Back in 1996, Audi presented a new entry-level car based on the Mk IV Volkswagen Golf platform. Despite its humble VW Golf roots, the original Audi A3 boasted impressive innovations for its class, as it borrowed features from higher-market Audis. Because of this brand sharing, the Audi A3 was able to offer a far more luxurious and sport package than any other car in its class. Thus, inventing the premium compact class.
At first launch, the Audi A3 was only available in three-door trim with a few engine options, both diesel and gasoline, and was only front-wheel drive. In 1998, Audi’s brilliant Quattro all-wheel drive was offered and in 1999, a five-door variant came. Later on that year, the first ever Audi S3 was developed and sported a five-valve per cylinder, 1.8 liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 210 hp.
Then came the second-generation Audi A3, which still sported a split grille an was based on the MkV Volkswagen Golf platform. But in 2005, the A3 gained the new Singleframe grille that was seen on the B7 Audi A4. This is when the A3 truly became a more premium car, as it was gaining new technologies that cars in its class simply didn’t have. The second-generation Audi A3 also launched the model across the Atlantic to the North American market and also launched a new drop-top Cabriolet model.
Because of the Audi A3’s relative lack of popularity in the US, Audi decided to change things up for the current third generation. For the first time, both a sedan and hatchback model would be offered in the A3 lineup. The sedan is obviously four-door only, but the hatchback comes in both three or five-door configurations. Audi also recently updated the third-gen A3 to bare more of a resemblance to the new B9 Audi A4. It’s a far better looking car than the one it replaces and looks every bit as premium as its more expensive siblings.
The newly-refreshed, third-gen Audi S3 is also quite a spectacular little car and the best performing small Audi on the market, currently. With its 2.0 liter turbocharged engine, it develops 310 hp (292 in the US) and is paired with a dual-clutch automatic. While the second-gen Audi S3 was the first to use a dual-clutch transmission, this new third-gen model sports a seven-speed S-Tronic for the first time.
But this third-gen A3 model line offers more than just the standard car and the hot-hatch S3. There’s the RS3 Sportback, which packs a 367 hp 2.5 liter turbocharged five-cylinder and the newly announced Audi RS3 Sedan, making 400 hp from an updated variant of the same engine. So the A3 model range spans everything from tiny three-door hatchback economy cars to high-performance sedans.
Now, there’s even two alternative fuel variants of the Audi A3. There’s the plug-in hybrid Audi A3 e-tron Sportback, which is available both in Europe and North America. This combines Audi’s 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and battery pack to maximize efficiency. There’s also the Audi A3 g-tron, which runs on natural gas. Though, the g-tron is far more exclusive and you’d be lucky to ever actually see one. However, the tech is there.
Ever since the Audi A3 was born 20 years ago, there have been 54 different model variants of the premium compact Audi. It’s also now being sold in over 100 markets worldwide, making it a mainstream success and not just a plucky European compact car. In the A3’s 20 years of life, Audi has sold over four million units, making it one of the brand’s most successful models of al time.