Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

More so than our neighbours to the south, Canadians appreciate small hatchbacks. With the seating configuration of a sedan and the functionality of a station wagon, the small footprint of these vehicles makes them ideal for city use, or for manoeuvring in parking lots. And since many of those lots are attached to big-box stores, being able to fold the seats and stuff in plenty of cargo makes hatchbacks even more attractive.

Audi brings a new contender into this market for 2006, the A3. It takes its place as the company’s smallest four-door, coming in under the A4 Avant, both in size and price. It’s smartly styled, quick, comfortable and extremely well-built, but it may face an uphill battle: in a nation where volume often equals value, many customers may find the A3’s base $32,850 a bit steep for its size, especially when they start tacking optional equipment on to it.

The A3 shares its underpinnings with the new Volkswagen Golf, although you’d never know you were sitting in anything other than an Audi. The ‘oily’ bits may come from the company that gave us the Beetle, but the driving experience is all upscale Teutonic.

2006 Audi A3 2.0T
Click image to enlarge

The A3 currently comes with one engine, a very sweet direct-injection, turbocharged 2.0-litre that makes 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque (a 3.2-litre V6 should arrive for 2006). It transmits its power to the front wheels – Quattro all-wheel-drive won’t be available until next year – smoothly and quietly. There isn’t any overwhelming turbo whine, and there’s little noticeable lag. Audi reports zero to 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds, and the speed tops out at an electronically-limited 209 km/h. My tester’s engine was hooked to a six-speed manual, but for an extra $1,550, you can move up to the company’s new six-speed automatic DSG, or Direct Selection Gearbox.

The DSG, also available in the Audi TT, uses a dual-clutch set-up that eliminates the torque converter and uses the second clutch for immediate gear changes. Derived from a six-speed manual, the DSG can also be operated via shift paddles on the wheel.

The A3 comes in a single trim line, but can be optioned with a Sport or Premium package and a few stand-alone options. The base A3 includes power mirrors, rear wiper, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution, side and curtain airbags, power locks, manually-adjustable cloth seats, 60/40 folding rear seat, cruise control, automatic dual-zone climate control system, power auto up and down on all windows, 17-inch alloy wheels, and CD player with ten speakers.

2006 Audi A3 2.0T

2006 Audi A3 2.0T
Click image to enlarge

The Sport package adds leather sport seats, bi-colour alloy wheels, sport suspension, aluminum trim, multifunction steering wheel, roof spoiler and fog lights for $2,600. The Premium package includes leather interior, silver cast alloy wheels, Homelink garage door opener, trip computer, auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain sensor, power driver’s seat, multifunction steering wheel, aluminum trim and fog lights for $2,850.

The interior is all Audi: extremely comfortable and supportive seats that could take you across Canada without needing to stretch; full backlighting on all controls (including a headlight switch that lights up at all times, so you can find it in the dark); superb fit and finish, including some of the best exterior paint I’ve seen squirted on an assembly line; and quality materials everywhere. On the down side, the automatic climate control is frustratingly complicated and non-intuitive, and there was a surprising amount of annoying wind noise on the highway, which seemed to be coming from around the back glass of my tester’s optional Open Sky two-panel sunroof.

2006 Audi A3 2.0T
Click image to enlarge

The rear seat is a bit tight – this is a compact car, after all – but there’s a large space under the front seats for slipping one’s feet. The 79 cm long cargo area expands to 139 cm in length when the seats are folded, and there are cargo tie-downs to secure slippery items. An optional $950 Cold Weather Package adds a seat-belted ski sack to the cargo area, along with heated seats, mirrors and washer nozzles.

The A3 is a joy to drive, hugging the road like it’s glued on, and with direct response from the electrically-assigned steering. The front suspension is MacPherson struts with a tubular anti-roll bar; in the rear is a four-link suspension with shocks and springs, and another roll bar.

2006 Audi A3 2.0T
Click image to enlarge

Body roll is something other cars do; this Audi takes whatever corner you wish to toss it into, and comes out looking for more. Hatchbacks aren’t supposed to be this much fun to drive, but Audi has delivered on this little car. An electronic stabilization program (ESP) will kick in if you get just a bit too spirited. In combined driving I averaged 8.2 L/100 km; the fuel recommendation is super unleaded, with a minimum of 91 octane.

Outside, the A3 is nicely proportioned, with a low roofline, nicely-integrated lights, and a rear end that slopes out to offset the package. I’m still not sold on the new nose-to-chin Audi grille, although the blacked-out crossbar makes it a little less intrusive than the wide brightwork that accompanies the VW version found on the new Jetta – but then, taste is always subjective.

So is the concept of price and value, and this is where the A3 may have some rough sailing. With the Sport package, Open Sky sunroof and Bose sound system, freight and air tax, my tester came to $39,000 before taxes (the automatic transmission would have taken it to $40,550).

2006 Audi A3 2.0T
Click image to enlarge

That’s a lot of money for a compact car, and many buyers will probably realize that they can get many of the same options – including a power seat, the one item I really missed on a car within kissing distance of forty grand – on many other models for well under $30,000.

Still, few others handle like the A3 does, or offer the same level of workmanship and materials throughout the vehicle. You can go to a chain restaurant and get a big plate of food for a small price tag, or you can go to a fine dining establishment and get a smaller portion of superb cuisine for a bit more money. It isn’t for every budget, but for those who can look at a small package and see quality instead of quantity, the A3 is a pretty impressive little car.

See also: First Drive report – 2006 Audi A3, by Richard Russell.

Technical Data: 2006 Audi A3 2.0T

Base price $32,850
Options $5,350 (Sport Package $2,600; Open Sky system $1,500; Bose sound system $1,250)
Freight $700
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $39,000 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback
Layout Transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves, Turbocharged
Horsepower 200 @ 5100 rpm
Torque 207 @ 1800 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires 225/45R17 all-season
Curb weight 1480 kg (3263 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2578 mm (101.5 in.)
Length 4284 mm (168.7 in.)
Width 1765 mm (69.5 in.)
Height 1422 mm (56.0 in.)
Cargo capacity 552 litres (19.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.2 L/100 km
  Hwy: 7.1 L/100 km
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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