1996 Audi A3 8L

1996 Audi A3 8L

Visit the Audi website today and you’ll be faced with more options than a Woolies pic ‘n’ mix. There are 16 cars to choose from, and that’s before you discover the sub-models. You can’t just buy a new Audi A3, you must decide whether you want the A3 Sportback, A3 Sportback TFSI e, A3 saloon, S3 saloon, S3 Sportback, RS3 Sportback or RS3 saloon. And you thought the choice of flying saucers or strawberry pencils was taxing.

Is it a classic? Audi A3 Mk1

Things were different when Audi presented the A3 at the 1996 Paris motor show. Would sir like an A4, A6 or A8? Maybe madam fancies a Cabriolet? The gender split is deliberate; Audi had yet to conquer the female market, although as we explained in issue five, a link to a certain princess had thrust the four rings into the hearts and minds of fashion-conscious Cosmopolitan and Vogue readers. But the fact remains, buying an Audi meant driving a four-door saloon or estate.

Audi had been absent from the small car market since the demise of the Audi 50, which became the Volkswagen Polo. It was also the first transverse-engined Audi since the 50, which bowed out in 1978 to allow the Polo to fill the small car hole in VAG’s range. No doubt in response to the success of the BMW 3 Series Compact, Audi sensed an opportunity to deliver a premium experience to a younger audience. It’s a simple but effective marketing ploy; grab ’em young, so when nights out and dinners for two make way for nights in and nappies filled with number twos, Mr & Mrs A3 will trade up to a more practical A4 or A6 Avant.

Aside from the Compact, the premium hatchback didn’t exist. The A-Class was still in development, so a ‘bit of posh’ meant buying a top-spec Volkswagen Golf or Ford Escort Ghia, or chancing your luck with an Alfa Romeo 145. At around £13,800, the entry-level A3 1.6 undercut a BMW Compact 316i by a few hundred quid, with prices topping out at just shy of £18,000 for a 1.8T Sport. That’s around £26,500 to £34,500 in today’s money, so the A3 was far from cheap. Some UK buyers elected to ‘beat the system’ by importing significantly cheaper right-hand drive models from Europe, with the Netherlands a popular destination for bargain hunters.

Audi UK decided, perhaps sensibly, that the German-market Attraction, Ambiente and Ambition trim levels wouldn’t go down well over here, so Brits were offered a choice of base, Sport or SE. There were a similar number of petrol engines: 1.6, 1.8 and 1.8 turbo. All A3s were three-door, with a five-door variant not arriving until 1999, by which time Audi had added VW’s ubiquitous 1.9 turbodiesel, quattro four-wheel drive and a hot S3 to the mix. Significantly, the A3 was the first car to use a new platform that would underpin the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia, Seat Leon and Audi TT.

None of this makes the original A3 a classic, but there’s a purity of design and simplicity to the styling that’s lacking in modern Audis and all subsequent versions of the premium hatchback. A stubby rear end with shades of the contemporary A4 Avant, a high waistline and large wheels give the A3 an understated and classy appearance. It’s a similar story inside, where the dashboard, considered sombre and sober in its time, is a welcome tonic to the glitzy and touchscreen-heavy Audi dashes of today.

Crucially, the A3 still looks great in a base colour and when riding on the standard 10-hole alloy wheels. It won’t excite you like a BMW Compact or stir the soul like an Alfa 145 (if you can find one), but few small cars of the era have aged as well as the A3.

You can’t pop into your local Woolworths for a bag of your favourite sweets, but the Audi A3 would look at home parked on Quality Street.

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