DRIVEN: Hello, America


First, a confession: I’m a bit of a Europhile. Not everything is better across the pond, but many things are.

Food is better in Germany. Wine is better in France. Italy does wine and food better than both. At least the Brits have soccer.

Automobiles were the great global equalizer. We have Detroit muscle. Italy has passion. Germany has engineering. The Brits have soccer.

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And once in a great while, my two worlds collide; American cars with European lineage. Such is the case with Audi’s A3.

Except, not really.

What’s impressive is that Audi say this is the first car it developed based off of American tastes and roads. What’s more impressive is that it’s not a battleship with 17 cupholders and 12 inches of unnecessary ground clearance.

It’s actually the smallest sedan in Audi’s U.S. lineup. There’s a wagon variant coming later this year (again), and even a diesel engine. Shocked? Audi may even build a small handful of electric-only versions. Have they met us?

Smallest is a bit of a smoke screen, however. Despite being the lowest number Audi you can buy in the states (Audi makes an A1 overseas) the A3 is actually roughly the same size as an A4 from the 1990s. Only 10 inches in overall length separate those A4s from the A3 today, so perhaps a qualifier is necessary. Nonetheless, the A3 qualifies as a compact, and handles the part.

But first, a history lesson: This isn’t the first A3 on our shores, not by a long shot. The name has been around here for almost a decade, but the concept was a nonstarter for Audi considering the U.S. market. Up until this point, the A3 was only available as a wagon (strike one) almost overwhelmingly better as a diesel (strike two) and was priced $4,000 above a four-door Golf TDI (strike three) that spotting one on the roads was tougher than working with your ex-wife.

The A3 this year shows that a German automaker can learn a few things from American audiences. First, wagons are only acceptable in the mountains and New England. Second, our attention spans can only be measured in nanoseconds. Third, I forgot.

Thankfully, the redesigned sedan that we have here is a departure from the pressed pleats of the last generation. This A3 is more interesting, even if Audi designers use horses, waves, Bauhaus, German inspiration or surfers to describe its design. American car design is best described in terms of “Die Hard,” I feel.

Nonetheless, the A3 is smart from the outside. The small car leans forward, like a sprinter poised in the starting blocks. Bezels around the wheel arches break up where old Audi’s fell off into the abyss of wheel wells, and the A3’s pronounced belt line crease and shadow breaks up the body, which constitutes two-thirds of the overall silhouette. I watched lead Audi designer Dany Garand sketch his concept of the car in front of my face, and I have to say, the exterior evokes all kinds of comparisons without being specifically married to one. The A3 looks like other Audis, or it doesn’t. Both statements are equally true.

Under the hood, the A3 does solidify its position as the around-$30,000 car of choice for Audi. Nothing too flashy for the start. Available are a 1.8-liter turbocharged four or a 2.0-liter turbo four, both of which have starring roles in other Volkswagen-parent products. The 1.8-liter comes only in front-wheel-drive models, a 170-horsepower lump that modestly powers the A3. The other option, a mightier 2-liter mill that cranks 270 horsepower and is offered on all all-wheel drive, Quattro models, is my pick because of course it is. Want to see a grown man get blue in the face? Pump him full of tacos and head for windy roads in a 2.0T A3. Extra credit for guacamole.

In reality, the smaller engine provides enough power for the 3,200 lb. car, but Quattro almost makes the bigger, 2.0-liter engine compulsory around these parts. For that, you’re rewarded with sub-6 second 0-60 acceleration times and a seriously nimble sedan. Despite handling like a comfortable sedan, the A3 actually darts in and out of corners really well. Understeer, which used to be synonymous with Audi, is pleasantly handled here in the A3. It may not dethrone many sports-tuned sedans, but it’s certainly confident on the road. Electrically assisted steering is responsive, but lacks feedback, which is typical of other EPS systems.

Inside, the A3 is plenty spacious, if not completely cavernous. I haven’t spent much time in the Mercedes Benz CLA — the A3’s main competitor — so my comparison may be incomplete (not unlike a lot of “Die Hard” plot points.) Despite having American influences, the A3’s seats are plenty bolstered and snugly held me through winding roads. Audi’s heralded MMI navigation-radio system is back again this year, and yoked out like Mr. Universe if you so desire. For $1,800 you get the base system with navigation and typical controls on a slender LED screen that rises from the dashboard (worth it.) For several thousand more, (part of the Prestige package that tacks on $7,000 with plenty of other options) buyers get Audi Connect that uses AT&T, Google Earth, computer chip maker NVIDIA and the rest of Silicon Valley to pump the MMI system with data. I didn’t get to play with that in a car, so you’re on your own, but hold on to this: Audi used Google Earth in 2005 first before any cellphone maker ever did. They have an eye for mobile tech, apparently.

What really matters is that Audi’s $30,000 car doesn’t perform like BMW’s 1-series, but it doesn’t have to. The A3 is a more complete package this time around and it shows.

It came from America because of course it did.

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