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Audi A3: Hot Hatch Meets Smooth Cool German
Despite today's never-ending talk about globalization and the merging of world cultures, German cars still have a personality all their own. But like most strong personalities, the distinct flavor of Teutonic automobiles isn't a favorite with everybody. While the typical German car's smooth, refined manners are impressive, such machines can seem a little too slick feeling for some -- they tend to be a bit isolating, sterile, chilly.
Count me among believers of the latter. I generally like cars to have more soul than the usual Bahn-stormer delivers. But that's why I found the new Audi A3 to be such a pleasant surprise. It's as friendly feeling as a Japanese sports sedan, without giving up the sense of precision and refinement that's the hallmark of machines from Audi and other German makes.
Slipping into the A3's cabin, you find it to be noticeably smaller than its A4 sibling, but not dramatically so. Surrounding occupants are quality-feeling black plastics of various finishes, offset by a sprinkling of aluminum here and there. Although not opulent or expensive feeling, the A3's furnishings are sophisticated and pleasing. They convey a sense of thought and care in their design.
Likewise for the optional leather upholstery, which has a taut, quality feel. The seats are supportive and comfortable. There's decent room for tall individuals up front. In back, leg- and head-room are a bit snug for six footers, but not painfully so.
Firing up the turbocharged 2.0-liter four yields a smooth, precise purr, which elevates to an almost exotic rip as rpms get into the upper half of the range. That transition is appropriate, mirroring the engine's switch from somewhat lopey feeling off the line, to a surprisingly strong midrange champ that has more gusto than its 200-hp rating might imply.
Indeed, a look at the specs shows why -- this engine's full 207 lb ft. of torque is available at just 1800 rpm, giving it a gutsy feel that's quite entertaining. Although the A3 will be offered with a 250-hp V6, the four is plenty enjoyable.
Somewhat less enjoyable, however, is the 6-speed sequential-shift manual transmission. It proved to be a mixed bag. The steering-wheel shift paddles were intuitive and effective for manually controlling shifts. Likewise, the transmission's upshifts under hard throttle demonstrated impressively quick action without any sort of jerkiness. But automatic-mode downshifts were a trifle sluggish and upshifts often came early, leaving the engine to lug along in what felt like too low a gear.
Nonetheless, such quibbles don't dampen the fun appreciably and the A3 is good for plenty of excitement on twisty roads. Compared to most German sporty cars, the A3's steering is lighter and more communicative -- dare I say even a bit soulful. Complementing this is the A3's competent, confidence-inspiring handling. Not surprisingly, grip runs out front-end first on this FWD machine, so charging into tight turns can bring on some plowing understeer. But it's not a major handicap, and it's certainly no worse than most rivals in this respect. Firm damping controls body motion well and the A3's brakes are powerful and easily modulated, capping off a package that's good for plenty of sport-driving fun.
The only significant downside I found to the A3 is its price. Although prices start at an attractive $24,740, our A3 2.0T test car stickered for around thirty large with a few typical options. While that's not exactly highway robbery for a machine this competent, it's enough to probably send some potential A3 buyers toward rival premium subcompacts.
But after looking around, a lot of those people will probably come back to considering the A3. It's a nice blend that's easy to fall for -- small but practical, lively yet sophisticated, Teutonic but eager. Plenty of other cars would do well to emulate its virtues.
For more drive-test articles on today’s hottest sports cars, sport compacts, and muscle cars, go to http://www.autiv.com/
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