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WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Serving as a hub for contemporary design where architects, engineers, and designers showcase their newest, trend-setting work, the Pacific Design Center is where Audi handed over the keys to the new 2006 Audi A3. It seemed a fitting place for the A3’s designer, Gary Telaak, to sketch the evolution of this premium five-door hatchback, and for this German automaker’s engineers and marketers to talk about the A3’s positioning as a dynamic and versatile sports car with the attributes of a sedan, a wagon, and an SUV.
Made for buyers with an active lifestyle, the 2006 Audi A3 is a fresh and exciting new offering in North America. But then, we’ve heard the same rhetoric used to describe many new and upgraded models of late. We came to West Hollywood to find out if Audi can deliver on that promise.
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Nuts and Bolts
Despite a lack of variety, there is still plenty to appreciate under the 2006 Audi A3’s hood. The A3’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine was first used in the 2005.5 A4. Thanks to direct fuel injection, which squirts just the right amount of fuel directly into the combustion chambers instead of mixing it in a manifold, this engine creates an impressive 200 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 207 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,800 and 5,000 rpm. By comparison, the Subaru WRX and Saab 9-2X Aero come with 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinders producing 227 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 217 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Two six-speed transmissions bolt to the A3’s sophisticated engine, driving power to the front wheels. The standard offering is a conventional six-speed manual operated with a clutch pedal, and the optional unit is a Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) that features automatic or clutchless manual shifting. In terms of fuel economy, the Audi A3 remains competitive at 25-mpg city/31-mpg highway with the optional DSG and 24/32 with the standard manual, proving another benefit of direct fuel injection – the elimination of wasted fuel that conventional manifold mixing often creates.
Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, wrapped in 225/45R17 all-season tires, come standard and the brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS, although only the front discs are vented. Rotor diameters measure 12.3 inches up front and 11 inches in the back. Audi uses MacPherson struts up front and a four-link independent setup for the rear suspension. Cornering ability starts in the driver's hands, as the power assistance in the steering is variable depending on the vehicle's speed. Sometime after the initial launch, a 3.2-liter V6 model will be available, wearing 18-inch alloy wheels and featuring Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system. A higher-performance S3 model is also planned.
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Arriving equipped with a long list of standard features, the 2006 Audi A3 includes remote central locking with selective unlocking, power windows with one touch operation, a 10-speaker stereo system, cruise control, automatic climate control with a pollen filter and a sun sensor, driver and passenger front and side impact airbags, and side curtain airbags.
The Sport Package ($1,800) adds a stiffer suspension, front fog lights, a roof spoiler, front sport seats with leather surfaces, and a leather-wrapped shift knob and parking brake. Sport package models also include a multi-functional three-spoke steering wheel with controls for the radio, CD player, and telephone along with driver display information such as climate control and distance to empty.
Alternatively, the Premium Package ($2,025) deletes the roof spoiler, sport seats, and sport suspension but adds a power driver's seat, an auto-dimming mirror, and a trip computer. Separate options include xenon headlights, a Bose premium sound system, your choice between XM or Sirius satellite radio, a two-part glass sunroof, and rear side-impact airbags. Finally, a Cold Weather Package ($700) includes heated seats, mirrors, washer nozzles, and a ski bag.
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Attractive in general – when compared to others such as the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Mazda 3, Subaru WRX, and Saab 9-2X – the 2006 Audi A3 has well-balanced, pleasing dimensions that carry more of a luxury look and heritage. Its trapezoidal nose, a conspicuous snout that can be found on most contemporary Audis, distinguishes the A3 as a member of the family. Brand recognition is important in this premium compact class, and there is no mistaking the A3 for anything but an Audi.
At the rear, the A3’s roofline noticeably tapers, reducing the glass-to-body ratio. Compared with the 2005.5 A4 Avant wagon, the A3 measures 11.9 inches shorter in length (168.7 in.), although the wheelbase is only 2.8 inches tighter (101.5 in.). These better balanced proportions help create the A3’s sporty stance, for which Audi was aiming. Even compared with those of other premium compacts, the A3's body is more tightly wrapped around the wheels. Other notable exterior features include a high crease along the sides above the door handles, a front hood line that includes a center bulge for the grille, and dual exhaust tips.
If the 2006 Audi A3 falls short in terms of aesthetic appeal, it’s on the inside. Audi attempted to replicate the interior look and quality of the TT roadster, combining premium soft-touch materials with sporty accents such as aluminum-ringed air vents and rotary knobs for the climate control. But the A3’s interior, especially with the aluminum trim, still looks cheap. The black trim provides a more upscale appearance, but despite the attractive look and feel of the steering wheel, stalks, and gauges, the overall interior atmosphere doesn’t match the A3’s stablemates.
In terms of comfort, we found the seatback supportive, but the seat bottom was long and, without the power seat controls that come with the optional Premium Package, people of shorter stature might find it difficult to get comfortable.
Inside, the cabin has good visibility and more room than you would expect from its outside appearance. The A3’s front headroom is 38.1 inches, which is the same as the headroom in the S40/V50 and the Mazda 3, but a tad less than the head clearance the Saab 9-2X and the MINI Cooper S. In terms of front legroom, the A3 at 41.2 inches is close to the Mini, but you are less able to stretch than in the Volvos and the Saab. The rear seat of the Audi has headroom of 36.9 inches and legroom of 34.8 inches, as compared to the Volvo S40 (37.2/34.4); Volvo V50 (38.1/34.4); the MINI Cooper S (37.6/31.3); and the Saab 9-2X (37.3/33.7).
The 2006 Audi A3 runs middle of the pack in cargo space. Maximum luggage capacity with the rear seats up is 19.5 cubic feet, as compared to cargo stowage with the seats up in the Mini Cooper S (5.3), Acura RSX (16) and Mazda 3 (17). Volvo’s V50 (27.4) and Saab’s 9-2X (27.9) have greater room with the rear seats raised. With the rear seats lowered, the A3 boasts 55.6 cu.-ft. of cargo carrying ability as compared to the the Mazda 3’s 31.2. Both the Volvo V50 (62.9) and the Saab 9-2X (61.6) report higher numbers for maximum cargo capacity.
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After a beach-side lunch break in Malibu, where we checked out hip and practical A3 add-ons available through Audi dealers such as fashionable wheels, a functional roof rack for sports equipment, and distinctive interior trim and sill plates, the real drive began.
Mulholland Highway, a solitary stretch of serpentine tarmac in the Santa Monica Mountains, is a dream drive for any car enthusiast. Despite the fact that you’re only a scooch more than a stone’s throw from L.A., its sheer drop-offs into canyons on one side of the roadway, and raked cliff walls on the other, allow no opportunity for sloppy motoring or mediocre handling when driving at speed. We arrived at the Mulholland swath of road after enough seat time to know that the A3’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine is responsive, trust that the A3’s brakes are effective; and understand that the A3’s suspension is stiff yet compliant to make you feel glued to the pavement in tight corners. It was here that we discovered, although there is no bad choice between the two gearboxes, one of the Audi A3’s transmissions stands out as a gem.
When it comes to the 2006 Audi A3, you can row your own gears, if you must. The six-speed manual transmission propelled the speedometer needle past 40 mph in first gear, and got the A3 to the 80 mark in third gear. We trusted Audi’s zero-to-60 claim of 6.9 seconds for this transmission, but fell head-over-heels for the Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which scoots the A3 even faster to sixty, in just 6.7 seconds. All without using a clutch.
Was our love of the A3’s DSG a relationship founded on two-tenths of a second? Hardly! First experienced in the TT roadster nearly a year ago, Audi’s automatic DSG offers four options for driving, and therein lays the magic. Driven in “D”— fully automatic mode – the A3 upshifts to second gear too quickly and too transparently, and this mode also produced too much shifting up and down when driving in traffic. The sport setting, “S,” is better because it holds gears longer, and provides a set-and-forget enthusiastic drive for those who appreciate an enhanced throttle note. Best was the “manual mode.” With an intuitive forward shift pattern for taller gears and rearward for smaller gears, and technologically-brilliant engine programming that ‘blips’ the throttle to match engine revs when you downshift, the manual mode can actually rev into the redline before upshifting. Fast-reacting paddles on the steering wheel can add to the fun, But when they’re out of position in hard corners, you can simply switch back to manual throws with the gear lever.
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Initially, North American customers will receive only one version of the A3, the front-wheel-drive model powered by Audi's turbocharged inline-four. Later in the model year, Audi will add a 3.2-liter V6-powered Quattro model, and following that, an “S” version with even greater performance will come stateside.
Audi has high hopes for the 2006 A3, which has been sold in Europe since 1996 and entered its second generation in 2003. Until now, Audi has concentrated on selling its sedans and station wagons here. But given recent entrants such as the Saab 9-2X and Volvo V50, Audi clearly feels that the small car market in the U.S. is worth pursuing – to the tune of 10,000 units for the 2006 model year. And while it's true that Americans prefer cars with trunks, they also show a consistent thirst for vehicles with luxury nameplates, so Audi is not concerned about the A3’s hatchback design.
This new-to-America A3 should capture enough of the market here to preserve the United States' status as Audi's top export destination. In the premium compact segment, this attractive hatchback should thrive based on its luxury nameplate, safety features, and performance capabilities. Just take it for a ride on Mulholland Highway – you’ll see.
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Test Vehicle: 2006 Audi A3 2.0T DSG
Price of Test Vehicle: $30,035
Engine Size and Type: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 200 at 5,100 rpm
Engine Torque: 207 lb.-ft. between 1,800 and 5,000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,263 lbs (manual); 3329 lbs. (DSG)
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 24/30 (DSG); 23/30 (manual)
Length: 168.7 inches
Width: 69.5 inches
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Height: 56 inches
Legroom (front/rear): 41.2/34.8 inches
Head room (front/rear): 38.1/36.9 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Luggage Capacity: 19.5 cu.-ft. (seats up); 55.6 cu.-ft. (seats down)
Competitors: Acura RSX, Acura TSX, Chevrolet HHR LT, Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS, Chrysler PT Cruiser GT, Dodge Magnum, Mazda 3s 5-door, Mazda 6s Wagon, Mini Cooper S, Pontiac Vibe, Saab 9-2X, Subaru WRX, Toyota Matrix, Volkswagen Golf, Volvo V50
Photos courtesy of Audi of America
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