Audi's A3 entry-level car is small, but not too small. It's a premium European model but not plush. And, it's fun to drive and sporty with impeccable poise.
For 2009, every A3 five-door hatchback comes with standard leather-trimmed seats and satellite radio. Quattro all-wheel-drive now is available on the most popular version of A3 -- the model with the base, turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Also new this model year are subtle design updates outside that include eye-catching fiber optics in the taillamps. There's a new, optional magnetic ride suspension, too, that provides advanced ride damping and control from new adaptive shock absorbers.
Best of all, the A3 is a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, following a good performance in the institute's front, side and rear crash tests. The federal government has not crash tested the A3.
It's just too bad the A3 isn't within the price reach of many more car buyers.
A look at the 2009 Audi A3 2.0T S-tronic Quattro
- BASE PRICE: $26,920 for base model with manual transmission; $28,400 for base model with S-tronic; $30,500 for 2.0T model with Quattro all-wheel drive.
- AS TESTED: $41,700.
- TYPE: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback.
- ENGINE: 2-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder.
- MILEAGE: 21 mpg (city), 28 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: 130 mph.
- LENGTH: 169 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 101.5 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 3,461 pounds.
- BUILT AT: Germany.
- OPTIONS: Sport package with Audi magnetic ride (includes sport seats, sport suspension and 18-inch, alloy wheels with summer performance tires) $2,550; S-line package (includes brushed aluminum interior trim, spoiler, power driver's seat and leather-finished steering wheel) $2,000; Audi navigation system $1,950; convenience package (includes automatic-dimming rearview mirror, Bose sound system and Xenon headlamps) $1,800; open sky sunroof system $1,100; cold weather package (includes heated front seats and outside mirrors) $500; Meteor Gray pearl effect exterior paint $475.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $825.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2009 A3 with manual transmission is $27,745. The lowest-priced A3 with a transmission that can shift itself -- in this case, an S-tronic dual-clutch transmission -- is $29,225. These prices are competitive with many small, entry-level European luxury cars. For example, the 2009 Volvo C30 hatchback starts at $24,695, while the 2009 BMW 1-Series starts at $30,225.
But the A3 is no bargain, given it's about the same size inside as a Honda Civic, and it's a hatchback, which many Americans equate with an "economy" label.
Also, the A3's reliability rating at Consumer Reports magazine is only "fair."
Still, driving the A3 shows just how pleasing a stable, buttoned-down hatchback can be. The A3 is an easy car for most people to drive comfortably. Note: Large-sized adults may feel a bit confined in the optional front sport seats that were in the test car.
But the seat support is among the best out there, and the lengthy seat track and height adjustment allow for a wide range of seat positions. The steering wheel also tilts and telescopes to allow for more driver position flexibility.
Steering and brakes are precise in their quick responses, giving the A3 high marks for accident avoidance. There's a distinctly nimble feel in all maneuvers, and the A3 seems to handle as one piece of metal with none of the sloppiness seen in some other vehicles.
The addition of Audi's all-wheel drive system on the test car added to the enjoyment as the car moved efficiently through mountain twisties. It stayed on course and confidently poised, even when driven aggressively. The grippy summer performance tires that were on the tester helped.
There was nary any wind noise, and road noise was muted as I traveled. The noisiest the interior got was on rough, recently scraped highway concrete that was being groomed for resurfacing.
The biggest frustration on the road was that I couldn't see very far ahead when vehicles were in front of me. I looked up at, but not through, sport utility vehicles and other tall vehicles.
The 200-horsepower, 2-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder engine is a carryover from the previous year and moves the A3 in sprightly fashion. I loved how the car zoomed forward with purposeful gusto. Torque peaks at 207 foot-pounds early in the rev band -- at 1,800 rpm -- and is available to 5,000 rpm.
With the S-tronic six-speed tranny, I could shift from gear to gear myself or let the computer software do it for me. Both were pleasing experiences. The A3 also is available with a six-speed manual. It's mated only to the turbo four. The A3's other engine -- a 250-horsepower, 3.2-liter, non-turbo six cylinder -- comes only with the S-tronic.
Obviously, fuel economy is best with the four-cylinder engine, but there's no boasting about the A3's combined city/highway rating of 24 miles per gallon. A four-cylinder Honda Civic can get a federal government rating of 29 mpg. Also, be aware that premium gasoline is required for the A3.
Still, there's something about the sporty exhaust note of the A3 test car that sticks with me.
The car looks good, too. The modern Audi styling conveys the look of a ground-hugging, premium car. It doesn't seem to matter that the look is on a vehicle that's shorter, from bumper to bumper, than the already smallish 2009 Volvo C30 hatchback and shorter than a Civic.
Audi's new wheels for the A3 this year add pizzazz. The test car wore optional 18-inch, alloy wheels that nicely complemented the exterior Meteor Gray paint with pearlescent effects. In fact, even the lowest-priced Audi like the A3, has the automaker's special paints that can look so deep and special, you'd swear the car is wearing 75 coats of paint.
Don't let the short size of the A3 fool you. This car has more cargo space behind the rear seats -- 19.5 cubic feet -- than does the BMW 1-Series. And if the rear seats are folded down, the luggage space grows to a nearly SUV-like 55 cubic feet of room.
But the rear seat is a tight squeeze for three adults. Two people back there do OK.
Drivers must watch for the sizable, metal pillar at the side of the back window. The pillar obscures views. Also be aware that adding options to the A3 can quickly scale up the price to well over $30,000. The test car topped out at more than $41,000.
Lastly, Audi officials announced plans to add a fuel-thrifty diesel engine to the A3 in early calendar 2010. The 2-liter diesel will provide more than 40 mpg in highway driving.