Lifestyle

Rowdy Audi


A3_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

This pint-size road rocket may be small, but the A3 packs the punch of a heavyweight

The constant, writhing—and most likely terminal—agony of today's midsize SUV market is bringing with it plenty of utility-minded alternatives from major luxury auto makers, spanning the range from Mercedes-Benz's "it's not a minivan, we swear" R-Class to Audi's brilliant, utilitarian, and, yes, ultimately worthy A3 hatchback.

It's become fashionable in the auto press to stop and stutter over the concept of so costly a hatch—our test A3 totaled $42,285. But, a sky-high sticker on a petite package is something space-squeezed Europeans got over a long time ago. Instead, the Old World has heartily embraced the notion that something so small could indeed be worth so large a chunk of change. Audi is betting Americans, in the wake of high fuel costs, are ready to get over size hang-ups, too.

The A3's benign-enough $24,740 base price quickly surges after a rummage through the goody bag of Audi extras. For one, dropping in the glorious and oh-so-worth-it 250-hp, 3.2-liter, 6-cylinder engine bumps the base price to $33,980. On top of that, our A3 had a $1,950 navigation system; $1,100 dual sunroofs; $1,000 18-inch alloy wheels; $800 premium leather upholstery; $800 bi-Xenon adaptive headlights; $700 cold-weather package; $435 Bluetooth phone system; $350 satellite radio; and $450 sexy pearl-effect paint job—racking up to nearly double the most basic A3's price.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

It remains to be seen how Audi's bet will pay off. But, since the beginning of this year, the auto maker has sold a healthy 4,567 A3s. That absolutely pales in comparison to the 71,500 sold in Western Europe during the same period. But, compared with some competitors, the A3 looks like a winner. For example, BMW has only moved 1,276 of the comparably priced 3 Series wagon; Volvo 2,093 of its V50 wagon; and—for the strongest-selling rival, though not exactly a direct competitor—Mini sold 12,244 of the Mini Cooper S (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/06, "Maximum Mini"). The A3 still has a long way to go, however, before it outsells Audi's top performer, the A4 sedan, 22,113 of which sold during the same period.

The largest chunk of that price jump comes from choosing the performance-driven S-line configuration. On top of the TT-derived engine, you get always-on, quattro all-wheel drive and the magnificent 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. In fact, no manual option is offered at this level. Audi says this all-out version of the A3 will go from zero to 60 mph in fewer than 6 seconds. It's hard not to suspect that figure is even lower once you put your foot to the pedal, which connects to power without hesitation and is supremely pliant to the driver's will.

Indeed, the V6's power is more than abundant: Long open stretches instantly transform themselves into proving grounds, just as tight city traffic becomes a torque-laden exercise in quick-witted zip. Braking and handling are both utterly top-notch. The real genius lies in the pedal-less DSG system. The car can operate in manual mode, where power feels always-available and gear shifts are silky smooth. But, the transmission can also be shifted into a manual-like mode that activates the wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

WHIZ-BANG NAV SYSTEM.

What to me seemed, at first, potentially less fun and certainly less practical than a regular manual, proved to be extremely functional and—better yet—exhilarating to use. The paddles and myriad technologies under the hood work seamlessly to enable gear shifts at synapse speed. The effect feels somewhat like being organically integrated into the car's transmission. Be forewarned, though: It's so much fun that passenger-shocking, maniacal laughter may ensue. The system also helps improve fuel economy: 21/27 mpg city/highway.

The A3's cabin legitimizes the car's price, as well. Everything on the dash feels substantial, well laid out, and tightly put together. The dual-roof option creates a pleasant, open canopy inside, though only the front portion opens and, as a compromise to rear passengers, only halfway at that. Seats in the front and back are very comfortable and get surprisingly toasty with the cold-weather package. The parking brake annoyingly runs into the center armrest—an odd aberration in an otherwise perfectly designed cabin.

Navigation systems don't typically deserve much more than a passing note, but Audi's implementation is actually kind of fun. The high-tech theme looks cool and is a pleasure to use. Animations create elegant transitions from one function to another—for example, going from navigation mode to the radio happens with a twist—and everything has a bit of graphic flair. It's an added dose of whiz-bang to impress passengers.

SMALL SIZE, BIG VALUE.

On the outside, Audi's new snout design is the subject of heated debate, with lovers and haters on both sides. Personally, I quite like the way it pulls the front of the car down toward the road aggressively. Either way, it's clear that the long, thin horizontal band running across the middle is much better suited for European license plates than taller American ones. Overall, the Audi's forward-leaning design with frowning head lamps meshes well with its road-loving driving dynamics.

To recap, the Audi A3 is small, fast, and expensive. But that hasn't stopped Audi from selling nearly 4,000 of these since the beginning of the year. Nor has that stopped the A3 from popping up on a wide range of "best of" and "most wanted" lists. It all makes sense, with aggressive looks, sporty performance, good fuel economy, and impressive crash results—all in any configuration. And, again at any configuration, the A3 provides a lot of value for the cash, even if it requires potential buyers to overcome the mental block of its utilitarian form.

To see more of the Audi A3, click here.

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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