First introduced as a 2006 model, the Audi A3 is a rarity in America: A compact sport-luxury car. (Canadians get a wider selection of small luxury cars than we do, including the Mercedes B-class and Acura EL.) In a country where bigger is better, the A3 dares to offer high-end amenities and German cachet in a package that is fuel-efficient, space-efficient, and family friendly. Does it work? Read on. $26,060 base, $34,610 as tested, EPA MPG 23 city/32 highway.
First Glance: Something truly different from Audi
The A3 doesn't look like any other Audi, nor does it look anything like its distant relatives, the Volkswagen GTI and Rabbit. The A3's hatchback body style and long, low roofline give it a unique profile and an unmistakable look. One of my complaints about Audi -- particularly the A4, A6 and A8 sedans -- is that they all tend to all look alike, so the A3 is a refreshing change.
New for 2007 is the S-line package -- not to be confused with the high-performance Audi "S" models, such as the S6 -- which has been available in past years on other Audi models. In the case of the A3 it consists of special front and rear bumpers, unique alloy wheels, fog lights, roof spoiler, aluminum trim for the exterior and interior, sport seats, 3-spoke leather steering wheel, and a handful of S-line badges (link goes to photo). It also adds features that are otherwise optional on the base A3: Leather upholstery, extra interior lighting and a trip computer. The S-line package is a $2,200 option on the 4-cylinder A3 2.0T and comes standard with the 3.2 V6.
In the Driver's Seat: All business
The Germans take their driving seriously, a fact to which the A3's no-nonsense dash attests. Primary controls are easy to find and gauges are clearly illuminated in red. My test car's all-black interior gave it the feel-good factor of a funeral parlor; opting for beige or gray makes the A3 a much more cheery place. Sparing used of brushed metal is a nice touch, but the black plastic on the A3's dashboard is shinier, harder and chintzier-looking than that fitted to pricier Audis.
The A3 gets a junior version of Audi's Multimedia Interface (MMI), with most stereo and navigation functions controlled by one knob. The learning curve is steep, but you eventually get used to it. The Germans' love of complexity continues with the standard dual-zone climate control. It has no dedicated "off" button -- one has to press the fan-down button repeatedly to shut it off.
The A3's back seat is nothing if not honest; rather than fit a small cushion to make it look bigger, they've given the seat proper thigh support. But if either front seat is moved all the way back, even a shortie like me won't fit back there. The A3's cargo bay measures 13.1 cubic feet, similar to many compact sedans; the split-fold rear seat expands the trunk to an SUV-like 56 cubic feet.
My tester had the $1,100 "Open Sky System", with sunroofs for both front and back seats. The front opens, the back doesn't. Those with fair skin, beware: There's no solid blind to cover the glass, only a fabric mesh. If you're prone to sunburn you might want to pass on this feature.
On the Road: Magnificent engine, delightful handling
The sport suspension included in the S-line package sharpens the A3's already superior handling. The 2.0T is front-drive only; Audi's famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system comes bundled exclusively with the 250 hp 3.2 liter V6. On the other hand, the 6-speed manual is only available with the 2.0T. Audi's self-shifting S-tronic transmission (also known as the Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG) is optional on the 2.0T and standard on the 3.2. Though the S-tronic actually makes the car faster, I'll stick with the manual, thank you very much. (Read more about DSG: What it is, how it works.)
Safety is paramount in Audi's universe. The A3 comes standard with antilock brakes and electronic stability control to keep you out of trouble, and front-seat-mounted torso airbags and two-row side curtain 'bags should you manage to find trouble anyway.
Journey's End: All the luxury-sport you can handle in a smaller package
The A3 has one big problem: It is seriously expensive. The base model is a good deal at $26k, but it's the options that do you in. Take my tester: S-Line package, $2,200. Navigation and premium stereo, $3,300. Technology package (automatic lights, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirror, Bluetooth phone compatibility, Xenon headlights), $1,500. Open Sky sunroof, $1,100. Pearl-effect paint, $450. At least the summer performance tires were a no-cost option, but even so the bottom line was nearly $35,000.
I'm one of those leftist pinko liberal commies who shuns the bigger-is-better mentality. I'm all for smaller luxury cars -- but even I have to admit $35k is a hefty chunk of change for a small hatchback. An A3 3.2 with all the trimmings tops 41 large. Someone grab my arm, I'm having trouble staying on my feet. Volkswagen's four-door GTI and Jetta GLI, with the same 2.0T engine and optional DSG, do the job nearly as well, albeit with less cachet.
Still, the A3 has a reasonable claim to its price. Like most Audis, the A3 is a finely-crafted precision instrument for getting from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. Were I looking for a small, safe, family-friendly and fun-to-drive car, the A3 would definitely be on my short list -- if only I could scrape up the cash.