Audi A3 Sportback (2020) International Launch Review

Audi A355

There’s an all-new Audi A3 Sportback on its way to South Africa. The newcomer takes a high-tech approach to differentiate itself from the Volkswagen Golf 8… and to stay ahead of the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. International correspondent Dave Humphreys drove it in Spain.

The 4th-generation A3 Sportback will arrive in South Africa early in 2021. Audi hopes its premium 5-door offering will cement its position atop the Volkswagen Group hatchback tree, while also seeing off the challenges from its much-vaunted BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals. Other body styles will be unveiled in time, but for now, the new A3 is offered solely in 5-door configuration. 

The success of the previous-generation A3 Sedan has guaranteed that it will return to the marketplace, but there is some uncertainty concerning the A3 Cabriolet, which could follow in the wheel tracks of the 3-door and disappear from the range. Audi has already previewed a more powerful S3 version in prototype form and, with the company’s legendary 2.5-litre 5-cylinder engine appearing in hot versions of the 294 kW RS Q3, it looks like we’ll get a more extreme hot hatch version of the RS3, too. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, not least Audi’s range roll-out. 

Exterior swag


The new A3's front end is significantly revised but the design is instantly recognisable.

Size-wise, the A3 Sportback is now a little larger than its predecessor, but not in a very noticeable way. It is longer by 30 mm, due to the shape of the new bumper designs at either end. Including the mirrors, Audi's newcomer is 18 mm wider and the track width on both axles have been increased by 11 mm, the effect of which we’ll come back to. 

The look is fresher and has a few more curves than previous generations of the A3. It’s clear that Audi is trying to ditch its conservative image and, given the calibre of competition that the A3 Sportback faces, the Ingolstadt-based brand's designers have done a decent job here. While still being instantly recognisable as an A3, most observers should be able to spot that it’s the new model. 

In keeping with company form, the distinctive grille is larger, while the bonnet features a more contoured look. A new LED daytime running-light signature is what every model has these days, but Audi’s heritage for making distinctive lighting a part of the overall design will give different variants of the A3 individual signatures. Higher-spec versions will receive a headlight unit featuring a 15-LED panel capable of different appearances depending on trim level. The S line derivatives also get other visual identifiers, including what appears to be chrome-look exhaust tips (but aren’t) and a trio of inserts beneath the bonnet line (just for show), like on the Audi TT.   

A range of different wheel sizes will start at 16 inches and go up to 18 inches on the sportier S line versions, while 19-inch wheels – the largest possible on the A3 – will be offered optionally. 

As welcome as the updated exterior look is, there are more significant differences to the A3’s design on the inside. Audi has taken a clean-sheet approach to shaping the look of the hatchback's cabin and, for the most part, it has done a terrific job. Look hard enough and you will discover some cheaper areas of plastic, but for the most part, this interior has the wow factor – even by Audi’s already high interior quality standards, it moves the game on. 

Interior evolution


There is more space for bits and bobs with the gear lever reduced to a small toggle switch.

It remains a very digital affair, with a 10.25-inch digital instrument display as standard, while a larger 12.3-inch version, which was also available on the previous generation, will be optional. For the first time on the A3 Sportback, buyers will be able to specify a colour head-up display. A 10.1-inch touchscreen display, offering smartphone mirroring and connected services thanks to a built-in SIM card, will be standard across the range. Not only is the display responsive, its resolution is sharp; even on the sunniest of days, it remains bright and easily legible.  

Those sitting in the rear get tiny increases in elbow- and shoulder room thanks to a new door-card design and, overall, the space available to occupants of the 2 outer seats isn’t bad. Like many cars in this segment, the middle-rear seat is more space-limited due to its design and the need for a transmission tunnel. There is no increase in luggage space over the previous A3, which remains at 380 litres and can be increased to 1 200 litres by folding down the aft seatback. 

What’s it like to drive?


The A3 Sportback will debut in SA early in 2021, we hope.

The previous A3 Sportback offered commendable comfort and refinement. That hasn’t changed; if anything, the Audi now offers even greater levels of both thanks to the various changes and the addition of a new adaptive suspension.  

Leading the charge is an updated 1.5-litre TFSI turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol engine that produces peak outputs of 110 kW and 250 Nm. Matched with the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, it makes for a snappy powertrain that provides a sufficient amount of power lower down, while comfortably delivering at the top end thanks to its free-revving nature. 

The engine is equipped with Audi’s cylinder-on-demand (CoD) system that shuts off the 2 middle cylinders when driving on part-throttle. This process, and the subsequent restarting of the cylinders, go unnoticed to even the keenest ear or bum. We experienced it with the 48V mild-hybrid system, which isn’t pencilled in to come to South Africa, and differs primarily in its ability to allow engine-off coasting for short periods. 

When you switch the Drive Select function to Efficiency, the transmission will coast when you lift off the accelerator pedal and can do that for quite some time. Most drivers will rarely switch between modes, although the lure of the Dynamic setting (when you find your favourite section of road) may prove too tempting for some. Along with a steering tweak, Dynamic makes the automatic transmission slip into a sportier mode and hang onto each gear that bit longer. The switch to a shift-by-wire setup frees up space between the seats, but does away with the transmission lever that you could use for shifting up and down the 'box.

Which means that in its absence, you’re obligated to use the steering wheel paddles to actuate manual 'shifts. Unfortunately, they don't feel very substantial – they're two of the admittedly few cheap points in the otherwise upmarket cabin. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz do this bit better. When left in its default normal or auto mode, the S-tronic transmission switches through the gears in fine fashion – smoothly and without any jerkiness. 


Audi has made adaptive suspension available on the A3, and it appears to be the best setup for the newcomer.

If you relish your comfort, then it might be worth speccing Audi’s new adaptive suspension. It ditches the magnetic function of the previous generation in favour of a more conventional damper setup, but one that operates over a wider spectrum to provide greater levels of comfort and absorption while retaining the ability to firm up when more spirited driving is desired. Compared with the standard suspension, the adaptive system leaves the car sitting 10 mm lower. 

Nonetheless, you won’t feel short-changed if you stick with the standard (passive) suspension, which, for engines of 110 kW upwards, uses a slick multi-link rear setup, along with the MacPherson strut front end that appears across the range. The operating window is still very good, delivering a progressive and well-balanced ride. Go for the sportier S-line spec and the A3 rides 15 mm lower, with a firmer damping setup. 

The standard electromechanical steering can be upgraded to a variable ratio system that delivers a more direct feel. Toggling through the different drive modes provides greater distinction in how the steering feels, though in Dynamic mode we felt the steering was a touch too heavy.

Along a fast sweeping road, the A3 Sportback delivers an impressive driving experience with the kind of ride quality that imbues confidence across both the passive and adaptive setups. An increase of 11 mm in track width at each end adds to the planted sensation, of that I have no doubt.

Verdict


With BMW falling from grace with its 1 Series, this and the A-Class are the picks of the segment.

The Audi A3 Sportback had elevated itself to the sharp end of the hatchback segment once more. A big evolution in its design is backed up with a more refined, yet still-involving, driving experience that makes the BMW 1 Series seem bloated and ought to worry the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. While it is technically an evolution of the previous model, so much of the A3 Sportback has changed inside (and out) that it looks and feels like a totally different car. It’s every bit the high-tech model that many buyers will expect from Audi.

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