REVIEW | 2021 Audi A3 has the makings of a segment leader
The Audi A3 has come a long way. In its first iteration it was available locally only in three-door format, unofficially positioned as a swankier alternative to its cousin from Volkswagen, the Golf.
Since those days as a dinky boutique hatchback, the nameplate has grown to accommodate additional variants, including a classical saloon template that pioneered a category in which Mercedes-Benz and BMW subsequently joined with their booted A-Class and 2-Series versions.
Last week the automaker launched the latest, fourth-generation A3 on SA shores. If you are a stickler for internal designations, the newcomer wears the chassis code of 8Y. We signed up for five days with the sedan: a 35 TFSI derivative (that is the 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol motor) in S-Line trim.
An unmistakably aggressive flavour has pervaded the contemporary Audi design vocabulary of late and the new A3, much like the revised A4 of 2020, is a clear reflection. While its predecessor had a demure, albeit sophisticated exterior dress sense, the 2021 expression takes on an assertive character. It is 15cm longer than the Sportback and has a bigger boot, 425l versus 380l.
Note the honeycomb grille – which is not a treat if you suffer from trypophobia, but is a neat visual trickle-down from the potent RS-badged family of Audi models. The S-Line grade adds front and rear bumpers with contours that are more pronounced, complementing the sharp pleating down the bonnet and sides rather well. While a five-arm wheel style with 225/45R17 tyres is standard with the S-Line, our test unit went a step further with a diamond-cut design, with Y-shaped spokes wrapped in 225/40R18 rubber.
It was part of an R18,000 sports package, which also added snappier exterior accoutrements and a more dynamic suspension setup. While we are on the topic, let us address the other items of optional equipment identified on our vehicle. There was the S-Line interior package (R26,500), with stainless steel foot pedals, sport seats with integrated headrests, a front centre armrest, dark aluminium decorative inserts and the headliner in black.
A technology package for R33,500 included the virtual cockpit (Audi parlance for a digital instrument cluster), the more comprehensive version of the Multi Media Interface navigation system, plus Audi Connect services. We mistakenly pressed the roadside assistance button on the control panel by the sunroof switchgear and cancelled before a team was wrongfully dispatched.
That panoramic glass sunroof will add R17,000 to the tally. Another R23,000 gets you what is listed as an “upgrade package” on the options list, comprising LED lights, dual-zone climate control, rear parking aid and those rear indicators that swoosh along in Knight Rider fashion. Our front power seats cost R11,500, plus another R5,500 for heating and R9,000 more for leatherette upholstery. A reverse camera for R6,500 rounded it all off – but we should not forget the R14,500 Daytona Grey pearlescent paint. The final tab is R158,500 atop the standard S-Line price of R616,000. The base sedan goes for R576,000 while the middle-tier Advanced is R601,000. The 40 TFSI S-Line (that is the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol one) kicks off at R656,000.
Meanwhile the flagship (for now) S3 sedan kicks off at R810,000. With that out of the way, we can discuss the interior.
It marks a radical departure from the straight surfaces and circular features of before. Audi has gone hexagon-intensive with the cabin of the new A3 – the ventilation slots for the air-conditioning put us in mind of the dashboard in the Lamborghini Urus. For the most part, tactile quality is of the expected Audi standard, but there is some evidence of cost-cutting. Certain sections that would have been of a soft-touch nature in the previous car are of a harder plastic grain now. At least the switch is not as blatant as it is in the smaller A1. But were you to examine an A3 and A4 in the showroom, you will note distinctions in textures.
The absence of a traditional gearstick creates space in the centre console. The job of cog-selection is done via an elegant metal sliver – but you can hear and feel the actuators directly beneath it doing their thing, finger-tipping between reverse, neutral and drive. Park has its own separate button. The transmission is an eight-speed, torque-converter automatic, while the more sophisticated dual-clutch with seven gears is offered in the 40 TFSI and S3. But buyers are unlikely to feel short-changed by the combination offered by the 35 TFSI.
Its 1,395cc engine is well-proven, serving across the Volkswagen Group in various models. It strikes a fine balance between punch and economy, with a respectable 110kW and 250Nm and consumption figure of 6.5l/100km in the real world. So, no surprises on the powertrain front. What also came as no surprise was the polished ride of the A3, even with 18-inch wheels and a sportier configuration. The latter brought surprising rewards, particularly with Dynamic mode engaged. A tangible weight is dialled into the steering, with perkier power delivery and a more hunkered-down sense under cornering. The front-wheel drive sedan threads a commute together with a lovely combination of comfort, surefootedness and a relatively athletic step.
The latest A3 retains the sound values that made its forebear such a compelling choice in the premium compact category. But now it has a more exuberant character that ought to strike a chord with those who felt the predecessor was too much of a shrinking violet.