► New 2020 Audi A3 Sportback review
► Better to drive and look at than before
► New-age dash, improved dynamics
Audi has reinvented its bestselling premium hatch. When did we last hear that?
Oh, at the launch of the last A3. And probably at the one before that. Since 1996, the Audi A3's sold around five million units, but it's not unfair to say that pushing the envelope is something this Golf-based family hatch does not major in.
Yet this fourth-generation A3 is more under attack than ever, particularly from B- and C-SUV segment cars - including, among others, the brand's own Q2 and Q3. At the same time, it needs to fight off the ever-present opposition vying for a slice of the same premium hatch market - the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
To fend them off and keep the A3 relevant Ingolstadt has dropped the three-door model (leaving only the five-door A3 Sportback tested here) and boosted practicality and spaciousness, while making the most of every bit of updated tech afforded to it by the latest iteration of the MQB platform, shared with the Golf 8, Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon.
It's completely new from the ground up: fresh, sporty, varied, but above all fully digitised and networked.
In the UK, the new 2020 Audi A3 Sportback engine line-up looks like this:
- 2.0-litre 30 TDI 114bhp
- 2.0-litre 35 TDI 148bhp
- 1.0-litre 30 TFSI 109bhp six-speed manual
- 1.5-litre 35 TFSI 148bhp
- 1.5-litre 35 TFSI 148bhp MHEV
The 35 TFSI MHEV is the most interesting of the bunch – it comes with a 48-volt mild hybrid system for efficient braking energy recovery, for electric starts and to support engine-free coasting.
More specs and news about the new 2020 Audi A3 Sportback
Styling takes a well-judged step forward
Audi has managed to negotiate the difficult balancing act of building a new car that's both instantly identifiable and familiar, and looks a decent step forward over what came before. So, the proportions remain largely unchanged, as does the six-light profile, but crisp, modern detailing and side sculpting have moved the game on.
Up front, the interesting LED headlights contribute to a more powerful-looking design that flanks Audi's new smiley corporate grille. The rear gets bold-looking LED units, while for those looking on it for the first time, it's the side-sculpting that really lifts the third-generation A3. Whether you judge this level of detailing a success or not, there's no denying that it's helped create a much more bold-looking car that's a step ahead of the messy BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The fully-adaptive matrix LED headlights aren't just there for show. The might be an optional extra, but are very effective. They consist of a pixel field of three by five LED segments that draw special light signatures. We've driven the new A3 at night and the adaptive headlamps' quick reactions prove useful in different driving situations.
What's it like inside?
Not much has changed in the size and footprint of the new five-door hatchback, but the use of space inside has been optimised so that the A3 Sportback is still one of the more spacious cars in the compact class. Incidentally, as in the previous generation, there will no longer be a three-door car in the current generation. It's Sportback or nothing.
The interior is significantly shaped by the new MMI operating and infotainment, and it’s one of the key areas of improvement in the new A3. Compared with its predecessor, all functions are networked much more closely. The logic is easy to get your head around and the system works quickly and efficiently. That Volkswagen connection means that this is still one of the best infotainment systems in the mass market, although we miss being able to use it without touching the screen.
It's fully connected, so you get access to numerous Audi Connect online functions. For now the new A3 can communicate with other vehicles (so-called Car-to-X services) in order to find free parking spaces in the city or string together several green traffic lights. There'll be much more to come here, as cars become ever more connected and more switched-on...
To control the new system, the driver can use the central touch display, the multifunction steering wheel or the voice control. Interestingly, any owner of a previous A3 won't be scared by the newcomer. The chunky steering wheel, the logic and heft of the switchgear, that unburstable quality that's been present ever since the original 1996 A3 are all present and correct.
Think of it like a new digital layer that's been superimposed on the usual qualities we've come to expect of the range. It's always been sensible, stolid a little bit sensible; now the styling has added a modicum of extra visual interest and the infotainment is bang-up-to-date. It's a sensible middle evolution of what went before.
What's it like to drive?
So far we've only driven the 35 TDI in the UK, but with that proviso, it's very good – not just a step forward from its predecessor, but a nicer all-round steer than its premium rivals. Our week-long drive has given us a flavour of just how much the A3 has improved over the previous-generation model. For a start – and this comes with a little gasp – this one proves to be a fine and responsive steer.
Turn-in is crisp and immediate, the performance flatters you into thinking you're in something with more than 148bhp, and the ride quality – for so long a A3 shortcoming – is actually very good. Playing a little more in bends, it's soon very evident that the A3 Sportback has impressive traction out of tight bends; torque delivery is elastic and punchy, but it never overwhelms the front wheels.
Steering is more precise and offers more feel than that of its predecessor, and the A3 feels agile and pointy in a way that augurs well for the upcoming performance versions. It's geared up for comfortable every day progress in most versions.
Ultimately, the active damper control which comes part and parcel of the Drive Select set-up, ensures a sensitive response even on rough surfaces. The driver can switch between five driving profiles via the button in the centre console - and then tweak to their personal preferences as they wish. The differences between the driving modes are clearly noticeable, but as an all-round UK compromise, we went with Comfort mode allied with Sports mode for the DSG transmission.
So is it a better bet than a Golf?
The acid question, but one we'd have no issue with answering in the affirmative. Although the new A3 is based on the shared MQB architecture, it is a nicer steer, looks better and leaves the driver feeling more special thanks to its more premium-feel interior. And that's why would you pay a premium over the equivalent Golf – and let's face it, VW Group's brand hierarchy would have it no other way.
The base A3 Sportback is around £1000 more expensive than the Volkswagen Golf it’s based on. Granted, you get alloy wheels, that chunky sports steering wheel and heated door mirrors as standard here, and you won't find those on every car from Wolfsburg. Among the compact hatchbacks, the A3 Sportback remains a premium representative - you might have to want that Audi badge to stump up the extra, but it's good to know in this case, the A3 Sportback is worth the premium.
And, of course, there will be sporty versions too. In fact, we've already driven the new Audi S3 Sportback and you can read our review here.
Although the new Audi A3 Sportback technically owes a lot to the Volkswagen Golf 8, it has its own character, and comes across as a far more complete, sharp-looking and frankly desirable hatchback. This applies to the dynamic suspension tuning and the expressive design, as well as the infotainment, the high build quality and overall asking price.
It's job done for now. But the real answer will come when we get to group test the A3 against its main rivals – the BMW 1 Series hatchback and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. For the moment, and having driven all three models separately, it feels as if the Audi is actually decisively better than its most fearsome rivals – but as always, it comes down to driving them together. Then we'll know for sure.
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