This is the fourth year of the third generation of the Audi A3, which along with its similar-sized sibling the A4, is Audi’s bread-and-butter car. With Volkswagen Golf roots, the A3 comes as a four-door sedan, five-door hatchback, cabriolet, plug-in hybrid hatchback, and a powerful, well-balanced and relatively affordable S3.
The A3 saw significant changes for the 2017 model year, including a new 2.0-liter turbo engine with direct injection, LED daytime running lamps and a new MMI infotainment system, so for 2018 there are only minor equipment changes.
The engine in the A3 makes 220 horsepower, mated to an excellent paddle-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic manual transmission.
Front-wheel drive is standard, with Quattro all-wheel drive available.
The sporty S3 makes 296 horsepower, and competes with the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG. The tidy A3 Cabriolet’s only real rival is the Buick Cascada, which is slightly bigger and slightly less refined.
The plug-in hybrid, called the A3 e-tron Sportback, is an upscale rival to the Chevrolet Volt, although the Volt has a real-world electric range. The e-tron is good for just 25 all-electric miles, but as a hybrid using fuel it has a range of 500 miles.
The 204-horsepower e-tron uses a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine mated to an electric motor powered by an 8.8 kwh lithium-ion battery pack that can be recharged in four hours, using a Bosch home charger that’s standard equipment. It weighs 500 pounds more than the sedan, but the engine/motor makes 258 pound-feet of torque, to keep it sprightly. It gets 34 combined miles per gallon, or an EPA-rated 83 MPGe, using the full electric range.
The A3 sedan with all-wheel drive gets 24 city, 31 highway, 27 combined miles per gallon; the Cabriolet gets 2 less mpg.
The NHTSA gives the A3 five stars in crash testing, while the IIHS gives its highest rating, Top Safety Pick+.
Standard equipment in the front-wheel-drive Premium for $32,150 including destination, includes dual-zone climate control, xenon headlamps, panoramic sunroof, leather seats, 12-way power front seats, satellite radio, Bluetooth, rearview camera, and automatic emergency braking. Heated front seats are $500. Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is $900.
The Premium Plus ($35,400) adds an S-Line body kit, keyless ignition with passive entry, heated front seats, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, front and rear parking sensors, split-folding rear seats. A $3000 Technology Package that adds the Audi Connect telematics system, the MMI infotainment system with Audi Virtual Cockpit, and blind-spot monitors,. A $1,050 LED Lighting Package adds LED headlights/taillights. A 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system is $950.
A3 Prestige at $41,100 includes the technology package and sound system, plus ambient interior lighting and adaptive cruise control with stop/go ability.
All three models have a $900 Sport Package that adds a sport suspension, sport seats, Audi Drive Select modes, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel with paddle shifters. Rear side airbags are $350.
Quattro all-wheel drive is $2700 to $3000 more. The Cabriolet is $6400 more, with standard leather.
The e-tron adds about $7500 each model of A3, but then there’s available $4502 in federal incentives to possibly subtract.
The grille and front fascia are fairly aggressive, and the LED daytime running lights look cool, even cooler with the optional LED headlamps.
The A3’s trim size and clean lines make it look classy, especially compared to rivals. It’s an inspiring design. The Cabriolet is even a bit smaller, at just 175 inches, and the power cloth top with glass window is cohesive with the package.
The attractively conservative cabin features a chunky steering wheel and simple horizontal dashboard with distinctive round vents. The 7.0-inch MMI infotainment screen rises atop the dash, with controls on the center console, including a touchpad that recognizes handwriting, but hasn’t caught on. An available high-rez LCD screen replaces the conventional gauges and can be set up with Google satellite view or images of analog gauges.
The materials are nice, including leather standard or sport seats. But both seats have short cushions, and legroom is tight for tall drivers. It’s cramped for adults in the rear. But Audi has gotten the most out of the A3’s small size, when it comes to interior room.
The VW/Audi 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is a winner, flexible and refined, either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The paddle-shifting 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission shift sharply, although you might hear a clunk at low speed.
Because the chassis (from the VW Golf) is rigid, the A3 gets away with a fairly soft suspension without ruining the handling. The electric power steering is light but direct. Road noise is high.
The suspension in the Sport Package can be stiff over expansion strips, but the seats have more bolstering to comfortable ride it out.
The heavier Cabriolet is a bit less zippy, and there’s some slight shake over bad roads, but it’s still nicely composed.
The battery pack in the Sportback e-tron is mounted low, which helps bring down the center of gravity thus improving the handling, to go with its quickness. An EV mode selects electric power for slow speed.
The size and shape is great, but the lack of rear legroom limits things, so the hatch is the only way to go. It’s hard to fault the powertrain, except maybe for the occasional clunk in the otherwise brilliant six-speed dual clutch automatic. You’ll never lack power from the 2.0-liter turbo engine. The Sportback e-tron hybrid doesn’t make much sense at 34 miles per gallon, which isn’t that much more than the A3 with a real engine.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with driving impressions by The Car Connection.