Audi A3 (2017) review: Big tech, small package
Update: From October 2017, Audi ceased production of the three door version of the A3 hatchback but there’s still the five-door Sportback variant, the Saloon and Convertible all available.
Our original review continues below and is still relevant to the rest of the A3 range:
The Audi range seems is growing by the second, with the German manufacturer releasing both the A7 and the flagship A8 in the last few months. Throw in the updated RS3 and incredible new RS5, and the Audi range is in the midst of a refresh. In some ways, though, the Audi A3 is the car that it all starts from and the latest model sees German carmaker shoehorn much of what we’ve liked in more expensive models to the most common, affordable Audi on the road.
If you take a look at towards the higher end of the range, you’ll find features like Virtual Cockpit – a system which replaces dials for an adaptive, TFT screen. That technology set Audi’s previous flagships apart from the competition, and it’s now available in the A3.
Audi A3 (2017) review: Exterior[gallery:1]
Sharper headlights, a more elaborate design-language and audacious front grille means the new A3 certainly looks the part. And consumers now also have the added benefit of two new engines, offering far more choice to drivers. If you want something more exotic-looking, check out our review of the crazy Audi RS3.
Audi A3 review (2017): Interior tech
The most eye-catching development, at least from the driver’s point of view, is that this year’s A3 gets the Virtual Cockpit system, which we first encountered earlier this year in the Audi A4 Avant.
It’s not standard equipment, but the Virtual Cockpit is now available as an option on every model of the 2017 Audi A3 as part of the Technology Pack, at a price of £1,490. If you’re building up a new model, I’d encourage you to consider splashing the extra cash because it’s an excellent addition.
Virtual Cockpit essentially replaces the standard analogue dials and small DIS (driver’s information system) screen that normally sit behind the wheel with a huge 12.3in, 1,440 x 540-resolution digital display. This can not only show the speedometer, rev counter, gear, miles per gallon and trip distances, but also adds your satnav map and media playback navigation to the mix.[gallery:3]
There are two views available. Those who prefer a more traditional dial-based layout can opt for the Classic display, with large speedometer and rev counter to the fore and a smaller satnav and media control section in between. Click the View button on the steering wheel, however, and you shift to Progressive mode, which shrinks the dials and tucks them into the corners in favour of a larger map and details view.
Virtual Cockpit is so good that nearly all other manufacturers offer it as an option now and although Virtual Cockpit is still one of the most configurable displays it is pricier than rivals. The VW Golf’s Active Info Display, for instance is a far cheaper £495 option on new models that don’t come with it as standard.
It’s worth noting, however, that if you do go for the active invo display and Audi’s own satnav, you don’t have to pay extra for voice control as you do with the Golf.[gallery:4]
Audi A3 review (2017): Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support
Audi being Audi, it doesn’t just leave it at that, of course. The Audi A3 is also the first model I’ve driven from the German manufacturer to have both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support installed and ready to go.
And the good news is that, unlike Virtual Cockpit, the “Audi Smartphone Interface” (the name Audi gives to this feature) is now standard across the whole of the A3 range. Potentially, this could save you £495, since you’ll no longer need to specify Audi’s proprietary navigation system in order to have navigation in the dash.[gallery:6]
And setup is beautifully managed. Even if you don’t have Android Auto installed, the Audi system detects your phone when it’s connected to one of the car’s USB ports and prompts you to download and install the correct software.
CarPlay is even easier to get going with, given that it’s baked directly into iOS: it’s simply a case of enabling it in the settings on your iPhone, plugging in your phone and following the instructions. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that CarPlay support only extends back as far as the iPhone 4s. Those with older models will miss out, unfortunately.[gallery:7]
The bad news is that, in some ways, this integration still feels a touch tacked on. The 7in screen, which emerges on a motorised track from the top of the dashboard isn’t a touchscreen and navigating either Google or Apple’s fledgeling car interfaces with just the rotary MMI knob on the centre console feels a touch clunky.
If you fancy sampling the delights of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Android Auto and CarPlay have no access to it – they’re stuck displaying their wares on the 7in screen in the middle of the dashboard. Fortunately, Audi’s own satnav is pretty good, featuring satellite and traditional map views, clear map graphics and timely audio instructions.
However, it would be great to be able to see Google Maps in the Virtual Cockpit, because it remains my satnav of choice. Its top-class traffic avoidance, route planning and voice-based destination entry are second to none, and I’ve yet to come across a dedicated or manufacturer-supplied satnav that can touch its all-round abilities.[gallery:5]
Audi A3 review (2017): General connectivity
There’s plenty more besides these standout features, however. If standard Bluetooth connectivity isn’t good enough for you, the Audi Phone Box can be added for a further £325, providing Qi wireless charging in the storage box between driver and passenger, automatic pairing with the car’s hands-free system, and connection with the car’s integrated antenna for improved reception.
Opt for Audi Connect and you’ll get a SIM card with 4G connectivity within the cabin, which also provides access to a selection of Audi-specific online services. These run from a simple news and weather feed, to Twitter updates and flight and rail information.
The car comes equipped with plenty of opportunities to plug your own stuff in, too, with a pair of SD card slots in the glove box alongside a CD player, and two USB ports and a 3.5mm aux input in the storage box beneath the armrest.[gallery:16]
Audi A3 review (2017): Driver assistance
In 2016, the talk in motoring technology has all been around autonomous driving, and although the A3 can’t drive itself in the same way that the Tesla Model S or Volvo XC90 can, it has a decent selection of optional hi-tech driver assistance modes, which are new to this generation.
As well as the usual parking cameras front and rear, it’s also possible to add adaptive cruise control, traffic-jam assistance and semi-automatic parking, plus blind-spot monitoring, lane assistance and an emergency-assist mode that slows the car to a halt and keeps it in lane if it detects no driver input after a certain period of time.
In general, I found that everything I was able to test worked well in the short period I had with the car. In traffic, the A3 accelerates and brakes at speeds of up to 37mph – a godsend in heavy motorway traffic. At 40mph and above, active lane assistance and adaptive cruise control takes over, preventing you from drifting out of lane if your attention wanders.
Active lane assist is a fairly expensive option though. Available as part of the Driver Assistance pack it adds £1,500 to the cost of the car; even adaptive cruise control is a £475 extra on the SE trim car – VW’s Golf at an equivalent level of trim offers adaptive cruise control as standard. What Audi doesn’t do[gallery:13]
I found the (optional) automatic parking was just as effective. It won’t operate the throttle for you, but will guide you into a parallel parking slot in one slick move. It will also do reverse and forward perpendicular bay parking.
My only gripe with any of this is the car-to-driver communication. While the traffic assist works well, it will occasionally disengage and it isn’t always clear when this happens. I found myself approaching the rear of the car in front of me a couple of times expecting the A3 to brake and stop automatically and ended up having to hit the brake myself at the last moment. How about a loud audible alert, Audi?
Audi A3 review (2017): Audio
I didn’t have any issues with the Bang & Olufsen audio system in the Audi A3 I drove. It has a fantastic 14-speaker, 750W system, and it gives you chest-rattling bass, and a solid mid-range to top-end sound.
However it’s not exactly perfect. This otherwise great sound system’s performance is dampened by rattle and buzz when the volume is right up. Although it only occurs at deafening volumes, and I wouldn’t have the volume this high very often anyway, it is something to consider. And there’s there’s the price; the optional B&O system I tested had a rather hefty £750 price tag.[gallery:11]
Audi A3 review (2017): Verdict
The Audi A3 (2016) might be one of Audi’s cheapest cars, but makes a lasting impression. From the moment I fired up the engine and hooked up my smartphone via the Audi Phone Box, until I’d parked up at the end of my journey, Audi’s tech was there to lend a helping hand.
What’s most impressive is that, although the A3 sits at the bottom end of the Audi range, it doesn’t feel that way when you sit in the cabin. And with a generous helping of technology thrown in as standard, you get a surprising amount for your money.