May 23, 2005

Road Test: 2006 Audi A3
Article & Photos by: Matt Daniels

Audi's A3 has been available in many parts of the world since its introduction in 1996. For North American drivers though, the A3 has always been forbidden fruit only to be sampled on trips abroad (and even then probably not behind the wheel). Sold initially as a 3-door hatchback, a 5-door later joined the line-up and then finally the high performance S3 was offered.

When redesign came and went in early 2003 the A3 was still not to be seen on North American shores. Audi and corporate parent VW at the time deemed the A3 a little too similar to its cousin the VW Golf. Also, BMW and Mercedes' notably poor historic performance with similar, small premium hatchbacks did not provide an encouraging proof point.

All was not lost though; in recent years small cars have been making a comeback, especially in light of our raising gas prices. Vehicles like the Mazda 3, Toyota Matrix, Subaru WRX, and the Scion brand have shown strong sales in the small car market. Shortly after the 2003 redesign, rumors started to surface that North America would be blessed with the yet-to-be-released and completely redesigned 5-door A3. By mid-2004 when the new 5-door A3, dubbed the A3 Sportback, was debuted, it was all but confirmed that it was coming to North America.

Audi felt that North America was ready for its premium compact car and our wait is finally over - in May 2005 the Audi A3 Sportback officially went on sale across the United States and Canada. Audi enthusiasts may not be completely happy with the initial configuration being offered, but after testing the A3 during the press launch in Los Angles we can report that the A3 has definitely been worth the wait.

"It is not an inexpensive, cheap Audi" states Audi of America Vice President Johan de Nysschen, responding the perception that the A3 is going to be an entry level car. The A3 Sportback, de Nysschen points out, sacrifices nothing in terms of engineering, material and craftsmanship qualities compared to its bigger brothers.

Audi of America is aware that many consumers may expect the A3 to be priced well under the A4. This sensitivity to keeping the launch price down means that the A3 is initially being offered as a front-wheel drive model with the wonderful 2.0 FSI turbocharged engine mated to either a 6-speed manual transmission or the highly capable DSG automatic transmission. The A3 Sportback is being offered in three variants: a base model A3 2.0T, the A3 2.0T Sport and the A3 2.0T Premium. Prices for the base A3 will start at $24,740, while checking all the boxes on the options list easily pushes the price to the mid-$30s.

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait nearly a year before quattro is available, and then it will only be available with the 3.2 V6 engine. Currently there are no plans to mate quattro with the 2.0T powerplant, although Audi is not completely ruling out the possibility. Later in 2006 the S-Line package will be available.

Our test drive of the A3 started after the official press conference at the Pacific Design Center located in West Hollywood, California. At our disposal were A3s in each of the different configurations currently available: A3 Sport, A3 Premium, manual transmissions, DSGs, Open Sky System, etc. The only major option missing from the test cars was the navigation system.

The selected route would take us along Sunset Blvd, through Beverly Hills, Malibu, into the Santa Monica Mountains, back out to the coast and to Zuma Beach. An excellent mix of city driving, highway cruising, and enthusiastic twisty mountain roads.

There is little doubt that the A3 belongs in the Audi family. From the outside the automobile resembles a smaller, more athletic Audi Avant model. The front showcases the single-frame grill, which is now standard for all Audi models. On the A3, with its smaller proportions, the grill flows better with the overall design and doesn't appear as overbearing as on the larger Audi models. Maybe we're just getting used to the design, because the new grill doesn't seem to be as controversial on the A3.

Sliding into this A3 we immediately sense why Audi isn't referring to it as an entry level vehicle. Audi's award winning interior is in full force with a design that is heavily borrowed from the Audi TT. For instance, the use of circular air ducts is nearly identical to those found in the TT. It doesn't appear that Audi has compromised on any of the interior materials; everything has a sporty, luxurious look-and-feel that is expected from Audi. Selecting one of the major option packages will also mean additional aluminum trim is added to the interior.

The seats are available either in cloth or with leather seating surfaces. We did not test drive an A3 with cloth, however, so the jury is still out on that. Sports seats are available with the A3 2.0T Sport variant and are the seats where we spent the most drive time. The seats did an excellent job of holding us in place during our spirited runs in the mountains and were comfortable during the duration of our drive.

Interestingly, the A3's interior volume is nearly identical to the larger Audi A4. In fact, the A3 has slightly more rear leg room, but with less rear head and shoulder room. The result is that adults will be more cramped in the rear of the A3 than an A4. Cargo capacity is respectable in the A3, and the rear seats fold down for additional versatility.

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