The face may be familiar but the original A3 is still a class act. It’s fine to drive and solidly built although early examples are now quite tired.
Discreet good looks
Build quality
Fine engines
Cramped rear seats
Gutless 1.6-litre petrol engine
Parts prices can be high

Audi A3 Mk 1 review (1996-2003)

The high life for low-life money

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What is the Audi A3 Mk1?

The Audi A3 was a riposte to the BMW 3-series Compact, a three-door hatch launched in 1994 which had introduced buyers to the idea of a premium small car. However, while the BMW was always something of a niche player, the A3 was a huge success for Audi which couldn’t make them fast enough. It was the car that made premium small cars mainstream.

It was no surprise that the A3 was so popular. In the mid-1990s, buyers who wanted great build quality and a premium badge had to buy a larger car than they really wanted, or needed. Now, they could enjoy the performance and durability of an Audi in a small car – even if the price tag was still on the large side. With early Mk1s now almost two decades old, the model may seem dated but if you can find a good one (and there are lots of low-mileage cherished cars about), you’ll have a great runabout for peanuts.

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The A3 Mk1 arrived in September 1996 in three-door form only; there wouldn’t be a five-door option for another three years. Indeed, there was no model development until mid-1999, when the rather frisky S3 quattro arrived. This 210bhp Audi (boosted to 225bhp in October 2001) was the hot hatch for grown-ups, and it’s still a great drive. If you’re motoring on a budget, though, the diesels are the way to go. High-mileage cars can be costly to run if clutches and flywheels have to be replaced, but independent specialists can cut the cost here. Whatever you buy, try to go for a car built after October 2000 as these all have ESP (Audi’s electronic stability program) as standard.

The only rival for A3s of this vintage is the BMW Compact and the contemporary VW Golf, the Mk 4. The first-generation Compact (based on the E36 and launched in 1993) is dated now, but its successor (based on the E46 and launched in 2001) is a much better bet. For A3 money you can also buy an early BMW Mini, but frankly we wouldn’t. Early cars tend to feel baggy and you don’t get much for £3,000. The car is also much smaller inside.

That’s the beauty of the A3; it’s a compact premium car with hatchback practicality for a price equal to a few months’ depreciation on a new alternative. Buy one of the swift and frugal TDi editions and you’ll be able to munch up the motorway miles at a steady 50+mpg. Seek out one of the rare quattro-equipped cars, and the next time the snow hits you’ll be able to keep moving. And all for buttons.


What to look out for when buying a used Audi A3 Mk 1

With all of these cars now getting on, check for baggy suspension, tired brakes, damaged bodywork and scruffy interiors. Common issues include corroded rear brake pipes, failed catalytic converters and worn brake discs where owners have scrimped. Early cars can also suffer from worn steering racks.

With 11 recalls under its belt, the A3 Mk 1 may not seem very well developed especially as most of them are for potentially serious issues including the rear axle ball joints seizing, airbags failing to deploy properly, seatbelts not buckling and the accelerator jamming. Others include the anti-lock brakes packing in, brake servo glitches, flywheels disintegrating and fuel leaks.


The one to buy

Audi A3 1.9 TDi 130 SE (check A3 used car prices here)


1896cc, 4 cylinders
128bhp @ 4000rpm
229 lb ft @ 1900rpm
6-speed manual
0-62mph in 9.2sec
Top speed:
52.3mpg combined
Road tax band:
L 4150mm, W 1735mm, H 1425mm



Audi A3 rivals



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