Audi A3 - 2.0T – a lot of car and loads of fun at the right price

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Audi’s timing is perfect. That’s because California gas prices are in the $2.50-a-gallon range, and on the East Coast prices are over $2.00 for unleaded regular.

As fuel prices escalate, fluctuate and manipulate, it seems that many vehicles are getting bigger which in itself makes the problem even larger. Look around, the trend has been 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. Better engines carry more weight, we guess?

But is that good enough as people start taking food off the table to pay for gas in the tank? When recent prices touched the $3-mark, people were faced with making some hard choices. That time will probably come again.

So it is with good luck or good planning that Audi has introduced 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 owners 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. Add to that, the A3 has comfortable places for four adults to ride without recriminations.

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. Well equipped the A3 – in excellent fashion – prices between $28,000 and $30,000.

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. 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 a full-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 – 16 spoke 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 and mountain roads like chewing gum on the bottom of a Nike. And amazingly, there is no harsh ride tradeoff. The sport-tuned A3 evened out the road imperfections as well as any small sport sedan or wagon on the market.

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 60-40 split seatbacks can in one motion be folded down 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 gobs of 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 – 5 spoke 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 it is satellite (XM or Sirius) ready.

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

For those of you who just insist on a 6-cylinder – your wait is over – the new 3.2 is now available and if you want even more, the newest A3 just now getting to showrooms is the Quattro S-line version with more sport, more aggressive styling and Audi’s wonderful all-wheel-drive Quattro system, all of course for more money – like starting at $33,980+.

But for the sensible, the new Audi A3 - 2.0T is agile, easy to toss about and a hoot to drive. It sips gas at a conservative rate. And it can haul 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 pump.