2006 Audi A3
Photos: Audi. Click image to enlarge

By Richard Russell

San Cassiano, Italy – Audi plans to beat arch-rivals Mercedes and BMW to the North American market with the first German compact luxury car. Anticipating a growing segment where consumers will want to move up in image but not size, it is bringing the A3 to our shores this spring. The move continues an unprecedented model line expansion. Starting at the top, the A8 was redesigned, introducing the new “face” of Audi. That was followed by the A6, the A4 and most recently, the A6 Avant.

The expansion will continue in about a year with the arrival of the massive Q7 SUV, sharing many components with the Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg. But you won’t have to wait much longer for what might arguably be the most significant Audi in our market yet, the A3. This newcomer slots in below the A4 in both size and price, giving Audi a “stepping stone” vehicle to attract new and younger customers to the fold.

The A3 has around in Europe for some time, where small agile cars are hot property and people move up the ladder from economy to luxury based on badge, not bulk. Premium compacts are highly popular and Audi hopes that trend will catch on here, aided by rising fuel prices and multi-vehicle families. Boasting Audi style, technology and exclusivity, this compact joins the Volvo S40 in a category that will grow with the arrival of a new smaller Mercedes-Benz next fall.

2006 Audi A3
Click image to enlarge

We put a few hundred kilometres on the odometer of a Euro-spec A3 recently, aggressively tackling the endless switchbacks of the mighty Dolomite mountain range here where Bavaria becomes Italy. While the A3 is based on the same platform as the next-generation Golf, which has been on sale in Europe for more than a year but not due here until mid- to late 2006, there is virtually no sense of driving a VW. Audi has done a masterful job of imparting an upscale, refined image throughout this vehicle.

From the controversial new Audi horse collar-shaped grille to the exquisite instrument panel, there is no mistaking this for anything but an Audi. It comes across as more sporty and youthful than the A4, thanks to a distinct wedge-shaped profile and big 17-inch alloy wheels.

2006 Audi A3
Click image to enlarge

Inside there is decent room for two full-sized folks up front; because space is not exactly at a surplus in the back, the two people in the rear better be good friends. There is certainly ample room for smaller people, youngsters or child seats, which fits in well with the desired target market, as does the ability of the A3 to convert into a mini cargo carrier. The rear seats fold flat for a pretty impressive cargo space, easily accessed through a very large hatch. Audi has set the tone for interior design and appointments and the A3 enhances this reputation. Quality and class are evident everywhere you look and touch, and the ergonomics are right on.

I drove both the four- and six-cylinder variants but spent the majority of time with the 3.2-litre six-cylinder Quattro version, equipped with Audi’s delightful Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG). The initial batch of A3s brought across the pond will be 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged front-drive variants, to be followed by the Quattro version and the six later on. What a great little engine the 2.0 T is, with a turbocharger helping it come up with 200 horsepower and terrific low end grunt not usually associated with a car of this size. Wearing the 2.0 FSI moniker, it is a high-tech unit with a four-valve head and sophisticated high-pressure, direct injection system. The result is improved response, especially in the lower rev range with 207 lb-ft of torque all the way from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm, right where you want poke.

2006 Audi A3
Click image to enlarge

The six is no slacker either. I simply revelled in its ability to swap gears so readily. The DSG unit puts the next gear in the on-deck position while you’re at bat, already engaged and waiting for the word, which is delivered through steering wheel-mounted paddles or a tap on the shift lever. It can be left in fully automatic mode, but what a waste! Audi first used such a set-up 20 years ago in competition and again in the TT sports car a few years ago. Shifts are quicker than any human can manage and power delivery is seamless. It even blips the throttle between downshifts to match revs. Sweet!

The handling leans toward understeer at the limit, especially in the FWD version, but is much less pronounced with Quattro, where you can get back into the power sooner. The A3 has electro-mechanical power steering which is well weighted and makes a significant contribution to the feeling of agility. The relatively long wheelbase contributes to a better ride than the overall size would indicate and wind, engine and road noise are all well suppressed.

2006 Audi A3
Click image to enlarge

Starting price for the 2.0 T is $32,850 with six-speed manual transmission and $34,400 with DSG, direct shift gearbox. That includes dual zone climate control, 17-inch alloys, tilt and telescope steering wheel, power windows, central locking and a lot more. That’s premium pricing for a small car, but it is a premium small car. Audi has no lofty goals for this car, hoping to find only about 1,500 Canadians looking for an exclusive, refined small luxury car.

North America has not exactly welcomed hatchbacks with open arms and Canadians love their inexpensive small cars. If Audi can attract enough customers who don’t care about these issues, or who consciously want to be different, the A3 could well start a trend. I heartily approve.

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