The original A3 (or Typ 8L) was introduced in the European market in 1996, marking Audi's return to the production of smaller cars following the demise of the Audi 50 in 1978. This was the first Volkswagen Group model to use the "PQ34" or "A4" platform, bearing a close resemblance to the contemporary Volkswagen Golf Mk4, which arrived a year later. Within three years, this platform was used for total of seven cars.

The A3 was initially available only with a three-door hatchback body, to present a more sporty image than the Golf, in both front and four-wheel drive. The inline four-cylinder engines were transversely mounted. After the A4, the Audi A3 was the second model in the Audi lineup to use five valves per cylinder.

At the 2003 Geneva Motor Show, Audi launched the second generation of the A3, the Typ 8P, designed by Gary Telaak during 2000 (however, the final design was frozen in 2001). Originally launched only as a three-door hatchback with four-cylinder engines, it featured a new automobile platform (the PQ35 platform), a redesigned and more spacious interior, new petrol engines with Fuel Stratified Injection (FSI), and standard six-speed manual gearboxes (except on the base 1.6).

In mid-2003, the line was updated with two sports-oriented models, a 2.0 Turbo-FSI version rated 200 PS (147 kW; 197 hp), and a 3.2 L VR6 engine (for the first time) with 250 PS (184 kW; 247 hp). Haldex Traction-based quattro on-demand four-wheel drive, and the S-Tronic semi-auto gearbox were introduced as options (quattro is standard on the VR6) on models with engines over 140 PS (103 kW; 138 hp).

    

The vehicle was unveiled in 2012 Geneva Motor Show and went on sale in Europe in September 2012.

First vehicle using the flexible modular Volkswagen Group MQB platform, the third generation is available as a three-door hatchback, a five-door "Sportback", a four-door saloon to directly rival the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, and a two-door Cabriolet.

The front suspension is a MacPherson strut set-up while the rear utilizes multi-link rear suspension.

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