2006 Audi 3: The Weekly Driver

After a recent month of traveling in France, Germany and Spain, the habits of European drivers can be succinctly explained. They’re skilled, they drive fast and they’re often required to maneuver and park on small city streets. Audis are everywhere.

And with the 2006 A3, it’s as of Audi has decided to reintroduce the American driving masses to European ways. It’s a vehicle that makes perfect sense in its native country but whose functionality has been lost on the bigger-is-better mentality of U.S. car consumers.

My test drive for the week, the 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower, 4-cylinder, six-speed automatic A3 was an ideal example of how small is good and really not-so-small after all.

The A3 offers simple, yet advanced styling. It’s particularly quick, thanks to its DOHC turbocharged engine. And it’s extraordinarily spacious and functional for a vehicle that from outside looks rather small.

How has Audi accomplished this?

With quality engineering, astute ergonomics and solid materials, the A3 borders on luxury, yet it’s a wagon. There are substantial positives, like the Audi Direct Shift gearbox and paddle shifters conveniently placed on the steering wheel. And there are nice nuances like a thick, well-designed and nicely contoured steering wheel.

As a 6-foot, 180-pound driver, I find some small and medium-sized vehicles problematic. But while the A3 gives an exterior appearance of potential interior limitations, leg and head room are more than sufficient. The textured dashboard and comfortable seats complement the roomy interior, and the list of standard comfort and convenience features is impressive.

Consider: Front and rear power windows, a perfectly proportioned center console with two cupholders and two power outlets, AM/FM radio with in-dash CD player and satellite radio wiring and automatic dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filter. In short, the Audi offers a lot for its base price of $26,140.00.

The vehicle I drove was dark blue (Audi calls it Moro Blue Pearl), and with its 17-inch alloy wheels, it looks sleek, despite its hybrid hatchback/wagon design. The lines are European hip, making it additionally difficult to think of the A3 as a wagon.

In fact, with its 200-horsepower and impressive acceleration, the A3 leans more toward sports car than utilitarian workhorse. Nonetheless, functionality is far from an afterthought. Map pockets, storage bins and the center console provide plenty of stowing options.

The A3 does have two small annoyances. Like other manufacturers, the vehicle is billed as a five-passenger car. Four adults can sit comfortably, but not five. And like other Audi models, when the hand brake is fully engaged, it still appears nearly parallel to the floor board. More than once, I began to drive thinking the hand brake was disengaged, only the trigger a warning sound.

While its base price is fine, Audi’s various option packages and extra charges hardly make the A3 a bargain.

The Navigation Plus & Sound Pack adds another $2,85o. The manufacturer’s Premium Package includes 12 items – 17-inch alloy wheels to power front driver seat and front fog light to leather seats. It adds another $2,025. The double sun and moon roof, which Audi calls its Open Sky System, adds $1,100. Xenon headlights and XM satellite radio, respectively add $500 and $300. The superior paint job costs another $450. With an above average destination charge of $720, the A3’s price jumps to $34,135.

That’s enough to prompt second thoughts. Still, the A3 is a fine car. It provides a glimpse of how driving – high speeds to tight parking – is done in Europe and how it can be done under the same circumstances in the United States.

2006 Audi A3

Safety features – Dual front and side airbags.

Fuel Mileage (estimates) – 25 (city), 31 (highway).

Warranty – Bumper to bumper, 4 years/50,000 miles; Corrosion, 12 years, limited; (24-hour) roadside assistance program via third-party supplier

Base price – $26,140.00

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