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

By the CAR road-test team

Long Term Tests

02 July 2014 11:40

Month 9 running an Audi A3 Sportback: the end of CAR magazine's A3 Sportback review

The Audi A3 Sportback transported me through the most transformational year in my life. I turned 40, but no mid-life crisis sports car for me; after all, an F-type isn’t ideal for bringing your first baby home from hospital. And as children come with a lot of baggage, we also extended the house, which necessitates DIY and trips to the tip. Hence my first long-termer estate.

Or Sportback, as Audi would have it, a five-door hatchback. Of course this isn’t a commodious wagon: the 380 litres of luggage space behind the rear seats is just 15 litres more than in the three-door A3. Fold the rear seats for a 1220-litre load bay, adequate for the odd day of room clearing, shed dismantling or laminate floor buying.

More critical was accommodating the three of us for weekends away. With baby Gabriella occupying one back seat and the other section folded flat, the Sportback could just cope with the pushchair, Moses basket and multiple bags. But it’s a no-no if you’ve got a second toddler; the Chinese government has made life so much easier for Audi dealers to upsell the newly liberated from A3 Sportback to A4 Avant.

Enough practicality! Did the A3’s all-new chassis serve up a big, Germanic slice of ‘driving pleasure’? It sure did: the steering is light and responsive, quick to wind mid-corner adjustments on or off, if a little synthetic-feeling. Barrel the Sportback into corners, and the nose turns in eagerly, the front end’s 18-inch Continentals grip tenaciously, and you can feel the rear end pivot around it, with an unladen tyre occasionally hopping off the deck. The ride is a bit knobbly and tyre rumble is noticeable at all speeds though.

We plumped for the mid-ranking, 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI engine, with 236lb ft of grunt kicking in at 1750rpm. It’s stirred by a manual gearbox, with six closely stacked cogs and a sweet shift action. One weakness though: three people commented on how easy it was to accidentally select reverse instead of first, but thankfully no-one accidentally shot off in an unexpected and damaging direction.

The A3 picks up speed briskly, so long as you don’t change up too early and slump into some lowdown lag: 0-62mph takes a respectable 8.7secs. And the engine is smooth and hushed: stepping out of the A3 and into our A200 CDI long-termer outed the Merc as uncouth, slower and thirstier. Indeed, the A3’s fuel consumption stood out as a real high point: over nine months, we averaged 49.4mpg. Getting more than 500 miles out of 45 litres of diesel was commonplace, and to do that, you didn’t have to treat the accelerator like unexploded ordnance.

Our 2.0 TDI in Sport trim retailed for £23,350, but we racked up £5k of options. Upgrading to the £595 18-inch alloys and £525 pearl effect paint added vital spice to the Sportback’s sober exterior, and I should have splashed another £250 on aluminium roof rails too. Chunky aluminium switches and dash inserts lift the impeccable, though very black, cockpit; investing £950 in the airy glass roof would have helped. The £1495 Technology package comes with hard-drive nav, plus DVD and music file player – all useful – and the useless MMI touchpad, which only caters for drivers who write with their left-hand. DAB digital radio was sorely missed, but Audi has subsequently made this standard.

The A3 TDI Sportback is a terrific car: high quality, fun to drive, economical. And it’s only about £1500 more than the equivalent VW Golf, and the Audi’s fabulous cabin makes the extra outlay justifiable. If you’re thinking of buying a family hatch, put the A3 on your shopping list – that’s the advice of this new family man.

By Phil McNamara


Month 8 running an Audi A3 Sportback: time to service our 2.0 TDI

Having accumulated 18,345 miles, the A3 Sportback pulls up at Peterborough Audi for its first service. It’s a splendid temple to the four rings, all glass frontage, shiny white tiles and Audi-branded coffee machines, staffed by disciples clad in black. Now I know ensuring good service by surrogate dealers can give car makers an epic migraine, but Audi has gone too far in handing you a five-point pledge within seconds of your arrival: you WILL be offered a drink, talked through the service both before and after; you can even log on later to watch video clips of work that needs doing to your car.

Time to service our Audi A3 Sportback: we visit Peterborough Audi

I managed to resist the temptation to go Big Brother as the service team changed the oil and pollen filter, and topped up the screen wash for £217.40 plus VAT, for a £260.88 total bill. The staff were friendly, informative and attentive, even driving my immaculately clean, newly serviced car to the front door for me, but it all felt a bit forced. Maybe Audi would be better off not showing its working, so the service felt more spontaneous.

By Phil McNamara


Month 7 running an Audi A3 Sportback: fuel economy in our A3 2.0 TDI

Fuel economy – it’s all relative. In my last long-termer, a Range Rover Evoque diesel, I averaged 33.2mpg. In the A3, the average is 49mpg – nearly 50% better. And a few months back, I topped 50mpg during a month when my heavy right foot went on strike. If you’re a tank-half-full type, that’s progress. But as I say, it’s all relative. My consumption was 25% off Land Rover’s official figure, and this month I missed the 2.0-litre TDI’s laboratory figure by 27%. I was mulling all this as I parked up at VW Group’s National Learning Centre, ahead of driving the A3’s epically distant cousin, the Volkswagen XL1.

This slight, carbonfibre composite torpedo weighs an anorexic 795kg, its mirrorless form creates as much drag as the invisible man, and the two-cylinder diesel hybrid engine summons as much twist action as a hamster in a wheel. The result is fuel economy more outlandish than anything cooked up in the New European Driving Cycle labs: 313mpg. And a price likely to be stratospheric for a VW, even if only 250 are ever made.

Silently rolling on purely electric power (XL1 has a 31-mile zero-emissions range), the first thing you notice is the crunch of its sub-bicycle tyres. Kick down and the 47bhp diesel chunters in, with just about enough grunt to keep up with traffic (0-62mph in 11.9sec). Midway through my run the trip computer maxes out at 200mpg – VW software can’t yet compute the inconceivable economy. The XL1 is an awesome test bed: its high-tech construction will shape future sports cars, its plug-in hybrid system will power future eco cars. It’s utterly immersive, challenging you to anticipate traffic flow, keep up momentum and conserve every drop in the 10-litre tank. It makes the A3 feel like a limo with pathetic fuel economy. It’s all relative, of course.   

By Phil McNamara 


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.

Boot space: an Audi A3 Sportback strong suit

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.

Cornering in our Audi A3 Sportback: much better than it used to be

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