2006 Audi A3
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There are lots of great cars out there but few that outperform their price tag. The Mazda3 is one in the economy category. The Chevy Corvette is nearly as thrilling as the Porsche 911, for many thousands less. And now, filling in some of the middle ground, comes Audi's new A3, a brash, five-door dart-about with Audi's signature luxury touches, starting at well under 30 grand.
The A3, to some purists, represents a risky trend: the bastardization of the purebreds. Audi, like BMW and some other performance nameplates, is reaching slightly down-market in search of younger customers it can bring to the family early. Thus the palatable base price of about $25,500. Judging by the product, though, I'd say Audi sure isn't slumming it. The A3 comes with a 200-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the same one found in the A4 sedan. The standard transmission is a manual short-throw six-speed, precise and fun. A combination of brisk acceleration, pugnacious handling, and a sporty, stylish cockpit makes this one of the most enjoyable rides under $40,000.
It feels like a sports car, but the A3 also offers the kind of versatility sought by 20-somethings with just one car or by young families carting toddlers around. The hatchback design lets you fold down the back seat and squeeze in a bicycle or surfboard or the makings of a home improvement project. I managed to cram an entire disassembled futon into the A3, an impressive hauling job for a so-called compact car. For all its practicality, the A3 manages a touch of class. Dashboard controls are illuminated with the same red backlighting that gives Audi's loftier vehicles the aura of a walnut-paneled private library. As if all this weren't enough, the A3 is thrifty on gas too, averaging better than 25 miles per gallon in overall driving. Fuel efficiency usually gets overlooked on performance cars. But this time around, Audi seems to have missed very little.