It is deep within the numerous switchbacks of Mulholland Canyon where I fully appreciate the inherent performance values of Audi's new A3, the company's answer to an entry-level premium compact. The hatchback, or Sportback as Audi likes to call it, is really a multifaceted sport wagon.
A smile emerges on my face as I dive confidently into the tightest of turns, hands and steering wheel spinning. I throttle up and the front-drive A3 reacts, traversing the steeply raked banks with impressive torque and mountain goat agility. The roller coaster ride continues. This is too much fun.
We arrive at The Sunset Restaurant, a wonderfully quaint seaside eatery in Malibu. Our red A3 catches stares from beach-goers not so much for its bright paint, but for its uniquely crafted overall design. "The A3 carries a very bold, distinctive look," said senior designer Gary Telaak. "It breeds emotion and confidence." Telaak is one of those instantly likable characters who also happens to be very gifted with a pencil and paper. Earlier in the day, he entertained members of the media with freehand sketches of the car from various angles. I still regret not walking away with an autographed copy.
At a glance, the A3 is strikingly handsome. Its silhouette flows gracefully with a sloping roofline that allows your eye to wonder down the pillars and onto the car's powerful overall proportions. This is a vehicle that can be admired from all sides. In fact, while its nose is easily the most recognizable characteristic with the now familiar single-frame trapezoidal grille, its aggressive low-slung profile and attractively tailored rear also play well into the equation. As well, its wide wheel arches, tapered body lines and short front and rear overhangs further define a masculine stance. The deep contoured arches will also provide plenty of room for larger optional wheel choices. I'm also pleased Audi continues to color-coordinate its rockers. Flat or satin black just doesn't cut it. In this case, a matching rocker creates a more seamless body line, helping the A3 appear even bolder.
The interior is also quite pleasing and in more ways than one. Not only is it well suited for comfort; it features myriad design cues that give it a sporty overall aesthetic. Regardless of its entry-level status, it incorporates a level of attractiveness and sophistication that is expected from a car wearing the quad ring insignia.
The sporty layout is attributed in part to a low seat position and a high center console, which provides a more sports car-like feel. The A3 also features Audi's new generation of three- and four-spoke steering wheels, recognized by the trapezoidal central element, which effectively ties in with the design of the grille. There's no doubt the TT provided design inspiration for various interior elements, including the round air vents, the rotary knobs on the automatic climate control and the numerous aluminum trim pieces. Still, the package is unique enough to give the A3 its own well-defined identity.
Naturally, the A3 comes equipped with a full array of premium standard equipment, including all the creature comforts you'll ever need. Still, there are optional packages available to tailor to your individual tastes. We like the Sport Package ($1,800) for its value and wealth of interior/exterior upgrades. There's also an optional two-part "Open Sky" sunroof that's quite nice.
Although roughly 10 inches shorter than its big brother, the A4 Avant, the cabin is surprisingly spacious with just enough room for four average size adults. In fact, we're told it is as spacious as the outgoing A4 Avant. With the driver's seat adjusted at its lowest and furthest back position, even my 6-foot 4-inch frame had room to spare. Depending on the front seat positioning, rear passengers may also enjoy ample leg and headroom. The rear doors also open nice and wide, allowing easy in out access. With respect to safety, side airbags are standard in front, as are curtain airbags front and rear. Rear side airbags will be optional.
A large cargo capacity is yet another impressive aspect and will inevitably appeal to those with active lifestyles. Its rear storage area is impressive and quite adequate for most items, though folding down the 60/40 split rear seats opens up even more useable space. Nicely trimmed, the compartment also features a recessed side storage pocket and a multi-purpose net for securing shifty loads. You'll also find a handy 12V outlet. For larger items, an optional streamlined roof rack is available.
Back on the road, we decide to take an alternate route to the Mondrian (our swanky West Hollywood host hotel). It is another serpentine stretch with more turns and elevation changes than a single-engine prop plane in heavy turbulence, a dream road for those who wish to discover a car's maximum performance potential.