The exterior look has a confident stance that reflects its sportback (read: four-door hatchback) branding, but both front and rear ends sing different tunes. The front end calls attention due to the gaping maw-like grille common to all current Audi models. In contrast the rear (especially the tailights and hatch design) look like it took a page from its bigger A4 Avant (station wagon) sibling, and looks close to uninspired. The two-section Open Sky system is great for stargazing nights for you and a riding shotgun prospective date, but its retractable front sliding roof is a bit small.
The A3 is meant to expand Audi's appeal to entry level luxury (i.e., the 25-40 age range), by offering a coupe's sporty proportions with a wagon's practicality. With the rear seat upright the A3 swallows 13.1 cubic feet of cargo, roughly the same capacity of the Mercedes Benz B-Class. In contrast, folding the 60/40 rear seats flat yields a 36 cubic feet load capacity. Storage for bric-a-brac is rather disappointing (especially the small cupholders and the lack of rear door receptacles) but typical of the A3's coupe/station wagon appeal.
Inside, metal rings around the dash vents and audio controls are accented by high-quality plastic on the shifter and HVAC dials. Standard features include a strong dual-zone automatic climate control system, bright lighting within the cabin and two-tiered glovebox, aftermarket-level-ready audio entertainment, rubberized lining for certain storage areas, a first aid kit within the rear backrest divider and comfortable seating (thanks to a grippy cloth fabric and bucket seats for front occupants).
Typical of Audi TDI diesel engines is a sluggish bottom end, but when the tach enters the powerband (1900-2000 rpm onwards) and partial boost (2250 rpm) occurs, the A3 is fast. Despite full boost coming in early (3500-4000 rpm), top speed is a disappointing 200 kph. However, fuel consumption is miserly (registering 12 km/l on four days of mixed driving), gearing is fairly even, and the six-speed S-Tronic's manual mode (with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles) helps immensely for quick powerband entry.
The front-drive A3's displays surefooted balance, breaking grip at 130 kph sans traction control. This can be credited to a new four-link rear suspension that achieves a functional separation of longitudinal and transverse forces, delivering exceptional lateral rigidity (for better handling and a safer car) along with supple lengthwise control to improve ride comfort. The light yet sharp steering, which adjusts effort in response to steering wheel angle and vehicle speed, was also considered a necessary albeit costly step to separate the A3 from its competition. Plus, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes for short arms and long legs.
There are also lots of pluses to the A3 driving experience. The anti-lock brake system kicks up quickly, and the brakes (along with the handbrake) are quite grippy. Exterior lighting, whether from foglamps or headlights, are as bright as HID (high intensity discharge) units. The dashboard gauges and driver menu screen are big enough to be seen from the rear, although the temperature and fuel gauge designs have a striking similarity with the current Ford Focus. About the only negative when one plops in the front seats are its screw-type backrest adjusters.
This recent incarnation of mass market luxury offers premium privileges - such as TDI power, razor sharp handling/steering, comfortable seating and an automatic transmission with manual mode - in a pint-sized package. If this variant - instead of the 1.6L MPI model - was tagged as its base unit (with a little price-slashing), the A3 would definitely one-up its Munich and Stuttgart rivals for mass market elitism.