The Italian Alps are a skier's heaven, but instead of schussing down the snowy slopes, we were in the Dolomites to sample a selection of Audis on the heavenly alpine roads. In celebration of 25 years of quattro all-wheel drive, Audi brought along several generations of q-cars for us to bend around the curves, but we spent most of the day traversing the steeply tilted terrain in the stylish new A6 Avant and big-hearted A3 subcompact.
The latest in a product offensive that has spawned new generations of A4, A6 and A8 over the past 12 months, the A3 five-door hatchback (called the Sportback) arrives in May and the A6 Avant (station wagon) in August, and the timing seems to be perfect. Rising fuel prices are shocking the citizenry out of their full-size SUVs and into smaller, more economical vehicles which still fulfill the mission of sporty utility. Audi figures the A6 and A3 appeal to that sense of proportion in their beguiling combinations of driving enjoyment and well-tailored interior space.
The A3 Sportback's projected MSRP is just shy of $25,000. The A6 Avant starts around $46,000. Neither car is expected to be sold in great numbers in North America (the Avant, for instance, represents only about 10 percent of total A6 transactions), but both are instrumental players in Audi's European portfolio, where wagon-type vehicles are considered sportier than their sedan counterparts.
Accordingly, the Avant drew stares of appreciation from the well-heeled ski set enjoying a late winter holiday. And for good reason; its striking dynamism is perhaps the best example yet of Audi's new styling idiom. For example, the distinctive single-frame grille, an irritant to some eyes, works especially well with the Avant's more expansive architecture.
European Superpower: The A6 Avant
Out of six possible engine choices in Europe, North American Avants will be powered by the 3.2-liter, 255-horsepower FSI V6 first offered in the A6 sedan. But we shouldn't feel shortchanged, because the V6 version is a complete car. With its standard quattro drivetrain, six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, sophisticated multilink suspension, Bosch's latest electronic stability control system and the best steering yet in an Audi, the Avant drives "small" even though it's slightly larger than the outgoing wagon. A broad torque band (more than 90 percent of the 243 lb-ft is available from 2,400 to 5,500 rpm) and high revs (7,200-rpm redline) deliver more than enough performance, especially when its 25-mpg cruising economy is added to the equation.
The Avants in Italy were wearing winter tires, and the pavement was weather-shined slick, but the Audis' predictable handling and secure grip made progress a pleasure where other cars were obviously finding it an adventure. Road noise? Hardly any. Wind roar? Autobahn speeds might have coaxed whispers from the pillars or mirrors, but the loudest noises through the mountains were a few "urps" from my passenger, who wondered how a road could have so many switchbacks.
At a lunch stop, while our inner ears were being recalibrated, we flipped up the electric rear hatch to admire the Avant's innovative cargo stowage solutions, where so many SUVs fail and where this wagon excels. Fold down all the seats, and it would also be the poshest camper we'd ever take on the road. The interior design is rich yet tasteful, chockablock with electronic amenities. Yet all the systems operated by rational, easily worked controls. Audi's Multi-Media Interface is one of the better multitasking controls out there, as it's not overly complicated. And the high-resolution 7-inch color screen makes the pleasing graphics easy to comprehend.
Leather seating, dual-zone climate control, a DSP sound system and Bluetooth-ready phone prep only begin to list the standard touches of opulence, which helps rationalize the almost $50 grand price tag, at least to those who still consider any wagon a mundane alternative to choices that are, let's say, more macho. The new Avant's considerable performance, sybaritic interior and all-around usefulness make it, at least for us, a sure first choice.
Small Wonder: The A3 Sportback
Although the A6 Avant was the star of that day's show, the A3 is more significant and could play a breakthrough role for Audi in the same way the Mini Cooper allowed American car buyers to combine "small" and "premium" on their wish lists. All the good stuff we've come to expect from Audi is found in the five-door, including a choice of two terrific engines: A new, exhilarating 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder comes first, followed in about eight months by the stout 3.2-liter six we've enjoyed in the Audi TT 3.2 and Golf R32. Somewhat curiously for a company that built its franchise around quattro, though, the first of the A3s will be front-drivers. Quattro will come with the 3.2, but won't be available until about eight months after launch.
Still, performance fans need not despair, because even with just two driven wheels the A3 is a blast. The new 2.0 is so torque-rich, and turbo lag so minimal, that it pulls like a much larger engine. The 0-to-60-mph sprint takes 7 seconds, but that number doesn't do justice to the car's responsiveness. Torque is available right now, and the engine revs so freely to 6,000 rpm that it feels virtually free of driveline drag. Both a six-speed manual and the incredible DSG twin-clutch gearbox are available with the FWD A3, but there's a possibility DSG will not be offered with the 3.2 quattro due in a few months. A decision about DSG showing up on the A3 options list will be made closer to the 3.2's debut in American showrooms.
Audi's Best Foot Forward To America
The front-drive A3's surefooted balance can be credited to a new four-link rear suspension. The cost and effort of adding it to a market segment that rarely sees such superior technology paid off in its compactness, low weight and superior kinematics. Using multiple links achieves a functional separation of longitudinal and transverse forces, delivering exceptional lateral rigidity (for better handling and a safer car) along with supple lengthwise control to improve ride comfort.
Adding Servotronic steering, which adjusts effort in response to steering wheel angle and vehicle speed, was also considered a necessary though expensive step to separate the A3 from its competition. It all comes down to the fine-tuning, and in the A3, Audi got it just right. Steering isn't just about keeping the nose on line. It's also a very stimulating way to use the rear end as an active element of guiding the car around a corner. If you get our drift .
OK, it's a very nice car with all the Audi attributes, but is its hatchback configuration going to alienate or enrapture the U.S. market, which traditionally has been indifferent to such vehicles? Is it big enough where it counts? Well, consider this: Audi's recovery in America from near extinction is one of the great comeback stories in the world's toughest market. Not only has Volkswagen's high-end division survived, it pulses with a vitality that threatens the well-being of the big boys down the autobahnen in Munich and Stuttgart. We like the A3's chances of continuing the trend.