What stands out?

The Audi A3 wraps a stunning interior in a classy, understated exterior and spoils buyers for choice with sedan and Sportback bodies, multiple engine options and an array of luxury and safety features. The A3 is smooth yet enjoyable to drive on a flowing country road, and the S3 is a rocket. This review covers A3s on sale prior to the upgrade of December 2016.

What might bug me?

How much you paid for your A3, after you learn how much it has in common with its less costly Volkswagen sibling the Golf.

Driving under 80km/h on the space-saver spare until you can fix your full-sized flat tyre.

Stop-start driving with the automatic transmission: the A3’s DSG auto gearbox is great once you’re moving, but many drivers do not find it as smooth and easy in town as a conventional or CVT auto.

What body styles are there?

Four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback that Audi calls a Sportback. (An A3 Cabriolet with a folding roof is also available, but is not covered in this review. The very high performance Audi RS3 is also not covered.)

The Audi A3 drives either its front wheels or all four wheels, depending on the version. The Audi S3 drives all four wheels. Both are classed as small cars, higher priced.

What features do all versions have?

Cruise control, dual-zone air-conditioning (which lets you set different temperatures for each side of the cabin), and leather seat trim.

A reversing camera, and front and rear parking sensors (from about November 2015).

Windscreen wipers that operate automatically when it rains, and headlights that turn on automatically when it’s getting dark.

A tyre pressure monitor, which warns you if a tyre has lost air (this can give you extra time to get a slow puncture seen to).

A CD/radio infotainment system with a colour touchscreen interface (5.8 inches on all but the e-tron and S3) that rises electrically from the top of the dashboard. Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity for audio streaming and phone calls.

A leather-wrapped steering wheel that has buttons for controlling the audio system and Bluetooth. Paddle gear shifters on the steering column (in auto versions). Rear parking sensors.

Aluminium alloy wheels, which are usually lighter and better looking than steel wheels, and a space-saver steel spare wheel.

Seven airbags: two directly in front of the driver and front passenger; one alongside each front occupant to protect the upper body; a curtain airbag on each side to protect the heads of front and rear occupants; and a knee protection airbag for the driver.

Electronic stability control, which can help the driver to control a skidding car. All new cars must have this feature.

Available on any A3 or S3 is an Assistance pack that adds active safety features. It gives you adaptive cruise control, which maintains a safe distance from vehicles ahead, and automatic emergency braking which works at low and high speeds. (The auto brake system detects obstacles ahead, warns you if a collision seems likely, and applies the brakes if a collision is imminent.) A lane departure warning alerts you if you stray from your lane, and a high beam assistant automatically dips the headlights for oncoming cars. Finally, a blind spot monitor warns of a vehicle alongside when changing lanes. The pack costs about $1800.

Every Audi A3 and S3 carries a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.

Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?

The 1.4-litre petrol-electric hybrid is the most fuel efficient engine offered in an A3, consuming a mere 1.6 litres/100km on the official test (city and country combined). This is an excellent powerplant, providing very good acceleration, a long range between fill-ups, and near-silent battery power around town.

One reason not to choose it is that it comes only in the most expensive A3, the Sportback e-tron, which is a plug-in hybrid (you can charge it from a household power socket). Another is that on long trips in the country, where it relies on its petrol engine much more than its battery, fuel use will approach the 5.0 litres/100km of other A3s with this engine.

Of the non-hybrid engines, the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel offered in the A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Attraction is the most economical, using only 3.9 litres/100km on the official test. Nearly as thrifty is the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel available in the more expensive A3 Ambition models.

Diesel A3 engines are among the most refined small oil-burners available, and provide power from very low speeds in an effortless manner that the petrol engines can’t match.

However, diesel owners need to spend 30 minutes at highway speeds every fortnight to clean out the cars’ particulate filters. So the diesels are not good bets if you will mainly be trundling around town. (The filters reduce the amount of exhaust soot that gets into the air.)

Of the petrol engines, the least thirsty are the 1.4-litre turbocharged units powering the other A3 Attraction models. Both use less than 5.0 litres/100km in the official test. (The CoD version is slightly more fuel-efficient: it runs on just two of its four cylinders when it is not doing much work.)

However, all engines in A3s and S3s are economical for the performance they offer – even the very powerful 2.0-litre turbo in the S3 uses only 7.0 litres/100km officially.

All A3s have a dual-clutch automatic (DSG) gearbox with either six or seven ratios. The S3 offers the option of a DSG auto or a six-speed manual.

What key features do I get if I spend more?

The least costly Audi A3s, the Attraction models, have the equipment in all A3s and either a 1.4 TFSI petrol engine or the 1.6 TDI diesel. Spend more for an A3 Ambition and you can choose from more powerful 1.8 TFSI petrol and 2.0 TDI diesel engines.

A3 Ambitions also have front foglights, and cosmetic upgrades such as aluminium trim on the windows and aluminium-look elements inside. There is a more sculpted sports steering wheel, and sports front seats that provide greater lateral support.

Ambition models also have wheels an inch bigger in diameter at 17 inches. These are fitted with wider tyres with smaller sidewalls, which slightly increase grip and steering response. And Ambitions have Audi’s drive select system. This lets you adjust how the steering, engine and gearbox respond to you: very immediately, for sporty driving, or more lazily for touring or city use.

Ambition quattro A3s are upgraded from front-wheel-drive to all-wheel-drive, which adds security in poor conditions and improves handling.

Spend more again for an A3 Sportback e-tron and you get the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid engine, and subsidised installation of an Audi fast-charger in your garage. You also get a bigger, 7.0-inch touchscreen, satellite navigation, and a park assist system that can steer the car into a parking spot. Extremely long-lived LED headlamps show the way at night, and a convenience key allows you to unlock the car with the key still safe in a pocket or bag. The e-tron’s other features match the A3 Ambition’s.

For about the same price as the Sportback e-tron you could have an Audi S3. This is the high-performance A3, available in sedan and Sportback form. It has a much more powerful 2.0-litre turbo engine, quattro all-wheel-drive, firmer suspension, and 18-inch wheels.

For equipment, the S3 matches the e-tron, except that its headlamps are extremely bright Xenon types rather than LEDs. The S3 also has a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, and power-adjusted, heated sports front seats.

Attraction and Ambition versions of the A3 can be optioned-up to give them some of the equipment found in the e-tron and S3, including park-assist, power-adjustable front seats, and keyless entry. These items come bundled in option packs.

S3 versions can be upgraded further with an S Performance package, which adds adaptive dampers, LED headlights, a Bang and Olufsen brand audio system, and S Sport front seats that provide more side-support.

Does any upgrade have a down side?

The 17- and 18-inch tyres available on more expensive models (and optional for all) reduce low-speed ride comfort compared with the 16-inch tyres fitted to Attraction versions.

The firm Sports suspension of the S3 sacrifices some ride comfort.

Choosing the optional S Sport front seats for the S3 means sacrificing power adjustment and seat heaters.

Choosing a quattro all-wheel-drive A3 brings a fuel consumption increase of about 15 per cent.

Boot space in the Sportback e-tron is about 100 litres smaller than in other Sportback A3s.

Metallic paint comes at an extra cost of about $1050. Considering there are no non-metallic colours available, this is a sneaky way of reducing the list price.

How comfortable is it?

Audi is renowned for the classy design and beautiful build of its interiors, and this applies firmly to the A3 and S3 sedan and Sportback, which are about as luxurious as small cars get.

A sense of quality pervades inside, courtesy of supportive front seats, terrific ergonomics, and the pleasant operation of the controls - from the steering wheel and gear-lever to the knobs and buttons for the audio system and air-conditioning.

As well as being a lovely place in which to sit, the A3 and S3 cabins are hushed, isolating occupants from tyre roar, wind rustle and suspension noise.

The ride over rough roads is comfortable. The suspension keeps the body from floating around yet also absorbs bumps well.

What about safety?

The addition of a reversing camera and parking sensors to all models about November 2015 improved a very safe basic package.

Automatic braking is not provided as standard on an A3 or S3. However, a comprehensive suite of active safety features, including high and low speed auto braking, auto cruise control, and lane departure warning, are offered in an Assistance pack, an extra cost option.

The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the Audi A3 and S3 its maximum five stars for safety.

I like driving - will I enjoy this car?

Yes, you will enjoy driving the Audi A3, and a driving enthusiast would love the S3.

The A3 balances ride comfort, handling agility, refinement and involvement better than most small cars: few fill the all-rounder role quite so well. The only alternative that goes close is the Volkswagen Golf, which shares many A3 components.

There is a big difference in power across A3 and S3 models. The 1.8 TFSI petrol A3 Ambitions have about 40 per cent more power than the 1.4 TFSI Sportback Attraction, while the 2.0-litre turbo S3 has about 60 per cent more power than the petrol Ambitions.

The S3 is incredibly quick, with a grunty engine character to match. Meanwhile, the A3s are smooth, flexible, and increasingly swift.

With the A3 Sportback e-tron, Audi has done a brilliant job of integrating electric and petrol power sources. It is hard to tell you are not driving a petrol car, except that the e-tron is uncannily quiet when running on the battery around town.

On S3 versions, the sports suspension and 18-inch tyres sharpen the steering and handling and increase the overall roadholding limit. The cornering capability of an S3 is as eye-widening as the acceleration.

If you prefer a diesel, the 1.6 TDI has pulling power about equal to the 1.8-litre petrol engine, and the 2.0 TDI has about 35 percent more power than the 1.8 at low engine speeds.

The dual-clutch automatic gearbox works well, and both the sports mode (on drive-select versions) and paddle gear shifters (on all) bring an extra dimension to the enjoyment of the A3 and S3. The S3 six-speed manual is also a delight to operate.

How is life in the rear seats?

The rear seat area of the Audi A3 and S3 is roomy and as beautifully presented as the front of the cabin.

The seat cushion comfort and support are excellent, and the backrest angle is well judged. There are air-conditioning vents in the back, a rarity in a small car.

A centre rear armrest with load-through port into the boot comes as an option for about $400.

Some of the Sportback’s headroom is lost in the sedan due to the downwards taper of its roofline.

How is it for carrying stuff?

The Audi A3 and S3 sedan have a 425 litre boot, which is 45 litres bigger than the Sportback’s – they’re both quite generous. However, the Sportback – a hatch in generic terms – brings the practicality of a tailgate and offers 1220 litres of luggage space with its rear seatbacks 60/40 split-folded flat, while the sedan offers a total of 880 litres.

Where is it made?

The Audi A3 is manufactured in Hungary, and the S3 is manufactured in Germany.

What might I miss that similar cars have?

Not much, if you include what’s available as an option at extra cost. Just be aware that not every feature provided as standard on less costly cars will be standard on an A3.

The Renault Megane has a five-year warranty, and the Citroen C4 has a six-year warranty.

Other cars worth considering are the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and CLA-Class, Volkswagen Golf, and Peugeot 308. You might also look at the Ford Focus.

I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?

Sure. Our pick of the A3 range is the 1.8 TFSI front-wheel drive. The quattro version is worth considering, but carries a cost and fuel consumption penalty.

The 1.8-litre engine is at the power and performance sweet spot and its fuel efficiency is very good.

Choosing between the A3 sedan and Sportback is difficult – the sedan costs a bit more and isn’t quite as spacious in the back (or the boot), but arguably it’s better looking.

When did Audi update this A3?

The current 8V series A3 arrived in 2013, and the Sportback e-tron was added about August 2015. A high-powered turbo five-cylinder RS3 variant (not covered in this review) joined the local line-up in October of 2015. A reversing camera was fitted standard to all cars for the 2016 model year, from about November of 2015.

About December 2016 an upgraded A3 series and S3 went on sale in Australia. The new cars look much the same but offer city-speed auto braking as standard, and the option of extended auto braking that can also hold your place in stop-start traffic. Three petrol engines were offered, and the diesel engines were dropped. Xenon headlamps were made standard, smartphone connectivity improved, and a digital instrument panel was available as an option. The Sportback e-tron was not immediately upgraded.