The Audi A3 is understated and elegant. Its masterly crafted panels fit just right, the paint is exquisite, and there's an overall expensive look to it that contradicts the usual expectations for a small, affordable car.
A compact five-door hatchback can't be a car designer's favorite project. There's only so much that can be done to fit all those doors on a short wheelbase. But Audi stylists have done a good job of it. In profile, the sweep of the roofline is supported by a strong shoulder line that joins front, side and rear of the car and leads the eye to the strong rear end, all of which makes it appear as though the A3 is launching forward, springing into action.
The front end is particularly distinctive, again projecting a sense of forward motion. Audi's current family-look single-frame grille is flanked by canted headlamp clusters (forming a determined frown) and prominent lower intake grilles. It's an aggressive nose, but it doesn't overly dominate the design, as the eye gets drawn along the distinct shoulder line, which also forms a visual tension with the sloping roof; while bodyside molding and deeply creased lower side panels break up the large door areas into pieces of a well-crafted puzzle.
Wraparound taillamp clusters accentuate the broad sweep of the rear. They also give the shoulder line a take-off point that makes it look like a small spoiler has been integrated into the hatch just below the window line. Very sporty, as is the pair of bright exhaust tips not so bashfully protruding from below the bumper.
Inside, the Audi A3 feels upscale. It offers a fine combination of utility and comfort, and exudes a high level of workmanship. Most materials are pleasing, and the cockpit is a model of applied ergonomic science, with logical placement of controls and highly legible read-outs.
To evoke the feel of driving a sports car, the seating position is placed low in relation to the high and wide console. We found the seats to be very nice, and legroom adequate, both front and rear. The back seats are quite comfortable, more supportive than the front seats on many compacts, but the slope of the roof means tall passengers may find rear headroom compromised.
The point of a five-door hatchback, of course, is the versatility of the interior. For starters, the luggage area can be increased by folding flat the split rear seatbacks. Indeed, the rear seats flip down easily. This does not result in a perfectly flat cargo floor, but this isn't usually an issue. An accessory roof rack is available in a choice of several different configurations depending on the intended use.
The wide doors make it easy to climb in and out. But Audi's shallow flush-fitting door handles aren't as easy to grab as the handles on BMWs and some other cars, and can snap away from your fingers when in a hurry. The seatbelt alarm goes off whenever the car is running, annoying when sitting in a parking lot. And we found it a bit too easy to hit the panic button on the remote key fob.
The Open Sky dual sunroof option is very cool, although only the front of the two glass panels opens. Both have retractable sunshades, but the mesh covers let too much light in for our taste. We believe in letting the sun shine in, but not on glaring days when it distracts from driving or turns a parked cabin into an oven.