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Audi goes compact with the hatchback A3

June 17, 2005|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

You might not be used to seeing "entry-level" and "Audi" in the same sentence, but that hasn't stopped the company from heading down that path with the new A3.

High-end - and exclusive - German builders that attempt to appeal to a broader audience haven't always fared well with their ideas. Driving a vehicle that's devoid of features, power and style is no way to trumpet to the world that you own an Audi, Mercedes or a BMW.

That said, there appears to be a fine line where both image and cost-conscious buyers can co-exist, and Audi appears ready to walk it.

It's no secret that, as a manufacturer, if you can get younger buyers into your showrooms now, chances are good they'll be buying A6s and A8s when they get a little older. That means the new A3 has to be impressive enough to keep their owners loving Audis once they take their first one home.

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Moreover, Audi thinks there's room for a premium compact in at least 15,000 driveways. And let's not forget that gas costs much more and the economy has seen better days. So, after spending some quality time with the A3 Sportback, the idea of a premium compact suddenly makes a lot of sense.

First off, this is a serious motor vehicle, bristling with technology, features and style. Its role is simple, as carried out in Europe: attract new and younger buyers to the Audi fold. The A3 is a proven product with a track record. It has the utility sought by younger folks with an active lifestyle, the style and exclusivity to appeal to young professionals working their way up the economic and social ladder and the performance to make you look for the long way home.

The A3 is a big hit overseas where it is available in a wide variety of models. Audi will bring only two of these across the Atlantic Ocean, both five-door Sportback models. The first off the boats are powered by a 200-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through a six-speed transmission (manual or automatic). It will be followed within a year by a Quattro all-wheel-drive version with a 3.2-liter V-6.

We spent an afternoon thrashing both versions up and down the switchbacks of the mighty Dolomites at the southern tip of the Alps and can report they are most definitely serious automobiles. Their compact size was right at home in the confines and tight corners, which means they can be thrown around like four-door sports cars. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine combined with Audi's terrific Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) is one of the most impressive small engines on the market. Contrary to what you've heard about turbochargers in the past, the A3 actually has great low-end thrust.

The VR6 has 250 horsepower, is a bit smoother, but has a little less attitude. Where it did have the edge was in the ability to get the power to the pavement through all four wheels, rather than just the fronts.

The A3 stands out because of its style and impeccable interior. Space is a bit tight in the rear but suitable for a couple of good friends, pre-teens or child seats. There is 13 cubic feet of useful space aft of the rear seat that grows to 40 cubic feet when the seats are folded out of the way.

Front-row occupants are treated to a first-class environment. Audi normally provides great interiors and the A3 does nothing to diminish that reputation. Fit, finish, quality of materials and design are all world class.

The A3 is based on the next generation VW Golf platform that's currently sold in Europe (but not due here for another year). Solid as the proverbial rock, it feels cast from a single piece of metal. All five doors close with a vault-like thunk and when you hit a major road blemish, it feels as though the A3 is laughing at the intrusion.

If previous efforts by competitors to establish a premium compact segment on these shores fell short, then the new A3 makes up for it with more style and substance than you might expect for its reasonable base price.

Yes, the A3 has raised the bar several notches. Those that want to follow had better bring their "A" game.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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