08/24/05 — Audi A3 fun and economical

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Audi A3 fun and economical

Audi A3 (2006)

Audi’s timing is perfect.

That’s because California gas prices are nudging into the $3-a-gallon range, and on the East Coast prices are moving over $2.50 for unleaded regular.

Audi A3, 2006

As prices escalate, cars seem to be getting bigger. The trend is to make an all-new model larger — and in many cases heavier — than the previous one. Not only have vehicles grown in length, width and weight, but in the number of horses used to pull them. That hasn’t necessarily translated into a fall off in gas mileage. Most new cars are holding the line, maintaining the status quo.

But is that good enough as people start taking food off the table to pay for gas in the tank?

So it is with good luck or good planning that Audi has introduced Americans to its smallest four-door car, a compact entry-level luxury hatchback with all the traits of a sports car and the gas mileage — 24 city and 32 highway with the manual transmission — of an economy car.

Granted, German rivals BMW and Mercedes have put entry-level vehicles into the U.S. market, too, but with little success. If you’ve forgotten about the 318ti of the late ’90s, there’s a reason. It wasn’t a particularly good BMW. Both BMW and Mercedes have turned out small cars that had only two doors and a hatchback and were not up to the quality of their bigger and more expensive brothers or of comparable cars such as the Acura Integra/RSX.

Audi has done things differently.

The Audi A3 features materials and build quality that please the owner of an A4 or and A6. The compact Audi is a blast to drive. No apology need be made for this car’s performance and handling. They are first class. And the A3 has comfortable places for four adults to reside.

Audi has created a screamer, as nimble as a 15-year-old gymnast and as fast as an Olympic dash champion, with scads of storage room at a starting price of about $25,000. It can be equipped in excellent fashion for 28 to 30 grand.

The Audi is a sleek mini-wagon. The beltline rises from front to back as the roof slopes into the hatch. It’s streamlined. And the new big-mouth grille doesn’t put us off as it did when we first encountered it in an A6. Maybe the look is growing on us, or maybe it just looks better on a smaller car.

The dashboard is typical Audi, but free of the complicated controls that have infested luxury German vehicles. In this Audi, all the switches and knobs are in sight and intuitive. The radio controls, for instance, have knobs and buttons. Thumbwheel radio controls on the steering wheel are very user friendly.

The gauges are trimmed with chrome rings. The plastic pieces inside the car are of top quality.

The heart and soul of the little Audi is a new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with direct injection — Audi calls it FSI or Fuel Stratified Injection — that develops 200 horsepower with a high 10.5-to-1 compression ratio developing gobs of low-end torque.

The engine is as smooth — and quiet at idle — as anything in the 4-cylinder ranks.

And it will present the driver with loads of neck-snapping performance through the six manual gears.

Also available is a new six-speed DSG (Direct-Shift Gearbox), an automatic transmission that can be used as a true manual shifter without a driver-operated clutch. Gears can be manipulated manually through fingertip paddles on the steering wheel or with the gear-shift level. Audi claims the DSG accelerates faster than the manual transmission and gets better fuel mileage.

For those who favor the standard automatic, the transmission can simply be placed in Drive.

Figure about 6.5 seconds to 60 miles per hour with either transmission.

Our test car came with the $1,800 sport package, which includes 17-inch alloy wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. Whether the special suspension makes much of a difference over the standard setup, we don’t know. But we do know that the A3 stuck to our familiar curving rural blacktops like chewing gum on the bottom of a Nike.

Amazingly, there is no harsh ride tradeoff. The sport-tuned A3 evened out the road imperfections like your standard-grade Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

The body feels as solid as a piece of granite, and the only rattles we heard during our week behind the wheel came from a 7 iron banging against a sand wedge protesting, no doubt, their casual storage.

The front seats are wonderfully supportive, although space between them is somewhat of an issue if a big adult is driving and a bigger one is riding shotgun.

Back seat passengers can live in comfort if the front seat occupants will compromise just a bit. There is plenty of room to slip your feet under the front seats, aiding leg room immensely.

The rear seatbacks can in one motion be folded down 60-40 to create 39 cubic feat of storage on a nearly flat load floor. There is a reasonable 13 cubic feet when the second row is in use.

The A3 has a large amount standard equipment for a starting price of $25,470 including one touch up and down windows, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, 10-speaker 140-watt stereo and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes with brake assist, Electronic Stabilization Program, side-mounted airbags and inflatable curtain airbags for both rows of passengers.

Options can quickly run the price of the A3 over 30 grand, so be selective. The aforementioned sport package also includes leather seating, fog lights, rear spoiler and leather sport steering wheel. The open sky system at $1,100 includes dual sunroofs.

We would opt for the $900 premium Bose sound system with 6-disc changer. It features very pleasing sounds and comes satellite ready.

Bottom line on our test car was $29,110 including a $720 destination charge.

The new Audi is agile, tossable and a hoot to drive. It sips gas at a conservative rate. And it can swallow up great heaps of stuff. The A3 makes the driving experience fun — as it should be — without having to pay a big price in the showroom or at the pumps.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on August 24, 2005 2:06 PM