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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sun, Jun 12, 2005

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


If someone had to design the best car for the enthusiast commuter with a family, it requires some seemingly contrasting qualities: Easy access (four-doors), and room enough for a couple of parents and their two-and-and-half kids. Small enough on the outside to maneuver through traffic and fit easily into parking spots. Accelerate with the best of them - particularly off the line. Get good gas mileage. Go around corners like a bat out of hell. Ride comfortably. Look sharp. And, oh yeah, have a rush-hour-friendly automatic transmission that sacrifices no quickness to a manual transmission - and be able to operate it manually.

Folks, we can go though all the cars you want, but only one car I know of meets all of the aforementioned criteria: Audi's new A3.

The Subaru WRX and Saab 9-2X Aero (the one with the WRX turbo) have the four doors, the room, the gas mileage, and the handling, but both suffer from considerable off-the-line turbo lag - accentuated even more in automatic transmission mode.

The Mitsubishi Evolution VIII is even more sporty, but it also suffers from considerable turbo lag, and its ride is equally unsuited for day-to-day driving on real roads.

The new Mustang GT has no problem with turbo lag, but its 300 hp V8 is not a model for good gas mileage, it only has two doors, and the back seats are for emergency use only.

Pontiac dealers anxious to lighten their inventory of held over GTOs might sell you one for an attractive price, and GTOs do have real room in the back seat. Alas, the Goat only has two doors and gas mileage from the 350 hp V8 is not its strong point.

A few vehicles come closer.

The Acura TSX has the tight dimensions on the outside, while affording reasonable room on the inside. The car handles well and gets reasonably good gas mileage out of its four-cylinder engine. With the six-speed manual transmission, it can run quite briskly. Its only downfall is the automatic transmission, which saps some of the quickness out of the car.

Surprisingly, the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT Turbo comes close. Its SRT4-derived 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is one of the best in the business, exhibiting little of the lag of the turbos from Japan and Europe. The car remains sporty even with Chrysler's four-speed Autostick manumatic transmission. With its mini-SUV-like dimensions, no one can argue with its interior roominess and compact exterior dimensions. Unfortunately, the tall center of gravity compromises handling, although it's a lot better than the standard PT Cruiser. And despite its retro theme, the styling of the PT is growing a little old. That leaves Audi's new A3.

On the outside, the car is over 16 inches shorter than the Toyota Prius, itself one of the more maneuverable cars around town. With an overall length under 159 inches, the A3 can parallel park with the best of them.

On the inside, the A3 benefits from the expanded cabin dimensions of its Mark V GTI-derived platform (a car yet to be introduced to these shores). It's not exactly cavernous inside, but the A3 can fit four adults comfortably (five in reasonable comfort for short distances). Its five-door hatchback configuration proves to be very versatile. With the rear seats folded flat, I'm able to fit two Vandersteen 2Ce full-size loudspeakers in the back and a Hsu Research VTF-2 Mark 2 amplified subwoofer into the front seat cavity, with no problems. Now, that's versatile.

Audi's tried-and-true 1.8T was considered one of the best four-cylinder engines in its day. Yet, the A3's new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with FSI direct injection is dramatically better in almost every way. In addition to producing 200 horsepower, the new engine puts out 207 lbs. ft. of torque at 1800 rpm and holding it there all the way up to 5000 rpm. This power plant exhibits virtually no turbo lag, and offers diesel-like off-the-line acceleration. Audi says this is the first production unit worldwide to combine FSI gasoline direct injection with a turbocharger. This technology - which is also to be found in the Le Mans-winning Audi R8 - enables a synthesis of high performance, free-revving response and pulling power in all speed ranges, while maintaining good fuel economy.

With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the A3 gallops from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds. With Audi's innovative dual-clutch DSG (direct shift gearbox) six-speed automatic transmission, it's even quicker, zipping from 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds. The DSG transmission sets the Audi apart from all its competitors. Not only is it quicker than a manual transmission, it even yields better gas mileage (returning 24 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway, versus 23/30 for the manual). The DSG has the requisite sequential manual shift gate option for those who'd rather roll their own. However, it's almost not needed, because the sport mode on Audi's DSG is the most intuitive ever encountered. It seems to be able to predict how I want to shift with astonishing accuracy.

How about the handling? Keep in mind that the A3 is essentially the new, Mark V GTI - the car that's been winning accolades all over Europe as the new benchmark in sport hatchback handling. In the A3, you get the same great handling, with none of the bone-jarring ride sacrifices exhibited by some of the compact sport tuners from Japan.

That leads us to the visual impact of the car. This is another area where the A3 leaves its competitors behind. Visually, the A3 looks like its larger, more expensive siblings, but shrink-wrapped to size. The fit and finish goes well beyond what one expects from a car at this price point. Consequently, the A3 can look just as appropriate at the valet parking section of Spago's as far more expensive cars. In summary, the A3 is the only car I know of that scores a perfect 10 on the enthusiast commuter-with-a-family meter - i.e., small on the outside, but big on the inside; quick off the line, but stingy with gas; good handling and good ride; sporty-looking and refined; and an automatic transmission that gives up nothing in the way of performance. That it can do so at $26,146 is even more remarkable ($24,740 with the manual transmission). You can, of course, option the car well-over $30,000 with premium packages - including an alluring panoramic tinted glass roof. As with many bargains, however, it's best to resist the temptation to go hog wild on the options list. I have but one word to say as far as options go: DSG.

For more information about Audi products, go to SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $24,740, base $26,146, with DSG automatic transmission $30,085, as tested

Engine type: 2.0-literDOHC turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with FSI direct injection

Horsepower: 200 @ 5100-6000 rpm

Torque: 207 @ 1800-5000 rpm

Drive configuration: Front engine / front-wheel drive (all-wheel drive optional)

Transmission type: 6-speed manual transmission 6-speed dual clutch DSG automatic transmission with sequential shift mode and paddle shifters

Suspension: Front: Independent McPherson struts with lower wishbones, aluminum subframe, tubular anti-roll bar, traction-stabilizing steering roll radius Rear: Independent four-link with separate spring/shock absorber arrangement, subframe, tubular anti-roll bar

Wheels and tires: 17-iunch alloy wheels and 225/45 all-season tires

Brakes: Dual-circuit brake system with diagonal split, ESP with electronic brake pressure distribution EBD and ABS

Front: Discs 12.3-inch diameter, vented Rear: Discs 11-inch

Overall length: 158.7 inches Overall width: 77.1 inches Overall height: 56 inches Curb weight (lbs.): 3329

0-60 mph: 6.7 seconds DSG automatic 6.9 seconds manual

EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway: 24/30 DSG automatic 23/30 manual

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