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CAR’s 2016 Top 12 Best Buys Compact Hatchback champ sports a new face and a brawnier engine

The Audi A3 could easily rest on its laurels; it has proven itself as the benchmark compact hatch. Running on the VW Group's superb MQB platform, the A3's ride and interior quality have yet to be superseded by any number of recent premium hatch competitors and it is for these reasons that the A3 has won its CAR Top 12 Best Buys category in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Now, more than three years into its cycle, comes a facelift that introduces new engines, including this revised, turbocharged 1,4-litre four-cylinder that gains a hefty bump in power; 20 kW and 50 N.m of torque, to be exact. This engine and the derivatives it powers, anticipates Audi, will make up 50% of A3 sales in South Africa.

Visually, the facelift offers subtle revisions aimed at giving the A3 a more aggressive look thanks to redesigned bumpers, bonnet and head- and taillamps. The R20 000 S Line package you see on our test unit provides additional side skirting, a rear diffuser and spoiler. The interior doesn’t offer any notable changes – not that any were needed – apart from the optional Virtual Cockpit which has to be specced with the navigation system. This adds an additional cost of R31 300. As ever, the A3’s fit and finish remains the best in its class, with a thread of quality that runs through everything from the well-bolstered and comfortable seats to the intuitive infotainment system and climate controls.

The most important revision to this A3, however, is its 110 kW engine, which is mated here to a six-speed manual transmission. The test conducted in our July 2013 issue of an S tronic-equipped A3 1,4T FSI praised the 90 kW powerplant for its respectable economy and punchy persona, and these new test results indicate a 0-100 km/h time of 0,68 seconds quicker. That’s a marginal improvement given the power and transmission differences. The CAR testers felt that the six-speed manual option is more engaging than the S tronic, but we also note that speccing the car with a manual is likely to mean a lower resale value compared with an auto.

Much like many other manual transmissions used in VW Group products, the ratios in this model are fairly long. This, coupled with slight turbo lag low down, means that highway overtaking is best done in third gear for anything below 80 km/h and fourth gear for anything above. From 80 to 100 km/h, fourth gear is strong enough to make overtaking a stress-free affair. And, thanks to excellent sound-deadening qualities, the engine remains commendably refined pretty much throughout its rev range.

There’s little need for the A3’s lower gears in urban areas, though, as the extra power comfortably carries it through the vagaries of city traffic. That turbo lag mentioned earlier is evident from a standing start, but is absent when reaching higher speeds. The A3 also has the safety box well ticked. It managed an excellent average 100-0 km/h stopping time of 2,87 seconds thanks to a combination of 225/40 R18 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo 2 tyres and the ABS and EBD systems.

It also comes standard with six airbags – front, side, and head for the driver and front passenger – plus optional side airbags for the rear passengers. As we’ve often said of this generation A3, the ride is generally very refined and comfortable, but you do feel the larger wheels and tyres on pockmarked city roads, where there’s noticeable bump-thump.

Back to the body shape: being a three-door, there are inherent compromises in terms of practicality. Rear legroom is compromised; consider that we measured 605 mm of legroom versus the Sportback’s 660 mm, and the advantages of the latter’s longer wheelbase become evident. Thankfully, compared to some vehicles equipped with just two doors, gaining access to the rear seat is relatively easy and the front seats return to their position. With both 60:40-split rear seats folded flat, the utility space measures in at 880 dm3, which is slightly less than the Mercedes-Benz A200 and BMW 118i.

TEST SUMMARY

When we put the A3 up against the A-Class and 1 Series in a comparative test that appeared in our July 2013 issue, we concluded that, although each hatch had its strengths and brand-loyal buyers would not be disappointed, we believed the A3 to be a better overall package. This test confirms that.

This facelift’s visual changes may be minor, but the updated powetrains have added to the range’s allure. Other engines in the A3’s three-door hatch range include the 1,0 and 2,0T FSI and, when tested in other Audi models, we praised them for their polished personas. The revised 1,4T FSI found in this A3, however, hits the sweet spot.

*From the February 2017 issue of CAR magazine

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