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(Pocket-lint) - The Audi A3 has had a face-lift following its 2012 debut, presenting a fresher look to Audi's top-selling car in the UK. Sitting in the competitive C segment, the Audi A3 has been holding off competition from its stablemate the VW Golf, fending off the cheaper Ford Focus and an increasingly diverse range of small BMW and Mercedes rivals, among many others. 

Offering a range of body styles - spanning Sportback (5-door), 3-door, Cabriolet, Saloon, as well as e-Tron and the hot S versions - there's no shortage of appeal or options for the Audi A3. With the 2016 revision, there's an eye-watering 127 different configurations according to Audi and no, we haven't tried to count them.

The Sportback - as Audi calls it - is where it all starts and the model that's the most common. With this set to storm into 2016, just what has changed for the new Audi A3?

Our quick take

The new Audi A3 might only be a minor face lift on this Sportback model, but the additional options strengthen a car that was already an attractive performer. There are more engine options, with that 1-litre pulling the price down under £20,000, then 1.4 and 2.0 options in petrol, and 1.6 and 2.0 TDI options too. 

The additional technology options mean that the A3 doesn't miss out on those features that Audi has introduced in its larger cars. Whether that's for increased safety through driver assistance, entertainment from your connected smartphone or that wonderful virtual cockpit, the Audi A3 is gloriously stocked with choices.

That will send the price soaring if you're too enthusiastic about ticking the boxes, but perhaps importantly, even without the options, the Audi A3 gives you a sophisticated driving experience, still one of the most pleasant in its class.

Audi A3 (2016) first drive: Virtual cockpit glory

Audi A3 (2016) first drive: Virtual cockpit glory

  • Virtual cockpit
  • Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support as standard
  • Lots of driver assistance options
  • Plenty of engine choices
  • High quality interior
  • Wonderfully refined drive
  • Not a huge design change from the predecessor
  • Expensive compared to similar VW Golf equivalent
  • Dash air vent trim annoying reflects in the wing mirrors

Audi A3 (2016): Refreshed design

From the exterior, much of the bodywork of the Audi A3 Sportback remains the same. This is already a car that offers a range of options as you skip between the models, but the big change here is around the front grille and lights.

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The nose is accentuated by the front splitter, then forms a tight smile around that gaping grille. Audi has been getting increasingly aggressive in its designs and the standard bodywork at the front of the new A3 pushes this message. Although the bonnet and sides look the same, the detailing has changed around the front edges to make a noticeable difference.

But most will probably be drawn to the lights. Tighter, with a cut-in at the bottom, the A3 now comes with LED or Xenon as standard, with Audi's smart Matrix LED lights as an option. The entry-level SE gets Xenon headlights with LED daylight running lights, while the S line - which is often the most popular trim option - comes with LED front and rear lights as well as the LED interior lighting. 

This is very much the A3 you know and love, but with a slightly more aggressive styling. In once sense that's no bad thing, but in another, it's not a huge departure from the car that came before it.

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Audi A3 (2016): Technology boosts

Aside from giving you a slightly better looking car, one of the big changes is boosting the technology offerings of the A3. We've seen a lot of new tech appear across the Audi family in the past few years and the A3 doesn't miss out. This is where it gets exciting for a lot of people, because you might have thought that the virtual cockpit - the fully-digital driver display - was out of your price range, or on a car that wasn't practical for you. 

Now it's an option on the A3, but it doesn't come as standard. To get the virtual cockpit, you'll have to opt for the Technology Pack Advanced at £1395, and that's only available on Sport and S line trim models. The cheapest configuration with the virtual cockpit, therefore, is just under £23k, compared to the sub-£20k asking price for the new A3. But we think it's a price worth paying.

The addition of the virtual cockpit brings you screaming into the future and is arguably a worthwhile investment, because you also get the navigation with MMI Touch and the phone box with wireless charging, giving you somewhere to stash your phone for boosted reception. And without this digital wonder, there's perhaps less to get excited about with the new A3, as it's all familiar territory.

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Virtual cockpit's big sell is being able to change the view via a button press on that newly-designed steering wheel, so you can have full-screen mapping, which really is glorious. Designed around the driver, virtual cockpit makes it easy to switch through the major views - car info, music, calling and mapping - and get to the information you want without taking your eyes off the road.

The addition of virtual cockpit does raise the question of whether the central pop-up display is necessary, and cars like the Audi TT prove that you can live without it, for a cleaner overall dash design. However, one of the standard updates for the A3 is that the MMI system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto through Audi's Smartphone interface.

We've had a look at Android Auto separately, but it's a great update for Android phone users, as you simply have to plug into the USB port and your device will slave that central display, offering you a range of features - mapping, notifications, voice control, music and calling.

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Sure, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay duplicate some of the car's existing functions, as the A3 comes with Bluetooth as standard, but if you want to get connected through your phone, that's now an option for everyone. 

With a virtual cockpit for the driver and your smartphone connected for entertainment through services like Spotify, the Audi A3 really embraces the future, and driving with both is wonderful. Using Audi's full-screen mapping, but Google's voice controls to get a report on your calendar or speak replies to your messages through Android Auto, it's a tech geek's dream setup. 

Audi A3 (2016): On the road, with new engine choices

Although the interior design is pretty much the same - aside from a new steering wheel and refreshed MMI controls - the quality of the A3 interior has stood the test of time, although little has changed over the past few years. Fusing soft touch plastics with leather, and lots of options for interior lifts, there's no lack of quality and we'd probably pick this interior over the VW Golf alternative, which offers a lot of similar options, but is generally the more affordable choice.

Like the new VW Golf, the entry-level option for the Audi A3 is a 1.0-litre TFSI three-cylinder petrol engine. This is the engine that gives the new A3 its £19k entry point, for which you get 115PS, with Audi saying you'll get over 60mpg from it. We haven't had the chance to test drive this engine yet, but we suspect it will be very much like the Golf version which we have driven, a natural choice for those using it for city or town driving.

Then there's a new 1.4-litre TFSI engine offering 150PS and cylinder-on-demand technology, again designed to give you efficiencies in low load, also claiming over 60mpg, but offering 150PS when you put your foot down. We've experienced cylinder-on-demand in other Audi models, like the S7 for example, and usually it's designed to make big engines more economical, so it's an interesting addition to an engine that's fairly small.

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We found that the S tronic gearbox could be a little slow to respond if not in Dynamic drive mode - so you might prefer the manual for a little more satisfaction and responsive control, otherwise you might find things a little dull, with a spongey go pedel, if you're driving in the eco or comfort modes.

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Our test car, pictured here, was the 150PS 2.0-litre TDI. This engine is something of a VAG stalwart (ignoring all diesel controversies) and has been the natural choice for many who spend their time cruising on the motorways. Paired with the 6-speed manual box it delivers plenty of power and a nice responsive drive. It avoids being too noisy and on our test car, claimed a real world average of around 53mpg, compared to the claimed 65mpg from Audi's figures, which is pretty good in our books. 

One of the problems that's plagued the A3 has been standard sports suspension on some models, because it gives a ride that's firmer than many might perhaps want. Yes, the A3 enjoys a sporty stance, but sometimes you want a softer, more forgiving, ride. As before, you can opt out of sports suspension for the standard "dynamic suspension", and it's a free option to downgrade, and well worth testing both to suit the feel you want.

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The result is a comfortable car with great seats in the front that give plenty of space and enough room to fit adults in the back, although those with longer legs will feel the squeeze. The boot space is also generous at 380 litres.

Ultimately, the Audi A3 is a lovely place to be. The same is true of the VW Golf which is hardly a surprise and where the VW might appeal a little more to your wallet, the Audi brings with it that premium marque. But this is very much the story of the previous version of this car, and when it comes to the driving, very little has changed. 

In the new A3, however, we think the virtual cockpit is an enticing option, because if you can stretch to a few thousand extra, you're getting a sophisticated system that's a little more fun than before.

Audi A3 (2016): Autonomous driving

Autonomous driving is very much the buzzword of 2016. Although that title might over-sell it a little, there's a range of options on the A3 that provide driver assistance - a safer way of naming these things, given the slightly over-zealous "autopilot" positioning that Tesla has opted for.

Many of the assistance systems have been available on Audi's larger cars previously, but, as with some of the other technologies, there's a whole range of options for this popular model. First of all, cruise control is standard, with adaptive cruise control as an option (£475). This doesn't just change your speed, it will bring you to a complete halt and start you driving again, if you have the S tronic gearbox. The same radar that manages this system will also alert you to potential vehicle or pedestrian collisions, and brake for you, or increase the braking strength for you.

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However, there are now options for much more - side assist and lane assist will warn you if you're about to move into the path of another car, as well as gently assisting the steering if you're veering out of your lane. There's also traffic jam assist that will combine all these technologies to control the position of the car in slow moving traffic. There's a cross-traffic system too that will alert you to a car that might be passing as you're reversing into a road. 

Finally there's parking assistance, a system that will detect appropriate parking space and take care of the steering, while you just look after the power and the braking. 

Although this isn't completely autonomous driving - there's no doubt that the driver is very much in control of the car - all the pieces of the driverless car are here, something we've seen working for full autonomy in the Audi piloted driving test car.

To recap

The new Audi A3 sees a minor update and a general uplift in the technology option offered. The experience of driving and living with this car is very much as it was before, but the option to take the virtual cockpit, as well as support for Android and Apple smartphones as standard, makes the A3 a tech-lovers dream car.

Writing by Chris Hall.