What's going on at the Volkswagen Group? Is it sibling rivalry? First, VW elbows Audi with the grandiose Phaeton. And now Audi is about to poke VW in the ribs with the A3 hatchback. Smaller and sportier than the A4, Ingolstadt's new wagonette in-tends to bring the four rings to a new, younger class of buyer: too gear-laden for a sedan, too hip for a wagon, too liberal for an SUV, and too brand-conscious for a Volkswagen.
Buyers will have one engine choice when the A3 hits showrooms next May. A 2.0-liter turbo-charged four retires the long-serving 1.8T in Audi's lineup (and, later, in VW's). Dubbed 2.0TFSI, the engine uses a four-valve head instead of the previous five-valve array, making room for a sophisticated direct-injection system that promises better responsiveness and fuel efficiency. Its 197 horsepower arrives at 5100 rpm, and its 207 pound-feet of torque holds fast from 1800 rpm all the way to 5000. Like the 1.8T, the 2.0TFSI never lets you forget that it's artificially aspirated, but, unlike with many other front-wheel-drive turbos, torque steer under full throttle is pleasantly restrained.
The engine meets a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which uses two clutches-"at bat" and "on deck"-to provide a seamless flow of power as the gears change. The idea isn't new; Audi ran a Sport Quattro S1 Pikes Peak car with such a transmission in 1985. Making it affordable is the real news. Gear changes are lightning-quick, with none of the harshness of servo-shifted sequential manual gearboxes such as BMW's SMG.
Nine months after launch, the A3 3.2 Quattro will join the lineup, with the 3.2-liter narrow-angle V-6 from Audi's lauded TT 3.2 and VW's R32. In the A3, the engine puts its 247 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque to the pavement only through the DSG and Quattro all-wheel drive. The 3.2 gets a six-speed stick in Europe, but Audi has no plans to offer such a combo in the States. Pity.
With its attractive wedgy profile and bold trapezoidal grille, the five-door A3 comes off as a sort of A6 Avant Lite. Audi will offer a Sport package on the first-year A3, including seventeen-inch wheels and a stiffened suspension. Subsequent years will have an S-line package, which adds some sporty interior parts and revised bodywork. As for an actual S3, with more power and attendant high-performance parts, its debut is still anyone's guess.
The cabin boasts typically fine quality, peerless ergonomics, and an excellent mix of A6, TT, and A4 Cabriolet design elements. A dash-mounted version of Audi's smart Multi Media Interface is optional, encompassing audio controls and a DVD-based nav system. The rear seats fold flat, and there's a pass-through big enough to stow a snowboard or two. Liberal optioners can have the very cool Open Sky roof, too, sporting front-to-back glass, the forward half of which slides rearward.
On the road, the A3 is lively and balanced, with excellent steering and very little unwanted body motion. The 3.2 Quattro is unflappable and very quick, if not quite as amusing as VW's charmed R32. The 2.0-liter car was a pleasant surprise, with a playful demeanor that re-called Acura's TSX. Road, engine, and wind noise are well suppressed, and the five-door's long wheelbase gives it the highway ride of a much larger car.
Audi expects the A3 2.0TFSI to start at about $25,000, with a fully loaded DSG model cresting the $32,000 mark. Look for the 3.2 Quattro to split the difference between the $30,000 R32 and the $40,000 TT 3.2. The company hopes to find 15,000 buyers a year for the A3, with twenty percent of those ponying up for the 3.2.
All in all, the A3 is a highly likable ride-high class, high content, and high quality. But the sub-$35,000 arena is full of temptations these days, and premium hatchbacks never have had an easy time of it here (BMW 318ti, anyone?). As good as the A3 is, we just don't see that changing any time soon.