2006 Audi A3 Preview


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By Carey Russ

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Audi

Audis, especially the most recent Audis, are about a mixture of passionate emotion and cutting-edge technology as much as cold, rational logic. This is especially true of the German manufacturer's newest offering in the North American market, the 2006 A3.

The A3, as could be surmised by its designation, is a smaller and less-expensive car than Audi's previous entry-level offering, the A4. Varieties of the A3 line have long been available in Europe, but the newest generation is the first to come to North America. It places Audi in niche not previously seriously exploited by any European manufacturer, premium sport-luxury compacts. Expect to see entries from both BMW and Mercedes in the near future, but Audi has beaten them to market here. Never follow.... The A3 combines the versatility of a small crossover SUV with the performance of a sport compact, and throws in Audi's fine design and luxury specification for good measure.

Previous A3 models were three-door hatchbacks, a body style popular in Europe but not here. While a three-door version of the new A3 is offered in Europe, the North American-spec car is available only as a five-door hatchback. And yes, that is also offered in Europe, where it is called the ``Sportback.'' Most five-door hatchbacks trade the two relatively long doors of the three-door variants for four smaller doors, and offer little, if any, extra interior space. Not so in the case of the A3 - the five-door is considerably longer and roomier than the three-door, without being too big. Call it efficient packaging, because, according to Audi, it has equivalent interior space to the previous-generation A4 wagon.

Power, for the moment, is from the 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled FSI direct-injection four-cylinder engine also found underneath the hood of the latest A4, but mounted transversely here. The combination of direct gasoline injection and turbocharging allows an extremely high compression ratio for efficiency - at 10.3:1, it is as high as many naturally-aspirated engines. Power is commendable, with 200 horsepower on tap from 5100 to 6000 rpm, and 207 lb-ft of torque from 1800 to 5000 rpm. The front wheels are driven through a choice of two six-speed gearboxes. Standard equipment is a regular manual box, with the automatic-shift DSG introduced in the TT 3.2 a couple of years back optional. The DSG, like the gearboxes in Audi's Le Mans-winning R8 race cars, is not a torque-converter automatic. Rather, it uses a conventional manual gearset and two motorcycle-like multi-plate wet clutches. At least one clutch is always engaged, for seamless power transmission, and shifting is done either automatically, by computer-controlled electronic/hydraulic mechanisms or manually via steering column-mounted shift paddles. Early in 2006, the 3.2-liter, 250-hp, quattro all-wheel drive, DSG drivetrain from the TT 3.2 DSG will be available. The chassis design is based on the latest version of parent Volkswagen Group's transverse-engine platform, currently seen here underpinning the 2005 VW Jetta. As with earlier versions, it has independent front suspension by MacPherson struts, but the old twist-beam rear axle has been replaced by a fully-independent four-link design.

The 2006 A3 was recently introduced to the press in Los Angeles, California, and should be available as you read this. At the introduction, before the morning product presentation, I glanced out the window and saw the cars assembled in the plaza below. My first thought was ``looks like the A4 Avant.'' Well, more so than the old A3 did, anyway. In size, compared to the latest A4 Avant, the A3 five-door is about three inches shorter in wheelbase, a foot less in length, two inches lower, and similar in width. The shape, characterized by a gently-sloping roofline, is not quite wagon, but too long to be a traditional hatchback. Styling is unmistakably Audi, with the large ``single frame'' grille previously seen on the 2005 A6 and A4 at the front, a similar light treatment, simple but elegant lines to the sides, and a rear defined by complexly-shaped taillights. Overhangs are short, but, unlike a wagon, shorter at the rear than at the front, giving the A3 a decidedly sporty stance.

Inside, styling is also unmistakably Audi, with plenty of influence from cousin TT, especially in the form of the four climate-control vents - black in standard trim and aluminized with the Sport or Premium option packages - and the bars at the front of the console. Space seems indeed equal to the previous-generation A4, and should fill the needs and desires of Audi's target market of active-lifestyle young or young-at-heart people. A quick eyeballing of the rear cargo area and seat convinced me that a bicycle will fit, with the front wheel removed. Or computer equipment boxes, bicycle, motorcycle or car parts, garden stuff, or any other large, unwieldy things that won't fit through a trunk opening.

Base price with the manual gearbox is $24,740, or $26,140 with the DSG. The Sport package, including 17-inch wheels and performance tires, a firmer, slightly-lowered suspension tuning, aluminum trim, leather sports seats, and the Audi three-spoke multifunction steering wheel inside and a roof spoiler and foglights outside, is $1,800. The Premium package, with 17-inch wheels and all-season tires, leather and a wide variety of interior luxury enhancements, is $2,025. All A3 models are pre-wired for satellite radio, with a choice of XM or Sirius available, and there are a host of options, including the trick ``Open Sky System'' double sunroof.

The drive route combined all of the frustrations and pleasures of driving in LA. We did stay off of the infamous freeways, but that's no solution to staying out of traffic. From the event base on Sunset Boulevard (at the intersection of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where exotic cars are unnoticeably common) to the Pacific Coast Highway, I drove an A3 equipped with the Sport package and DSG. It handled the stop-and-go trundle in style, with barely-perceptible shifting in fully-automatic mode. When I felt the need to downshift, a quick touch on the appropriate paddle did the job, and the transmission went back to fully-automatic soon after. My driving partner, Auto Channel Editor Mark Fulmer, who had never experienced the DSG, was pleasantly surprised by its smoothness and shift speed. When we turned off of the PCH into the hills, the DSG really came into its own. But with the FSI turbo engine's wide, flat powerband, constant shifting was not a necessity. With the leather seating and aluminum trim that are part of the Sport package, there was no doubt that I was in an Audi.

Later, I drove a base-specification model, with no options whatsoever. Even with cloth upholstery and plainer interior trim, it was undeniably an Audi in design and spirit. There is a certain satisfaction to manual shifting, but there is no denying that the DSG shifts much more quickly and smoothly. The standard suspension is a touch softer than the Sport setting, but still allows great handling and a pleasurable driving experience. Upscale luxury-sport manufacturers have sometimes stubbed their toes, so to speak, in introducing models that sell under the magic $30,000 barrier. Not Audi, not with the new A3 - and it is considerably under the $30k barrier unless absolutely fully-equipped with all possible options. Audi has stated that it is determined to be considered a tier 1 luxury manufacturer, and beat its German competitors worldwide. It is well on the way to doing so in Europe, and the A3 will help hasten the process here as well.

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