Anyone who looks at the new Audi A3 3.2 DSG and sees an overpriced economy car should not be allowed to play with Rottweiler puppies. While Ingolstadt's diminutive four-door may seem like a hatchback for badge snobs willing to sacrifice size for breeding, it's actually a four-wheeled fiend, a beast born and bred to take a bite out of the time – space continuum. Everything else about the A3– the foot on the Audi ownership ladder thing, the four-wheel-drive peace-of-mind shtick– is nothing more than a glossy coat on a vicious little monster. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
The A3's aesthetic dissonance should tip off neophytes that something wikkid this way driveth. Calling the little Audi "ungainly" is like saying a Saab stretch limo lacks a certain finesse. The unconscionable gaping maw that is Audi's house snout never looked as hideous as it does here, attached to a car whose creators seems to have given up around the halfway mark. I presume the A3's sloping rear roofline was designed to distance Audi's $35k 'entry level' hatchback from the traditional econobox. At best, the A3 looks like a dwarf station wagon. At worst, it joins Mercedes' SLK as another petite whip suffering from Peter North syndrome.
Inside, the A3 adheres to Ingolstadt's well-established Buddhist gestalt: discipline (sila), meditative concentration (Samadhi) and wisdom (prajna). On the downside, the A3's lack of rear legroom forces full-sized adults to assume the Lotus position. On the upside, the interior offers occupants peerless ergonomic Zen. From the steering wheel's textured perfection, to the white-on-black gauges' lack of affectation, to the switchgear's clinically measured clicks, the A3 serves-up no more or less functionality than necessary for the job at hand. Alternatively, you could say that the A3's cabin's displays all the brutal minimalism of a Heckler and Koch submachine gun.
Fire-up the A3's 3.2-liter six and it's clear the Germans have re-lit the pilot light under the hot hatch genre. The A3's powerplant marries a soft burble to a horny zizz; like a banker and a showgirl itching to strip naked, jump under the hood and put the pro back into in procreative. As you pull away, the A3's torquey powerplant confirms the impression: objects in your rear view mirror will soon be further than they appear. At first, the Audi's steering seems a bit vague and the brakes a touch touchy– but that's only because you're not going fast enough. Right foot rectification tightens-up the controls and unleashes the dogs of driving.
If ever a right-sized performance car wanted to snap its leash and chase hubcaps, well, here it is. You can hammer the A3 in any gear, on any road, anytime, anywhere, and enjoy unabashed, confidence-inspiring dynamic synthesis. The A3 3.2 DSG goes exactly where you point it, stays planted while you're going and doesn't waste a second getting there. Because the A3 sits on a modified fifth gen front-wheel-drive VW Golf platform, really determined and/or demented drivers will soon discover that understeer arrives early and stays for breakfast. But in any situation other than a series of tight radius turns– long sweepers, point-and-squirt, straight lines, highwaymanship– the A3 is a pocket rocket poster child.
The devil's in the drivetrain. In the TT we tested back in '04, the same engine / cog swapper combo suffered from manic depression: lazy in Drive, over-eager in Sport, blah when paddling. In the A3, the system is flawless. Thanks to new software, Drive shuffles through the six gears quickly and efficiently, but kicks down and kicks ass when asked. Sport keeps things fizzing along without straining against the aforementioned lead, but races for redline at a moment's notice. As for the A3's paddles, it's official: you can kiss the three-pedal car goodbye. The DSG system delivers seamless, rapid-fire, idiot-proof changes up or down the gearbox at any engine speed. It's a toy, it's a weapon, it's a wonder. No suprise Stuttgart has suddenly sidled up to Wolfsburg: every Porsche made needs a DSG gearbox mach schnell.
Although the A3 is a reasonably practical proposition– a slightly cramped machine offering excellent mileage and safety– the 3.2 comes with Audi's S-Line suspension as standard. Loonies like, wafters wince. The A3 3.2 isn't hard riding per se; its aluminum subframe has a rubbery kind of dampening effect on the endless jolts delivered by the tiniest surface imperfections. But there's no question that the A3 is a jiggy machine in more ways than one. If you're not the kind of driver who considers a highway off ramp's speed limit as only 50% accurate, if you don't like counting cobbles, then the significantly less expensive, more softly sprung A3 2.0T (with the optional DSG) is the way to go. Although the jury's out on the lighter engined A3, I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't hang about either. It's all in the genes.
[Audi of America provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, tax and a tank of gas.]