An Audi for the rest of us

Good news for devotees of sport compacts - those tightly built cars that marry performance with back-seat utility: Audi just had a baby. And, baby, it screams for attention.

The innovators of Ingolstadt, Germany, have delivered the 2006 A3, a new, $25,000 version of a model long sold in Europe. Audi hopes to seed loyalty and lure entry-level US buyers up the marquee's chain - to the A4, A6, and (for future CEOs) that standard-setting luxury cruiser, the A8.

The A3 is based on the Volkswagen Golf platform, but evokes an upmarket, more refined GTI.

It also represents an important new component of Audi's US-market lineup. The automaker recently rolled out its S4, a drool-inducing high-performance version of its previous low-rung model. The Q7, a "performance SUV," should hit dealerships early next year.

Audi's predisposition clearly runs toward pleasing drivers who value responsiveness. The A3 most certainly responds, wringing 200 horsepower out of a turbocharged two-liter, four-cylinder engine. The press-you-back acceleration - no lag whatsoever - is partly a result of how the A3's fuel system delivers the juice. Audi's "fuel straight injection" (FSI) technology shoots fuel directly into the cylinders' combustion chambers, rather than through ports in the cylinder heads. With the A3, Audi is reportedly the first to pair such technology with a turbocharger.

A smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission and unerring ergonomics make the driver feel like an integral component. And with a rear hatch as its fifth door, the A3 should also please those who care little about their time behind the wheel. It's a compact, but interior space is adequate. Rear headroom, in particular, benefits from the hatchback roof line. The A3 offers more than 13 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in place.

But what's memorable after a week of driving, besides the thrill of downshifting into passing lanes, are touches of pure functionality. The round air vents on the dash, for example, open and close with a twist of their big outer rings. The ventilation system filters out pollen and dust. Gauges are clean; controls are where they ought to be.

At some point a reviewer wonders whether the Brilliant Red paint job might be putting out a rose-colored haze, but the A3 does seem to deserve that Mary Poppins descriptor: practically perfect in every way. Even the FM receiver's scan function seems to allow just the right number of beats to inform the listen-or-leave decision - a couple more than audio systems on other cars tested. (The A3 is prewired for a satellite radio option.)

Now to dig for downsides - and you have to dig deep. Opening the small rear passenger doors posed minor problems for the under-10 set (until they figured out the force needed to open them past a mid-point option). The fuel gauge lacked the little arrow indicating from which side the tank is filled (an issue for frequent car swappers).

Tank-filling is mercifully infrequent. Current versions of the A3 come with front-wheel drive. Fuel economy is respectable: an advertised 32 m.p.g highway that testers generally confirm (premium fuel is suggested).

An A3 outfitted with Audi's quattro (full-time four-wheel drive) remains a few months away. With a 3.2-liter V-6, though, it will give up some gas mileage and undoubtedly cost thousands more.

The A3 represents an experiment in entry-level luxury hatchbacks that has been tried by others - BMW, for example, with its 318ti, no longer being produced. The carmakers' challenge is always to hold the price down enough to keep buyers' eyes from skipping ahead to a higher-ranking model with better standard features for only slightly more money. A bare-bones A4 - or a gently used one - can be had for the same money. But if this stylish German family of cars appeals, then the A3 might be a baby you want to adopt.

Audi A3 Highlights

• 24 m.p.g. city, 32 m.p.g. highway

• 2.0-liter 200 h.p. engine

• fuel straight injection (FSI) technology

• front-wheel drive

• electronic stabilization

• antilock brakes

• automatic dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filter

• satellite radio prewiring

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