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New Car/Review

Audi A3

by Nicholas Frankl--TACH European correspondent

If there's one car manufacturer who has not only sought, but, achieved its aims of rebuilding a brand and establishing a "niche" for its self the four ringed Ingolstadt makers of German precise and innovative design engineering has got the closest. Audi, once seen as a trumped-up maker of rebadged VW's, is now out selling it's biggest competitors across Europe. Namely Mercedes and BMW. The well mannered, spunky A4 has found more than 170,000 new age buyers so far this year (figures till August) compared with 150,000 3' series beemers and 125,000 E' Class Merc's. And sales in the US are rocketing too.

The appeal, at least for me, is that this particular brand has somehow managed to shake off the old dowdy image, with new fresh cars like the brilliant A8, (the best big exec. saloon you can buy, by the way) and combine Teutonic form with brilliant Aluminium construction without becoming another "must have" statement item our high achievers so desire.

We've had the RS2, well, I had one for a week. Which was/is one of the best all round automobiles you could ever aspire to own. 320 bhp, 0-60 in five secs, top speed 163mph (limited) and all this with four friends and the Labrador in the back. I'm often asked what I would buy if I could have only one car and after considering the list of McLaren's, 250 GTO's etc. I inevitably settle for the Porsche engined RS2 as a car you could live with for life and always enjoy and how many things can you say that about? . The bad news is, that Audi can't sell you one of these anymore and most owners would rather give up their children then be separated from their mother of all toys. The good news is that the new A3, which I have just finished driving, will shortly also have a "hot" derivative in the shape of a twin-turbo version. The A3, yup you guessed it, is Audi's attempt to beat VW at its own game - by stealing sales from the venerable Golf now in it's 3rd generation and soon to be reborn. The "3" is as big as a Golf, but does with only two doors and a sort of one box design with a long roof line - providing ample head room in the rear- and rounded rear end. The 1.8 125 bhp car I had came with the standard cheapo wheels but as with many designs the look of the thing can be substantially enhanced by either buying the SE or turbo model which comes with rather yummy five spoke alloys-the types Audi does so well-or buying them as an option.

Inside the car is spacious and well appointed, the steering wheel rimmed in finest cowhide, with the bits left over covering the gearlever. Ah. The gear lever. Do German engineers have genetically enhanced extra long arms? I ask this because I found that despite being able to position the seat and wheel in all manner of positions the end result, if you have legs comparable to a 1.80 metres or a 6-foot frame, is that with the required driving position, your - in my case left arm- has to stretch out and find the stubby gear knob at every change. Not a huge concern mind, as the change itself is relatively fuss free, easy and direct, with a shortish movement and precise action - the answer I suppose being to move slightly nearer the fully adjustable wheel.

Zapping around London, as good an urban test as you'll likely to find this side of Tokyo, the little Audi (in name if not dimensions) ran smoothly, without upsetting any of the passengers, the ride, firm and supportive, giving a nice seat of your pants feel to the road without becoming tiresome. This, in combination with the excellent wind isolation allowed one to travel at above normal pace and still relax, chat or take in some tunes, and still return very reasonable fuel consumption of over 40 mpg.

In all there are three engine variants to choose from. 1.6 litres - at 13,796 & 117mph, 1.8 L - at 15,388 & 126mph and the 1.8 turbo at 17,860 & 135mph. The lesser engines have three option packs, standard, Sport and SE which give you the usual bits n' bobs, all have ABS as standard which is a good and a bad thing depending upon your driving ability.

As for major flaws. Well to be honest there isn't anything that jumps out and says "hate me" but then again since when do you find that in any respectable new car these days? The gearlever position is annoying, but the engine is great, revving freely with the help of five valves per cylinder. The dash is something very Audi, clear with lovely red back-lite dials - but that's personal and I know others who can't stand them in any of the models, though I would point out that the standard light for all night time military activities is red as it has the least disturbing "footprint" for the human eye and that can only be a good thing when you consider that a fair proportion of drivers can't see too well in daylight let alone after dark!

Whether this car has the character and presence to make an impact on the Golf and lesser Beemer market is what the really counts, and I'd be surprised if it failed to pick up a healthy slice of the ultra-competitive market. For while most of the other manufacturers spend millions relaunching and face lifting existing model line ups with huge media campaigns and lavish launches, this German firm has got the bit in its teeth and is going for the jugular of the big boys, all the while appealing to the yuppie with a conscience, the quietly successful professional with money to spend but not flash - the 90's man. One thing that Audi can be sure of is an increase in market share ( the same as with the luxury A8 which is as I write is being introduced to the US market for the first time since its launch in Europe in 1994)- because simply that's the only thing that can happen if you crack a new segment of the market.