Opinion: RIP to the greatest car interior of the 21st Century

By topgear, 03 January 2020

As the internet doesn’t make a habit of hosting arguments and people who like cars never disagree (don’t worry that we can’t decide if we’re petrolheads or gearheads and neither of those terms really applies to the EV revolution – that’s just the exception proving the rule) I’m sure this bona fide fact won’t upset anyone. The outgoing Audi A3 has the best dashboard design of any car in modern times, and we will mourn its passing.

There’s a new Audi A3 waiting to emerge, y’see. Based on the new VW Golf, of course. I’ve already sat in the new Audi A3, in a secret German bunker minded by heavies, so I can’t actually tell you specifics about it just yet. But you know the current Audi design trend: big touchscreens, angular shapes, and to heck with buttons. Will the new A3 pick up that ball and run with it? You might like to think so, I couldn’t possibly comment.

But it doesn’t matter, because the outgoing Audi A3 will simply never be topped. It is the high point, the apex, the perfection of up-to-date interior design. You know this, of course, but I’ll just list the reasons why, for future generations to fantasise over. So, get comfortable and prepare yourself to agree with my every word.

The infotainment

This Audi A3 doesn’t have a touchscreen. Hoo-rah. What it has is a media system you view on a pop-up screen atop the dash, and operate with a cluster of buttons on the centre console. The shortcuts for Nav, Radio, Media and Phone are simple metal toggles, clicked either way to leap into the relevant menu. There’s also a whacking great pair of buttons labelled MENU and BACK, for when you want to teleport back to the main menu, or just go back one step. Further sub menus are activated by left and right submenu buttons. 

To scroll through these lists, instead of swiping a smeary fingerprint over a screen that’s not really in reach, while the car is wobbling around, a clickwheel is used. Eyes on the screen, hand on the safecracker, click-clickety click. It is quite beautifully, elegantly simple. Except for when you’ve got an address to enter into the nav, or a playlist to search for. But Audi’s thought of that. Just doodle your handwriting onto the top of the clickwheel. 

Oh, and in the more recent ones, there’s Apple CarPlay. All bases covered. 

The dials

When the A3 was facelifted, Audi bunked in its Virtual Cockpit. It’s still the best digi-dials set-up, despite the failed efforts to better them by VW, Skoda, Seat, Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Porsche, Lamborghini, Mercedes… I think I’ve made my point. They are brilliant. 

And now you’re thinking ‘Oh yes, Ollie, couldn’t agree more mate – but aren’t you forgetting the Audi TT also has Virtual Cockpit housed in even more exotic-looking cabin?’ And I’m replying, ‘No, not at all, dear reader.’ By having a central screen in addition, the A3 is more sociable. Want your passenger to take over in-car DJing or setting the nav while you’re concentrating on a busy junction? Can’t do that in a TT. 

Plus, because you can set the instruments to offer a full-screen map, you can bin off the A3’s motorised screen when it’s not necessary. No passenger, because you’re an Audi driver and therefore have no friends? No problem. Prod the button, revel in the display gliding smoothly into the dash top, and presto, there’s less artificial light beamed into your serotonin-starved brain. So you’ll sleep better tonight. Especially if you hate the whole ‘iPad nailed to the dash’ trend.

The ergonomics

Everything else has just been so gorgeously thought through. A decent driving position, with ample adjustment. The heater controls are tactile and intuitive: thumb-sized buttons and well-damped twiddle-knobs – no buried-in a touchscreen nonsense here. Take note, erm, Audi A8 and Q7. 

There’s a line of other assorted controls above, for the driving modes, parking sensors and so-on. They’re subtle enough that you might never notice them, but logical enough that should you need to tweak ‘em, you’re never hunting about the place. 

Even the cupholders are nicely tucked far enough away they’re not in elbow-your-macchiato range, but not so far off they’re a pain to reach. I love how German that is. 

The quality

The knurled-metal halos encircling the jet turbine vents, and the meat hammer-edged heater controls. The metal switchgear that operates that brilliant media centre. The heft of the door handles and the pin-sharp click of the buttons. The density of the plastics, and their seamless fit. It’s a bloody well-put together product, this. The ‘old’ A3 feels more expensive than the contemporary Golf or A-Class. 

Worryingly for Audi, it feels more expensive than new Audis do inside. Climb aboard the latest Q3 or A1 and there’s an inescapable unease that all the money’s been lobbed on the touchscreen, and the trim’s been bought in bulk from Poundland the night before the motor show. 

‘Course, the new Audi touchscreen is a corker, as touchscreens go,. But that’s rather hollow praise given, as I’m sure you know, touchscreens, are a fiendishly dangerous, pointless dead end of car design foisted on us by the obsession with ‘what are Apple and Tesla doing this week’.

The bad stuff

Hey, I’m no sycophant. No car is perfect (except the Alpine A110 with a Williams-Singer engine and Honda Civic Type R manual gearbox that I’ve just thought of. Gofundme, please.) The A3’s spectacularly well-resolved interior does have flaws.

There are the bare plastic door bins, not lined in carpet. Their contents buzz and rattle. And the seats have never been much cop, even in the batsh*t-quick RS3. Which could really do with some bolsters, instead of chairs shaped like a giant tongue. 

But that’s it. Those are the only two things. Everything else is perfect, and last night I drove one for the last time. A last-of-the-line 400bhp RS3 – perhaps the ultimate mini-RS 6 all-weather weapon. And I stumbled out marvelling not at the pace or the noise or the grip, but how bloody lovely the cabin is. Or was. 

Sleep well, best-interior-in-the-world. There’s simply no argument. Is there?

STORY Ollie Kew

Related Articles