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As Audi's entry model for the U.S. market, the Audi A3 pairs a practical hatchback body style with aggressive cues, big alloy wheels, and an interior that feels fashionable enough for the Audi badge. Yet it costs only a few thousand more than a number of comparable mainstream-brand vehicles.Audi's sleek A3 doesn't look much different than when it first made its U.S. debut for 2006; yet it still looks quite fresh and contemporary from the outside. Inside, it's beginning to look a bit dated, mainly because most of the other Audi models have been recently refreshed and taken a new design directio—especially with respect to interior trim.
You have a choice between two different engines on the A3, and while their power figures are quite different, their performance is remarkably close. A 140-hp, 2.0-liter TDI turbo-diesel is narrowly our editors' favorite, because it churns out loads of low-rpm torque, making highway trips a breeze, but the the 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four feels very eager and doesn't need to be revved high either to tap into the torque. In either model the S tronic gearbox doesn't make the sacrifices that automatics normally do. Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system, which is usually offered in most of Audi's cars, isn't at all offered with TDI versions, or in versions with the manual gearbox, so much of the A3 lineup is front-wheel drive. Savvy commuters will probably find the TDI model's 42-mpg highway rating irresistible.
The A3 has steering that's pretty light, but it has good roadholding and a refined driving feel overall. We recommend Audi's magnetic ride system, as it improves ride, handling, and the entire experience. In any case, the A3 hits a sweet spot in both maneuverability and quick response, yet relaxed highway cruising, so it's as well-suited to the open road as it is for urban commuting.
Compared to any other vehicles approaching $30k, the A3 has one of the best laid-out yet exquisitely trimmed interiors. The front standard leather buckets sit low, and lack the side support needed in such a car and can cause backaches on longer journeys, though they afford a good view out. For a car of this size, rear-seat accommodations are just acceptable, allowing you to squeeze a pair of adults in there—provided the passengers in front don't mind scooting forward an inch or two. One of our only complaints—and one you'll need to listen for on the test drive—is that road coarseness can sound into the cabin, and the ride with the standard suspension can be harsh over Rust Belt potholes.
The A3's standard features—and especially its options—are also what help distinguish it from sporty mainstream entries like the Subaru WRX or Mazda3. Fog lamps, automatic climate control, keyless entry, leather upholstery, and a 140-watt, ten-speaker sound system are all standard. Premium Plus models are a step up and include xenon headlamps, larger alloy wheels, a power driver seat, steering-wheel audio controls, ambient LED lighting, and LED running lamps. Bose premium sound, a navigation system, and an iPod integration kit are among the options. Our biggest feature letdown, however, is that Bluetooth hands-free connectivity isn't standard, and it's optional as part of a $2,000 Premium Plus package.