Some entry-level cars aren't very desirable outside of their lower prices because their producers cheapened them to keep their cost down. But that isn't the case with Audi's new entry A3 sedan.
An early 2006 model, the compact A3 is the most conveniently sized Audi for parking and such. It's slightly smaller than Audi's top-selling A4, but offers most of the A4 sedan's attributes for lower prices.
Pricing for a 2005 A4 sedan begins at $27,350. The A3 costs $24,740 with a 6-speed manual transmission and lists at $26,220 with Audi's race-car-inspired Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission. The DSG is derived from a conventional 6-speed manual gearbox and essentially is a clutchless manual transmission that can be set to shift like an automatic.
The DSG in my A3 test car provided lightning fast gear changes with an electro-hydraulically controlled twin clutch, although it was mostly left in "drive" mode because it shifts smoothly and efficiently in that mode.
The front-wheel-drive A3 looks upscale and is handsome—despite having Audi's new, rather ungainly looking larger grille. Somehow, the grille looks better on the A3 than on larger Audis.
The approximately 3,300-pound A3 resembles a small station wagon, although Audi knows that's an unwanted description in America. So it calls the A3 a "premium compact sedan with the sportiness of the Audi TT coupe sports car."
Whatever. The A3 actually could be described as a utilitarian crossover vehicle because of its hatchback and generous cargo area, especially with the split rear seatback folded forward.
There's decent room for four 6-footers, but legroom becomes tight behind a 6-foot driver who moves his seat more than halfway back. The right rear passenger doesn't have that problem, although neither rear passenger has a surplus of room.
Fun to Drive
The A3 is agile and fun to drive, although some may feel that Audi's new electromechanical steering with speed-dependent power assist is too light at lower speeds.
The steering becomes progressively firmer to provide a reassuring feel at highway speeds and requires less energy than a conventional steering system.
Touchy Brake Pedal
Audi's comparison of the A3 with its TT sports car isn't too far off the mark. In fact, the A3 almost feels like a lithe 2-seater. Anti-lock, all-disc brakes with a brake assist feature for sudden stops are powerful enough, although their touchy pedal takes some getting used to.
The all-independent suspension of my test A3 provided a ride that was supple but firm. I suspect that it would have been firmer if the car had the optional ($1,800) Sport package. That package adds a stiffer sports suspension, higher-performance tires, aluminum interior trim, front sports seats, leather covering for all seats and a roof spoiler.
My test car did have the $2,025 Premium package. It contains a power driver's seat and most features of the Sport package—except for the stiffer suspension, performance tires, spoiler and sport seats. Still, the standard front seats could be mistaken for sport seats because they provide excellent support.
My advice? Forget the Sport package and opt for the Premium option unless you like to drive really hard.
Occasional Tire Noise
Some highway surfaces brought out tire noise that was so excessive it caused front occupants to raise voices during normal conversation, although that wasn't the case on most roads. The A3 is generally as quiet and refined as the A4. Fits and finishes are superb, and upscale interior materials are used.
Some audio and climate controls are small, but the dashboard is nicely designed and nothing inside the car shouts "cheap."
The turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generates 200 horsepower and provides such rapid acceleration (0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds) that it feels larger than it is. Audi likes to break new ground, so the A3 has the first production engine to combine FSI gasoline direct injection with a turbocharger.
That technology was in the Audi R8 that won the famous 24-hour Le Mans endurance race in France. It allows good responsiveness in all speed ranges, with maximum torque of 207 pound-feet available across a wide engine speed range—from 1,800 rpm to 5,000 rpm.
Engine revs are higher than in larger-engine cars above 65 mph with the DSG transmission, but the engine is relaxed even at 75-80 mph, with reserve punch for passing.
Decent Fuel Economy
Fuel economy is decent, at an estimated 25 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.
A 250-horsepower V6 with 237 pound-feet of torque will be offered with the DSG transmission and Audi's well-proven quattro all-wheel-drive system early next year, along with optional 18-inch wheels. That engine probably isn't really necessary, but America is horsepower-crazy.
Despite its entry status, the A3 has a good amount of comfort and convenience equipment. It includes automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, power windows, cruise control and an AM/FM/CD sound system with 10 speakers.
A $700 Cold Weather package probably doesn't seem like a "must-have" option in the spring, but will be appreciated in northern winters with its heated front seats, windshield washer nozzles and exterior mirrors.
Fresh air and open-sky fans might go for the $1,100 "Open Sky" sunroof system; it consists of two glass panels—the front one opens and the rear one over the back seats is fixed. Both have sunshades.
Safety features are an anti-skid/traction control system, front torso side airbags and head-protecting side-curtain airbags. Rear torso airbags cost $350.
Entry-level cars are mostly designed to convince owners to eventually move up to an automaker's larger, more expensive models. The A3 should do a good job in that regard.