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Audi A3

It's all sounding rather tempting, the all new Audi A3 hatchback, until they tell you it isn't available with quattro all-wheel drive.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

LOS ANGELES It’s all sounding rather tempting, the all new Audi A3 hatchback, until they tell you it isn’t available with quattro all-wheel drive.

What, no quattro?

The feature that has, at least for me, defined Audi ever since the company tried it on its rally cars in the ’80s and found itself dominating the international scene?

The selling point that has lofted the A4 lineup to success in colder climates like ours? Is this really still an Audi? Don’t worry: quattro is on the way, but won’t show up on Canadian shores until the beginning of 2006. And even then it will only come with a 3.2-litre V6 and the six-speed automatic Direct Selection Gearbox (DSG).

For now, your only drive-train choice is the company’s brilliant new 200-hp, turbo-charged, 2.0-litre four-cylinder with direct fuel injection. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual.

The A3 2.0 T officially rolls into GTA dealerships on Thursday, May 12, but is already in many showrooms.

Priced at $32,850 to start, it does indeed share its underpinnings with the new, fifth-generation Volkswagen Golf. But you won’t know it until you look underneath.

In look and feel, this five-door is in every way an Audi.

It is beautifully designed, solidly built, fast and fun to drive. It’s practical and surprisingly roomy.

And, oh yeah, it handles better than the more expensive A4 (the 2006 A4 2.0 T starts at $35,950) that sits above it in Audi’s range, quattro or no quattro.

Despite that nagging sense that maybe, just maybe, it’s not quite an Audi, the A3 should prove a very tempting proposition.

At least until the re-thought Golf arrives in the spring of 2006 (two years after it went on sale in Europe), the A3 is going to be the only way for you to access the sharp fifth-gen VW/Audi smallcar chassis in a practical hatchback form (the VW Jetta is significantly longer, thanks to its huge trunk).

And a delightful chassis it is, too. The electronically assisted steering feels sharp and accurate, unlike many such systems out there.

The suspension (struts up front, and a neat new multi-link arrangement in the rear) remains composed and stable at seemingly whatever speed you toss the car into corners.

Grip from the optional 17-inch tires that come with the sport package is impressive but, surprisingly, the ride remains comfortable as well. The brakes and throttle have a precision to them that was oh-so-slightly lacking in previous Audis.

A stability-control system is standard. But during the hours I spent on winding California roads with the A3, the system was never actually needed; the traction-control part of it, though, does kick in during quick getaways from stoplights, as the front wheels try to spin the turbo-charged four’s 207-lb.ft. of torque uselessly away.

There’s some interesting action on the transmission front: the A3 can be optioned with the same dual-clutch (but there’s no clutch pedal) DSG automated tranny that’s available in the TT 3.2. Its electronic brain guesses which gear you want next and engages it, using a second clutch, meaning shifts happen, absolutely seamlessly, in a blink of an eye.

Change down and the system blips the throttle to smooth the changes even further. Even if you use the steering wheel-mounted paddles to move down two or three gears, it manages to execute perfect changes, making you look like the world’s smoothest driver.

The cost for such shifting perfection? $1,550.

Inside, the A3’s everything you would expect from Audi. The build quality is exceptional, all of the materials feel expensive underneath your fingers and the controls are arranged logically and intuitively.

What’s perhaps more impressive than the cabin’s design and quality is its roominess. A brilliant “open sky” sunroof integrates two movable panels into a glass roof, greatly increasing the sense of airiness in the cabin.

The front seats feature the usual huge range of adjustment and there’s a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, so getting comfortable is a cinch.

The back seats actually have fairly decent legroom and headroom as well something that can’t be said of the outwardly larger A4 sedan.

Of course, being a hatchback, the A3 is also versatile: the rear seats flop forward to create a huge load area.

On the other side of the pond, associating the words “premium” and “hatchback” has never been a problem, but doing so over here will probably be a bit more difficult.

Audi’s pricing and packaging isn’t going to help.

To get many of the more desirable A3 options, you will have to step up to a model with a leather interior, pitching the car right into the territory occupied by the wellestablished A4 sedan.

Add in the fact that you can’t yet get quattro, and you’re left with a challenge convincing people the A3 represents value for the money. The line’s 3.2-litre V6 quattro version will no doubt come awfully close to $40,000.

Still, this is a legitimate premium small car. The success of products like the Mini Cooper S in our market has shown that if a small car is sufficiently appealing to drive and to look at, price need not necessarily be an impediment to sales.

The A3’s more fun than any Audi, bar the TT, to drive, and it’s attractive and practical to boot.

And until the introduction of the Mercedes B-Class, which I preview on page G17, and the BMW 1 Series, both coming later this year, it doesn’t really have any direct competitors.

Laurance Yap, a freelance journalist (yap@mac.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker.

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