Niche vehicles in America are always the best. They follow a simple set of guidelines: more or less totally impractical; rare as a Ferrari; bought to anger someone’s significant other. And yet, they always brought a huge smile to the owner. Some vehicles, such as the Plymouth Prowler and Chevrolet SSR, were very cool vehicles in this writer’s eyes, but completely hopeless in every other aspect. That’s what makes these vehicles so fun.
Of course, there are vehicles that do offer a bit more practicality and function, but still offer a bit of that “wow” factor niche vehicles have. Case in point, the A3 hatchback from Audi.
Okay, I will admit the A3 is not quite as radical as my two previous examples. However, where else can a small, sporty, leather-lined, climate-controlled, beautifully made, five-seat, all-wheel drive, four-door hatchback be found? The only two that come to mind is the Volkswagen GTI, the A3’s more athletic yet not as sophisticated brother, or hop a plane to Japan and pick up a Subaru WRX.
So why get an A3 over, say, anything else in the Audi lineup? Well, for one, it offers the cooler Euro styling of the hatchback, which offers a more aggressive front bumper, good looking 17-inch alloy wheels, and a stubby, sharply-designed rear hatch. It is a bit more appealing over the everyday sedan body of the A4 without giving up any of the luxury or performance.
Sit inside any A3 and look the sharp white-on-black gauge cluster. Sink into the supportive power leather driver’s seat and grab any part of the interior. There is not a cheap-feeling surface anywhere. And what is this? Heated front seats? Automatic climate control? Voice-activated Bluetooth and navigation? Bose CD stereo with Sirius radio? LED headlamps with Xenon headlights? On a car this small?
Surprisingly, yes. But considering it is an Audi, and the one pictured here is priced damn near $40,000 with the upgraded Premium Plus trim with the Titanium Sport and Convenience packages, it better have all the luxury features necessary at that price. Luckily, you can get into the four-ringed hatchback for under $30,000 if the budget outweighs temptation.
Price aside, there are many pluses with the little Audi. What I like most about the A3 over the A4 is its still spacious enough for five people to ride in semi-comfort while transporting groceries home or carting luggage (20 cubic ft. with the seats up), but the car also offers a sense of connectivity between itself and the driver, whereas that feeling is missing from the bigger sedan. This allows the A3 to be more adept at following driver inputs.
With that optional Titanium Sport package, the A3 here came with larger 18-inch wheels wrapped in performance Dunlop tires, a lower and stiffer suspension, Alcantara-wrapped leather sport seats, the A3 feels quite a bit more nimble than a regular A3 or the A4. It’s not as sharp as the Volkswagen GTI, but it offers a terrific blend of good grip when you need it and a decent (if firm) commuter ride. There’s a bit more weight compared to the VW as well, (3,429 lbs. compared to 2999), but it gives the Audi a much more solid feel on the road.
Head into a corner and the steering has a heftier weight than in other Audi vehicles (save the S-models). There always seems to be plenty of stick no matter how hard or fast you take a corner. The Dunlops grab the road and the quattro doles out the power as the car accelerates out. Brakes are strong as well, if a little touchy.
Also helping the sportiness is the combination turbocharged 2.0-liter, direct injection four-banger and the quick six-speed dual clutch S-tronic transmission which sends 200 eager horsepower through Audi’s revolutionary quattro all-wheel drive system. (A turbo diesel of the same size is also available in the A3 in front-wheel drive form.)
Accelerating from a dead stop produces just a hint of front wheel spin as the multi-plate center differential adjusts power from the front to the rear. Once underway, the turbo builds power quickly and smoothly and the S-Tronic rips off quick shifts, whether leaving the selector in D or using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters. It didn’t make me miss a true manual transmission, if that means anything. Passing power is also very good, with boost building quickly and the engine pulling close to its 7000 rpm redline.
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My only real gripe is the interior. While it is nicely crafted, it feels a bit dated compared to the rest of the Audi line-up. The climate controls, for example, require a continuous toggle of the switch repeatedly until the temperature is set. It also requires a few “practice” twists as the detent to adjust it is tricky. The navigation, while nicely displayed, feels a bit cumbersome compared to the newer 3G system in the other models. This is the same interior from the A3’s unveiling in 2006.
Most niche vehicles generally don’t serve much purpose. That is blatantly obvious. But thankfully, the Audi A3 offer something unique, but actually works: a small, quality, all-wheel drive that won’t embarrass anyone, nor anger the wife.