.

The weight watching continues in earnest inside the cabin. The seat frames have polymer inserts in place of steel wires (saving 4kg), there are fewer coils in the air-con blower motor (saving another 4kg), and less cables were needed for the on-board control units (saving 1.5kg).

They even made the dash-top MMI (multi media interface) monitor out of lightweight magnesium. It looks magnifi cent, too, with brilliant infographics on a 7-inch colour screen that has a depth of just 11mm – nearly as thin as the iPhone 4. And the way the display deploys/retracts is so slick that it makes the fixed screen in the BMW 1 Series look rather cheap.

Another nice piece of kit is the MMI control panel behind the gear lever. It’s an object lesson in cockpit ergonomics, with a large rotary knob (that has both push-button and touch-pad functions) and a foolproof layout (a pair of intuitive rocker switches access the Nav, Tel, Radio and Media key sub-menus). Aft of the MMI terminal are the neat toggles for the electronic parking brake, which requires less space (and effort) than the old A3’s traditional handbrake.

Conveying Audi’s trademark quality are every switch in the latest A3, every stitch in its leather upholstery, and every plastic surface. Even the glovebox interior is well trimmed. Most impressive of all are the four air-con outlets - perfectly round “jet turbines”, each made up of over 30 individual parts. These include beautifully textured rotary rings that you twist (with a satisfying action) to adjust the output, and sturdy central nozzles that you push inward or pull outward (complete with a classy “click”) to make the air flow more diffused or more direct, respectively. Decor choices include real aluminium accents, Alcantara upholstery and a glass-like, 3D effect trim called Optic.

Savvy smartphone users will love the applications and connections provided by the A3’s most advanced MMI system. Its features include Google Earth Navigation complete with Google Maps Street View, motorist-friendly social networking on Facebook and Twitter, an on-board Wi-Fi hotspot for up to eight mobile devices, and Internet radio (with more than 3,000 stations if you use Audi’s music stream app). Crystal-clear DAB radio reception is available, too. Audiophiles would also appreciate the optional Bang & Olufsen hi-fi, which has a 705-watt amplifier under the driver’s seat and 14 speakers (inclusive of two door-mounted subwoofers).

From behind the wheel, the new A3 immediately feels roomier and classier than the old one, with the feel-good factor boosted more strongly than that of the Golf upgrade from Mk 6 to Mk 7. The aerofoil-inspired dashboard design, made possible by the relocation of the infotainment CPU into the glove compartment, “widens” the vista for front occupants, while the centre console’s leather knee cushions (cushier than the earlier ones) let them “park” their knees comfortably. The nearby storage net for the front passenger has become smaller and less useful, but the rest of the console area is otherwise more practical, with thoughtfully reorganised storage points that include proper cupholders and convenient spots to stow your wallet and miscellaneous gadgets. The boot size has been increased from 350 to 365 litres, and the quattro four-wheel drive no longer entails a cargo space penalty.

Driving those four wheels in this case is a turbocharged 1.8-litre producing 180bhp and 280Nm, transmitted to the tarmac by a 6-speed S tronic dual-clutch. The test car comes with electromagnetic dampers and a sports suspension lowered by 15mm.

Seated behind the wheel (which is much better padded than the previous affair and thus more shiok to grasp), there seems to be a little less under-thigh support than before, but this could be due to the slightly shorter squab. The driver’s seat is otherwise supportive, without being too firm, and visibility is fine.

On the go, the 180bhp A3 behaves like a GTI in a business suit, with excellent refinement at speed and, most of the time, more tyre grip than you need. Up and down Mallorca’s switchback mountainside roads, the car is a smooth hot hatch that cooperates closely with the enthusiastic driver to take corner after corner with complete confidence.

And he doesn’t need to put the Audi Drive Select into its “serious” Dynamic mode – the all-purpose Auto is good enough, with the added advantage of keeping the power steering well assisted (Dynamic makes it artifi cially heavy and a chore in multiple turns, without a useful improvement in tarmac feedback to make it worth the trouble).

With a century sprint timing just a bit behind the front-drive Golf GTI’s, and a hearty mid-range maximised by the responsive gearbox, this Audi is a speedy number. It sounds suitably sporty, too, especially when the hardworking turbo engine is asked to accelerate with gusto.

When the on-road rush is over, the A3 readily reverts to its junior cruiser persona, complete with radar-based adaptive cruise control that has a 0-200kmh operating envelope. Other high-tech driving aids include side assist (which helps keep an “eye” on the car’s blind spots), active lane assist (that gently nudges the electromechanical steering to maintain “lane discipline”) and traffic sign recognition. There’s also Park Assistant, which slots the car into a parking space by itself (with some driver input, of course).

Admittedly, these options, along with seven standard airbags, are no longer novelties in this segment, with the new Golf offering such amenities, too.

What the Golf cannot offer is the latest A3’s combination of meticulous attention to detail and “Hugo Boss” branding, both of which are worthy of a German limousine costing three times more.