The Audi A3 is a premium small car that rivals the BMW 1 Series and Volkswagen Golf, offering a practical and attractive hatchback shape with the quality you expect from a German brand.

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The A3 does feature a quality interior, and it feels like a much bigger and more expensive car as a result, but it's not quite as good to drive as the BMW 1 Series. Being based on the VW Golf, it features a number of excellent engines, with the 1.6 TDI diesel and 1.4 TFSI petrol engines being the pick of the bunch for combining economy and performance.

It's available as a three-door hatchback, a five-door A3 Sportback, a Cabriolet and a Saloon, as well as a hot S3 model powered by a 296bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine. Plus, an extreme RS3 model and a plug-in hybrid e-tron version will complete the line-up when they go on sale in 2014.

The electric e-tron doesn’t feel as revolutionary as the BMW i3, but it is also significantly easier to live with every day. There's plenty of choice in the Audi A3 range, so there should be a body style for any prospective buyer.

Our choice: A3 1.6 TDI S line

Styling

The Audi A3 doesn't exactly set itself apart from the rest of the Audi range, sharing the familiar lights and grille from almost every model in the firm's line-up. The styling might be conservative, but it remains popular with buyers - it's actually a smart design with a premium feel to it, so it's certainly attractive enough for most.

The interior is a bigger draw, however, thanks to the excellent quality on offer and the neat dashboard layout. There are three specifications available - SE, Sport and S line. Entry-level models get 16-inch alloy wheels, stop-start tech, air-con, Bluetooth and a very slick 5.8-inch screen that pops out from the top of the dash - an excellent feature for a base model to have. Go for the top-spec S line model and you get 18-inch alloys, a sporty body kit and xenon lights.

Driving

Audi has a bit of a reputation for sacrificing comfort in favour of hard suspension to improve handling, but the Audi A3 actually bucks that trend - the suspension is much better than it was before, with only a hint of firmness. It's not as good to drive as the BMW 1 Series thanks to somewhat uninvolving handling, but it's still a decent drive overall.

The standard suspension from the SE model is available on the sportier Sport and S-Line models, or you can choose a sportier set-up at no extra cost - be awards that the ride firms up with this suspension, though. We'd choose either the 1.6-litre TDI or the clever 1.4 petrol engine for a good mix of economy and performance - the petrol model can turn off cylinders when they're not needed to save fuel. Go for the 1.8-litre petrol if you need speed at the expense of economy, or the 2.0 TDI for great power and efficiency at the cost of refinement.

Reliability

The Audi A3 is impressively safe, scoring the full five stars in its Euro NCAP crash test with 95 per cent in the adult occupant protection category. The A3 also comes with a raft of safety systems in place, including radar-controlled cruise control that maintains a set distance to the car in front, lane-keep assist, traffic sign detection and a pre-sense system to prepare the car in the event of an accident. There's even a self-park system that can turn the wheel for you to get into tight spots.

When it comes to reliability, the Audi A3's 110th place finish in the 2013 Driver Power survey's top 150 cars shows that its owners aren't totally satisfied with it. However, the older model's stiff suspension, high running costs and poor standard equipment were the main complaints, and this newer model seems to have sorted those issues out.

Practicality

The latest Audi A3 is the same length as the previous model, but thanks to a longer wheelbase there's actually more room for passengers than before. There's more elbow room too, thanks to the wider track. Legroom still isn't great for taller adults, but getting in and out of the three-door shouldn't be too much trouble for most.

Thanks to the extra space there more room in the boot as well, with 365 litres available with the rear seats in place or a maximum 1,100 litres with them folded. That means it's a bit less roomy than the BMW 1 Series (which offers 360 and 1,200 litres) and the Mk7 Golf (which manages 380 and 1,270 litres).

For an extra £620, however, you can get the five-door A3 Sportback, which has a 380-litre boot, and you can fold the rear seats down to create a 1,220-litre load area.

Running Costs

Go for a diesel engine for the best economy: the 2.0 TDI returns 68.9mpg and has CO2 emissions of only 106g/km, while the 1.6 TDI drops into the tax-free sub-100g/km bracket and returns 74.3mpg.

Petrol engines are usually a lot less economical, but the Audi A3's 1.8 TFSI actually gets 50.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 130g/km - not bad considering the performance on offer. Plus, the clever 1.4-litre petrol features cylinder deactivation to return 54.3mpg and emit only 120g/km of CO2, making it free to tax for the first year and very cheap from there onwards.

However, because it falls into insurance group 16, an equivalent 1 Series or Golf will be cheaper to insure. It's also quite a bit more expensive to buy than a Ford Focus or VW Golf, but standard equipment is excellent. Residual values should be good, too.

The service schedule ranges from 9,000 miles for minor checks to 19,000 miles for a full service. Audi offers a range of fixed-price deals, though, so owning an A3 shouldn’t prove too costly.

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