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Audi A3 Mk3: best cars in the history of What Car?

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We’re looking back over the past 47 years to find the best car in the history of What Car?. Today, head of video Doug Revolta makes the case for the Mk3 Audi A3…

Stop yawning! AnAudi A3 might not hold much romantic appeal in this list of great What Car? cars, but I’m willing to bet that in years to come this particular Mk3 version will represent peak mass-market automotive engineering. I said stop!

To explain and appreciate the greatness of the third-generation Audi A3, we need to start at the end of its life rather than the beginning.

Upon the arrival of a glamorous new Mercedes A-Class in 2018, we decided to pit the newcomer against two premium-badged rivals that were soon to be replaced: the BMW 1 Series and the Audi A3 Sportback.

An easy win for the new Mercedes, right? Well, while the 1 Series was indeed blown out of the water by the new A-Class, the A3 actually emerged as the winner. An astonishing achievement given that it was launched some six years earlier and any updates since had been small.

Outstanding on the road and practical inside, it was the quality of the third-generation A3’s interior that really shone through. For outright build quality, you could have pitted it against any car on the road – Mercedes S-Classes, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys included – and the A3 would hold its own, I promise you. Yes, the interior design was understated, but integrity was top-drawer.

And it was an ergonomic dream, too. Manufacturers now seem to be in a race to make their infotainment systems look as fancy as possible in a showroom rather than focussing on usability. Beck then, Audi gave you a super-intuitive rotary controller interface, physical shortcut buttons, and a screen which the dashboard could swallow when you didn’t need it. Simple.

A lot was riding on the car when it was launched in back 2012 – first in three-door form and then swiftly followed by a five-door Sportback. It was the latter that scooped our top gong at the 2013 What Car? Awards.

It was the first model to sit on the Volkswagen Group’s vastly expensive MQB platform, which cost a reported £50bn to develop. Without getting too technical, MQB was designed by the group to enable all of its mainstream brands – Audi, Skoda, Seat and Volkswagen – to share mechanical underpinnings more easily and with greater flexibility. This kept manufacturing costs down and allowed for competitively priced products that earned healthy profits.

MQB lives on today, underpinning millions of cars sold across the global Volkswagen Group portfolio. But it all began with the Audi A3. And by way of illustrating that pioneering success, it was still the biggest seller in Audi’s now enormous lineup in the UK last year.

On the outside, it merely looked like a subtle evolution of what had gone before. But it was entirely new under the skin and a vastly superior car, in every way, to its predecessor. And that’s all the more impressive when you consider that the previous car wasn’t half bad.

The massive improvements to refinement and interior quality were more than enough to make the third-generation A3 a great buy. Excellent driving manners, competitive pricing and a lineup of brilliant petrol and diesel engines sealed the deal on its Car of the Year win, and saw off competition from the closely related Volkswagen Golf Mk7.

When handing out the award, we said:

“It mixes excellent refinement and an accomplished driving experience with easily the finest cabin quality ever seen in a small family hatchback.

And if that isn’t reason enough to get you impressed, the regular hatchback version spawned other hugely successful variants. There was a drop-trop, a saloon, hot S3 and RS3 models and even the plug-in hybrid A3 E-tron. Between them all, the A3 badge collected seven What Car? awards in seven years.

Its legacy was sealed in southern Spain this year, at the launch of the new fourth-generation Audi A3, itself sitting on the same – albeit mildly updated – MQB platform, and proving to be a very fine car indeed. But is it as good as its predecessor? Well, not inside it isn’t. You might prefer the look of the new model’s interior, but there are some flimsy plastic on the dashboard and the infotainment system throws away the simplicity of the third-generation A3’s for a cheaper touchscreen (compounded by an utterly useless touch-sensitive volume control).

While other contenders in our greatest cars list can point to having a strong influence on the cars that followed them, this A3 was the finished article. It very much feels like the pinnacle of mass-market car production – a marked step on from even the Mk5 Golf in this list.

With the continuing electric revolution stretching manufacturers’ development resources increasingly thinly, when will we next see such a well-polished and accomplished all-rounder? Is it all downhill from here? The third-generation Audi A3 was easily the best family car ever made and deserves your vote as the greatest car in What Car?’s history.

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