Go on then. Let’s get it out of the way. This new Audi A3 is just a Golf in a posh frock, isn’t it? The one you buy if you’re more about the badge than the car; the one that’s a triumph of marketing over common sense. Right?
Well, hold on a tick. Because while the A3 might have started out many years ago feeling like little more than a Golf with a Hugo Boss jacket, this latest generation is deserving of more than being written off by a glib, two-second put-down.
It’s just had a mid-life primp, which should see that that remains truer than ever. Of course, this is Audi, so the styling changes are tricky to spot, but the headlamps have been taken in a bit, as have the rear lights and bumpers, while the hot S3 gets a more overt bodykit with a new rear diffuser.
Inside, too, things remain much as they were before; no bad thing, as the A3’s interior was always as sharp as an Ermenegildo Zegna suit. Take, for example, the lovely way the circular air vents’ knurled bezels rotate fluidly to allow you to open or close off the air flow, or the satisfying springiness of the hefty-feeling plastic which coats the dash top.
But it’s even better now that Audi’s added its virtual cockpit to the A3. This replaces both dials with a TFT screen which sits within the instrument binnacle, and can be changed to show information about the car or even a full-width satnav display.
It’s an optional extra, but one worth having, simply for the way it brings the satnav into your line of sight and frees up the central screen for other important functions, such as seeking out another radio station whenever the current one’s playlist takes a turn for the odiously fashionable.
Alternatively, you could hook up your phone or music player of choice – the A3 now comes with integrated support for both Apple and Android devices. And there’s a number of other new bits of tech available, the most notable of which being a traffic jam assistant, which takes over throttle control entirely for you in a traffic jam, even braking the car down to a stop and pulling away again when needed.
It isn’t just the A3’s outerwear that’s changed, mind. There’s a new 113bhp 1.0-litre three-pot available under the bonnet, which might sound skimpy, but it punches well above its weight. In the Golf, this engine is saddled with an optional automatic gearbox that takes an age to pull away in the name of saving fuel.
Here, there’s none of that nonsense, and even teamed with the auto ’box, the 1.0-litre feels zippy and torquey, with more than enough oomph for the vast majority of drivers.
Those looking for something a little more full-figured, however, can upgrade, either to the 148bhp 1.4-litre or 187bhp 2.0-litre petrol turbos. The latter is new and delivers silk-smooth power from the get-go thanks to a hi-tech combustion process; also new is the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that it’s available with.
Those who prefer to source their undergarments sustainably will be pleased to note the excellent, fuel-sipping E-tron remains unchanged, while for those in search of something a little more decadent and hedonistic, the S3 gets a 10bhp boost to take it to a total output of 306bhp.
Of course, there’s also a choice of three diesels; a 1.6 of 109bhp, and two 2.0s offering 148bhp and 181bhp respectively. The smaller unit is the best-seller and, as you’d expect, it’s quiet and efficient, providing plenty of low-down torque and smooth manners.
No matter which engine you go for, the A3 still feels as mature and classy as a freshly-pressed shirt. Our test cars all came in Sport trim, which means they got 17in wheels and standard suspension. Set up like this, the ride is settled and composed, while wind, road and engine noise are all hushed.
But that isn’t all it can do. Driving thrills are not what one buys an A3 for, of course, but throw it at a corner and it knows how to lift its petticoats and have a bit of fun.
The steering’s a little light around the straight-ahead, but precise and consistent through the rest of its rotation; meanwhile, the nose turns in crisply, and there’s plenty of grip and a nice, balanced chassis that won’t get anyone into trouble, no matter how ham-fisted.
No, it isn’t as characterful as a BMW 1-series or a Ford Focus, but it is satisfying and balanced; pleasing in a grown-up and fuss-free way. Something you could say about the car as a whole, in fact. The A3 is a fabulous all-rounder; of the family hatches one can now buy with upmarket badges, it already was, and indeed still is, the best.
The new 1.0-litre’s probably the pick of the range, but you won’t find a duffer among ’em, and it’s hard not to be won over by that interior and the A3’s reassuring sense of relaxed calm. And yes, while it shares its platform with three other, cheaper models, none quite offers its blend of talents. So call it a Golf in a frock if you want; just remember it’s a mighty nice frock.
Audi A3 Sportback 1.0 TFSI Sport S-tronic
Tested: 999cc four-cylinder petrol engine, seven-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Price/on sale: TBC (£20,000 est’d)/July
Power/torque: 113bhp @ 5,000rpm /184lb ft @ 1,500rpm
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 9.9sec
Top speed: 128mph
Fuel economy: 62.7mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 emissions: 104g/km
VED band: B (£0 first year, £20 thereafter)
Verdict: Quiet, comfortable and beautifully built, the upmarket A3 feels special in a way no other family hatchback quite comes close to.