NO ONE can ever accuse German car maker Audi of being a shrinking violet, nor can anyone suggest the company lacks the cojones needed to make a serious statement about itself.
This is the company that made the motorsport world sit up and take notice in the 1980s with its quattro S1 all-wheel drive rally cars, remember?
It is the company that dominated American Trans-Am sedan racing before showing the Brits, the French, Australia and yes, even the Germans, how to go racing before dominating sports car endurance racing and particularly making the gruelling Le Mans 24-hour race its own.
When it comes to the mid-life makeover of its sweet A3 and S3 range it makes a big statement but, surprisingly, with its smallest engine.
For this latest take on its quite delicious small car, Audi has opted for a modest entry-level engine, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol unit with direct fuel-injection. It delivers a healthy 85 kilowatts of power, 200 Newton metres of torque and runs nicely from standstill to 100kmh in 9.9 seconds.
And before you start having a quiet giggle to yourself about tiny engines (it weighs a modest 88 kilograms), consider that Volkswagen's turbocharged 1.4-litre used for the entry-level Golf delivers the same torque output and just seven more kilowatts, despite having an extra cylinder and greater capacity.
Fitted with a standard seven-speed S-tronic automatic transmission, the little engine delivers an average 4.8 litres/100km fuel consumption. Better yet, it helps provide a $36,500 entrée to the A3 range.
Right from launch almost 20 years ago, Audi's A3 was one of those small cars that just did not feel small and even though it has grown a bit in successive generations it still has the cabin presence of a bigger car.
At the same time it has not been built down to a budget with quality materials used for the interior, comfortable seats and a cabin, dash and instrument layout that has been considered rather than contrived.
Front bucket seats are generously proportioned, a little firm but well-padded in all the important places and the rear bench is equally comfortable, although a little lacking in under-thigh support and legroom - if you forget, yet again, that it is a small car.
The ride is a little firm and really, no one would have minded if Audi's engineers had wound-back the spring and damper compliance and there is still more road noise intrusion than some will like.
On the road
Good suspension design has long been an Audi hallmark and A3 in all its permutations gets a really good design with independent MacPherson struts up front, independent links on a separate rear subframe, a nicely sorted coil spring and telescopic damper combo and tubular anti-roll bars to finish the package.
For reasons best known to Audi, the 1.0-litre car gets a torsion beam rear axle. It is no bad thing but not quite as sophisticated as the independent set-up on the others.
Add to that four big disc brakes (with even bigger rotors for the 'S' cars) with superb electronics and a well-sorted electric power steering system and you have a car that just lives to be shown a twisty mountain road. Even the 1.0-litre variant.
Twenty years and three generations of A3 has given Audi's engineers a great development path and this newest car shows it, blending tenacity and tact.
The front-wheel-drive cars exhibit modest and predictable understeer, the all-wheel-drive variants are quite neutral and the 'S' variants, fired in anger, enjoy throttle steer.
The acid test? It sits to the driver's left and is called the passenger. For the most part mine talked, smiled and did not reach for the grab handle. That says a lot.
What do you get?
Three body styles - Sportback (hatchback), sedan and cabriolet - and four engines starting with a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbo, stepping-up to a 1.4-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder with "cylinder on demand" (CoD) that shuts-down cylinders two and three when driving conditions allow.
Above them is a 2.0 litre, turbocharged four-cylinder in two states of tune, developing 140 kilowatts for the A4 and 213 kilowatts for the S3 performance variant.
All A3 variants come with a standard seven-speed S-tronic automatic transmission and front-wheel drive although Audi's vaunted quattro all-wheel drive is optional with the 2.0 litre engine.
All S3 variants have quattro and seven-speed auto although a six-speed manual is available.
Standard equipment across the range includes Bi-xenon headlights and daytime running lights, a 7-inch screen for the standard satellite navigation, rear cross-traffic alert, a colour driver information display and a multi-function steering wheel.
Virtual Cockpit, which turns the instrument panel into a vast sat-nav screen, and pedestrian protection with autonomous braking are separately optional but to avoid lengthy options lists Audi has bundled its various bits and pieces into Assistance, Style, Technik, Comfort, S-Line and S-Performance packs.
With the exception of the cabriolet, which is mere indulgence, the A3 is as practical as they come.
The four-door sedan is roomy, comfortable and has a generously proportioned boot (425 litres with the rear seat up, 880 litres with it down) while the Sportback fits a neat little niche between being a small hatchback and a fair dinkum station wagon, able to swallow between 340 and 1120 litres.
In terms of frugalness the 1.0-litre and 1.4-litre engines make enormous sense, don't stymie the car at all and give good fuel consumption number. The 2.0-litre is a neat bridge to the 230 kilowatt unit used for the 'S' cars but feels almost like an ego pleaser rather than a necessity.
How much funky factor does A3 have? Lots. The sedan looks cool and debonair, the Sportback has a footloose and fancy-free feel and the cabriolet has that "summertime moonlight beachside cruise" look and feel.
Like a good wine the A3 family just keeps getting better with age. Unlike some of its rivals it has not been forced to look like a shrunken version of a big sedan (I'm talking to you, Mercedes-Benz) and has been allowed to develop its own identity.
Audi has not gone all cheap seats at the entry point either and those who opt for the lower price range are never going to be made to feel like the poor relations.
With a solid model range and pricing between $36,500 and $72,000 there really is something for everyone.
Funny thing, I am drawn to the two extremes, the 1.0-litre, three-cylinder car and the "mucho mumbo" 'S' with its beefed-up 2.0-litre turbo and quattro all-wheel-drive.
One of each please, Audi, because I'm sure my wife will enjoy driving an S3.
Models: Audi A3/S3. Sportback: 1.0 TFSI, 1.4 TFSI CoD, 2.0 TFSI and S3 2.0 TFSI
Sedan: 1.4 TFSI CoD, 2.0 TFSI and S3 2.0 TFSI
Cabriolet: 1.4 TFSI CoD, 2.0 TFSI and S3 2.0 TFSI
Details: Five-door hatch, four-door sedan and two-door cabriolet. Front-wheel-drive standard for 1.0, 1.4 and 2.0, S3 gets quattro all-wheel-drive.
Engines: 1.0 litre, turbocharged three-cylinder, 85kW @ 5000-5500rpm, 200Nm @ 2000-3500rpm.
1.4 litre, turbocharged four-cylinder with cylinder-on-demand, 110kW @ 5000-6000rpm, 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm
2.0 litre, turbocharged four-cylinder, 140kW @ 4200-6000rpm, 320Nm @ 1500-4200rpm
2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 213kW @ 5100-6500rpm, 380Nm @ 1800-5100rpm
Transmission: 7-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic, six-speed manual (optional on S3)
Consumption: 4.8 litres/100km (1.0-litre), 5.0 litres/100km (1.4 CoD), 5.8 litres/100km (2.0-litre), 6.5 litres/100km (S3) 7.1 litres/100km (manual S3)
Performance 0-100kmh: 9.9 seconds (1.0-litre), 8.2 seconds (1.4-litre), 6.8 seconds (2.0 litre), 5.4 seconds (S3 manual), 4.8 seconds (S3 automatic)
Bottom line plus on-roads: $36,500 (1.0-litre); $39,900 (1.4 CoD); $45,900 (2.0-litre); $62,900 (S3). Prices shown are for Sportback variants. Add $1600 for comparable sedan and $9100 for comparable cabriolet models.
What matters most
What we liked: Big car feel, torquey turbo motors, lusty 'S' engines, comfort.
What we'd like to see: Slightly softer ride, less road noise, 1.0 litre cabriolet.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. A servicing plan is available for three years or 45,000 kilometres for $1680. Servicing is every 15,000km or 12 months.
Driving experience 16/20
Features and equipment 15/20
Functionality and comfort 17/20
Value for money 16/20
Style and design 17/20
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