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Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI (2013) long-term test review

By the CAR road-test team

Long Term Tests

29 January 2014 07:00

Month five running an Audi A3 Sportback: the A3 takes on its sworn enemy from Mercedes

There have been times recently when I’ve felt like I was back at school, such has been Phil’s incessant goading about how his A3 is so much more refined/prettier/quieter/cooler than my A-class. But at some point the bombardment of verbal stinkbombs from the back of the class had to stop – and now is that time.

When Mercedes redesigned and repositioned the new A-class, turning it from upright compact MPV to butch family hatch, it was with the likes of the A3 and its VW Group C-segment siblings in mind. That said, the first thing you notice when swapping from A-class to A3 is just how much smaller it seems, both inside and out. Outside it is indeed smaller – but only 6cm? Feels like more. You do get an extra 24 litres/48 cans of pale ale in the A3’s boot, which perhaps explains perceptions of its Stuttgart rival feeling more spacious. That’s important when you’ve got two boisterous boys – both under-fives – to ferry around. My briefcase, in contrast, probably takes up more space than Phil’s newborn daughter. One-nil to the Mer-ce-des, then.

I can’t deny that Audi’s infotainment suite, set in one of the more minimal cockpit arrangements on the market, is rather beautiful. The pop-up sat-nav screen makes the Merc’s look like a flea market iPad Mini copy superglued to the dash. But no DAB? And no USB port either? Pah! And I’d choose the cosseting front seats in my A-class any day. Unlike the A3’s, they’re electric too. There’s nothing like a spot of mechanical lumbar pumping in the morning. Honours even, then, leaving the A-class ahead at half-time.

Where my A-class does lose out to the A3 is on respective powertrains. At 148bhp, the Audi has 14 extra horses and nearly 170 extra cubes (1968cc to the Merc’s 1796cc). It’s quicker off the mark and it feels it too, making the grunty 1.8 diesel in the A-class seem rather agricultural in comparison. It’s where that extra heft in the Merc comes back to bite it on the bum (the A-class carries a whopping 90kg extra). The Merc’s ride isn’t as lumpy as some have suggested, but the A3’s extra litheness is telling. Mind you, there’s little difference in the late 40s/early 50s economy both Phil and I are returning. The A3 notches a deserved equaliser, however.

But I’m an American sports fan – I hate draws. Call it badge snobbery, but the A-class feels like a big Merc, feels premium, feels more of an event. The A3? It’s just a poshed-up Golf, isn’t it? A-class wins.

By Stephen Worthy

Month four running an Audi A3 Sportback: the touch-sensitive controls aren't up to scratch

Our A3 has a fairly simple spec, with its clear dials and air-con knobs to make the cabin hotter or cooler. Remember those?! And no safety systems that holler if you change lane or overtake. The A3 does have Drive Select to tweak driving modes, but it’s simple because all modes feel identical. I’ve decided throttle and engine map are the same in Efficiency, Dynamic or Comfort mode; the only obvious change is the indicator’s earlier prompts to upshift in Efficiency, and the air-con reading it’s in ‘eco’.

But there are still some perverse features clearly designed by the sick masochists who create Japanese game shows. Chief among them is MMI Touch, part of the £1495 Tech package. In theory you input commands by drawing characters on the centre console’s touchpad. It may work for the 11% of people who are left-handed, but I end up looking like I have the motor skills of a three-month-old. You’re drawing blind with an unfamiliar finger, trying to mitigate deflections from the A3’s firm (but not unbearable) suspension, while trying to avoid a massive crash. Useless.

Even more infuriating is pressing the voice control button: it can’t process freeform chat, so you bellow commands that are listed on the screen, which it misinterprets a la hapless waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Futile, frustrating and so much slower than using the delightful aluminium shortcut buttons in conjunction with the rotary controller to select functions on-screen. I know that’s relatively new and powerful tech, but it doesn’t feel it – because it’s simple and intuitive to use. Amen to that, car designers.

By Phil McNamara 

Month three running an Audi A3 Sportback: can the A3 really match its claimed economy figures?

500 miles: not just the parenthesis of The Proclaimers’ rowdy wedding anthem, but the goal I’ve been targeting for the A3 Sportback’s range on one tank. This isn’t so much a stretch goal, more a gentle reach: our very first tankful managed 441 miles and 47.2mpg. The Mk3 A3 prioritises conserving fuel: it’s 80kg lighter than its predecessor, and 12% more frugal. Engine stop/start is standard along with a gearshift indicator, forever cajoling you to change up. And there’s Drive Select, which unlocks four driving modes including Efficiency. In this, the throttle feels slightly less responsive and the engine spins less freely, and the air-con runs in eco mode. Efficiency is perfect for my daily motorway commute. 

The smooth 2.0-litre TDI has also bought into the efficiency drive. Peak torque of 236lb ft kicks in at 1750rpm, so you can surf a few bursts of thrust, reach cruising speed, then engage overdrive. Driven like this the A3 still feels brisk – the TDI does 0-62mph in 8.7sec. But you do need to downshift to overtake, and watch the turbolag below 1750rpm.

This month, after four A1 round trips in Efficiency mode, I scored 501 miles between fill-ups, and 54.2mpg. Result. You know what was doubly pleasing: you don’t have to drive like an octogenarian to achieve good mpg in an A3.

By Phil McNamara

Month two running an Audi A3 Sportback: the A3's a decent drive after all

Nose-heavy handling, doughy steering, dodgy ride, impeccable interiors – that’s the truism about Audis. Well, I’m pleased to report that, dynamically, our A3 Sportback is as stereotypical as a chaste Essex girl.   

The A3 can carve through corners rather deftly. Tipping the car in loads up the outer wheels in one motion, then flick the wheel and as the weight transfers, the unladen rear wheel can hop like a hot hatch’s. The front wheels cling on strongly, so you can get back on the power early to pull away.

Audi has minimised weight up front with lots of aluminium components. Electronics brake the inside front wheel during cornering to quell understeer, and it largely works, though you can still feel the unladen wheel spinning away power. 

Other pluses are the light, keen electromechanical steering, and the way the manual springs through six, closely stacked gears. But reverse is too closely stacked with first, meaning it’s possible to select the wrong direction. Could well end in tears.

Sport trim drops the body 15mm and stiffens the dampers. The ride is a bit knobbly, but it’s not as painful as the incessant rumble from the 225/40 R18 Continentals, whether you’re at 30mph or 70mph. Otherwise, the A3 is shaping up nicely.

By Phil McNamara

Month one running an Audi A3 Sportback: the editor explains the new Audi's spec

Three Range Rovers, two convertibles, two hot hatches, and a partridge in a pear tree. Actually, and an Audi RS5 and Subaru Impreza WRX (remember those?) – that’s my long-termer haul over the past decade or so. Haul is an appropriate word for this, my first wagon – or Sportback in Audi-speak. And compared with that fancy, performance-oriented list of cars, the Golf-sized A3 2.0-litre TDI Sport feels fairly modest.

Though the OTR price is anything but: £23,350, and a grand total of £28,900 after options. The A3 range starts at £17,905 for a 1.2-litre three-door, but the equivalent five-door Sportback carries a £620 premium, and selecting the flagship diesel engine and mid-ranking Sport trim pushes the price past £23k.

Regular readers will know how the A3 fits into Volkswagen Group’s masterplan to dominate the world car market, but bear with me. Remember that Star Wars series scene where Darth Vader surveys his troops, with the rows stretching all the way to the horizon? Substitute those stormtroopers for six million gleaming new models from VW, Skoda, Seat and Audi, all born from the shared DNA of the ‘MQB’ components set. The A3 is the sleek snowtrooper, more specialist than its fellow infantry. When not battling rebels on ice planet Hoth, you’ll find them having aspirational city breaks in boutique hotels.

Though the A3 does come in stormtrooper Glacier White, we plumped for £525 Misano Red pearl effect paint, which helped make our RS5 look so dashing. And we upgraded the standard 17-inch rims to the £595 Dynamic 18s, so it looks like this A3 rolls on Japanese throwing stars. All to little effect: the Sportback looks plain – I’d far rather stare at Vauxhall’s eye-catching Astra.

The A3’s beauty lies beneath the skin, in its cabin and the way it drives. The cockpit is high quality, simple to use and the details are fabulous: the wafer-thin screen that rises up-periscope through the dashtop; the three-dimensional strips that resemble chunks of aluminium Toblerone; the white LED circles that illuminate the cupholders and MMI rotary controller at night.

This doubles up as a touchpad, where your finger can scribble letters to input a postcode or phone contact. On right-hand-drive cars, the touchpad sits on the left, so spec this feature if you’re hungry to improve your left-handed writing. MMI Touch comes as part of the £1495 Technology package, comprising uprated sat-nav, glovebox-sited CD/DVD/memory card unit and Bluetooth music streaming.

The other four-figure option is the xenon light package. For £1250, you get xenon headlamps that swivel with the steering wheel to shine around corners, automatic lights and wipers, and the previously mentioned interior lighting effects, which also extend to the footwells and vanity mirrors.

To complete the A3 spec, we ticked: a £255 sound system upgrade, packing 10 speakers and 180-watt output; £345 rear parking sensor; a £75 tyre pressure monitor; and finally, the £795 black Alcantara and leather seats. Whether you like it or not, these seats come with an additional £145 surcharge: you have to spec the storage/luggage package including seatback-nets, a double CD-sized storage compartment under the rear seats, a couple of 12v sockets and an extra fastening point in boot. There’s no storage place for the straws Audi needs to clutch to justify this extra expense.

There are three options I’m missing compared with my Range Rover Evoque: DAB radio to listen to 5 Live, its glass roof panel and keyless entry, options which would have cost another £1680. But I’m already savouring far superior fuel economy from this 2.0-litre diesel – 48.9mpg from the A3 this month, compared with a 33.2mpg Evoque average. Can the A3 ride and handle as deftly, and can I get 500 miles from a single tank? Find out next month.

By Phil McNamara