The Audi A3 is nearly 25 years old, and in that quarter-century, you could argue no other car has changed its genre as much as Audi’s compact hatchback.
Introduced to do battle with the wildly-popular Volkswagen Golf, the A3 brought the allure and glamour of an upmarket German brand to the compact hatchback segment when it arrived in 1996.
It had sophisticated looks, a premium feel, and impressive build quality, all with a price tag that was within reach for a lot of aspiring drivers. The premium hatch category was officially born.
Fast forward to 2020, and Audi has introduced the brand new, fourth generation A3, but what about those models that came before? Read on for a history of the Audi A3.
First generation: 1996-2005
When Audi’s hatchback launched in 1996, the A3 quickly established itself as a highly desirable vehicle. It was based on the same platform that the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf would use when it arrived later that same year, and was initially available only as a three-door hatchback. A five-door model came in 1999, as did the first-ever S3.
Available as a three-door only, the S3 was powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, and also wore Audi’s Quattro moniker, meaning that the 222bhp could be sent to all four wheels when the driving conditions required it.
Elsewhere in the range, powertrains included 1.6 and 1.8-litre petrol engines, and a 1.9-litre diesel, each available in at least two states of tune.
When it went on sale in 1996, pricing for the A3 started at £14,500, rising to £24,665 for faster and more luxurious models.
As popularity and demand for the A3 grew, the first-gen car was given a mid-life refresh in late 2000, with Audi adding new front and rear lights, as well as an improved interior and other minor cosmetic tweaks.
Second generation: 2005-2013
The second generation A3 brought with it a brand new look, as well as some new variants in the line-up. The five-door model would now be called the Sportback, a name that is still present in A3 range today, and the first A3 Cabriolet – with a classic cloth top – became available in 2008, broadening the appeal of the already-popular hatch.
Just like the first generation A3, this second generation model was also available as three door-only when it launched. The five-door Sportback was introduced just one year later this time, though, and in fact became the only version of the A3 offered in the North American market.
The S3 returned for its encore, but its title as the ‘fastest A3’ was wrestled away from it in 2011. The first-ever RS3 – the hottest version of the A3 to date – was introduced, powered by Audi’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, sending its power to all four wheels via the company’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
While the S3 developed 261bhp from its 2.0-litre petrol engine, the RS3 really turned the dial to eleven, with 335bhp, a seven-speed S tronic transmission, and a widened track to help the power reach the ground.
Elsewhere in the line-up, powertrains were much more varied than in the case of the first generation A3, with 1.2, 1.4, 1.6, 2.0, 2.5 and 3.2-litre petrol engines available, along with 1.6, 1.9 and 2.0-litre diesels.
This A3 was priced at £14,825 at launch, rising to £39,505 for a top-of-the-range RS3 model.
Third generation: 2012-2020
Having been unveiled at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, the third iteration of the popular German hatchback reached the market later that same year.
The third generation Audi A3 was, for the first time, available as both a three and five-door model at launch and in 2013, Audi added a Saloon bodystyle to the A3 line-up too, giving buyers a new option in the small executive saloon sector.
The firsts didn’t stop there, either, with the introduction of the A3 e-tron in 2014. Powered by a 1.4-litre petrol unit, the A3 e-tron also incorporated a 101hp electric motor and 8.8kWh battery, delivering an electric-only range of 50 miles – an impressive distance for a plug-in hybrid hatchback.
Once again, the S3 and RS3 returned, with updated powertrains and equipment since the second generation versions of the same models. The S3 was powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine developing 296bhp, while Audi’s five-cylinder 2.5-litre unit once again powered the RS3, with 362bhp. Both the S3 and RS3 were available in hatchback or saloon bodystyles, with the S3 also being available in Cabriolet form for the first time.
At launch, the third gen A3 started at £18,280, topping out at north of £51,000 for an RS3 Saloon model.
Fourth generation: 2020-present
Audi has sold more than four million A3s worldwide since it was introduced in the mid-90s, and this latest model promises to take the popular hatchback to the next level.
In response to the buying habits of customers over recent years, Audi is no longer offering a three-door variant of the A3, with the fourth generation model being available as a five-door Sportback model only to begin with, and a saloon version shortly after.
The A3 is now totally digital, too, with a 10.25-inch virtual cockpit now standard across the range, in addition to a 10.1-inch touch infotainment display.
A 1.5-litre petrol and 2.0-litre diesel are available right now, with Audi promising a mild hybrid variant of the 1.5-litre petrol in the near future, followed by further petrol and diesel powertrains later down the line.
Details of a new S3 or RS3 are yet to surface, though based on the success of previous versions, you can expect these performance A3 models to be on Audi’s roadmap for the newest model.
Pricing for the 2020 Audi A3 starts at £24,900.
Which A3 over the years has been your favourite? Perhaps the original is the best for you? Or maybe it’s the crazy RS3 that gets your vote. Let us know which one’s your pick by tweeting us!