Versus the competiton:
Audi’s smallest offering, the compact A3, arrived last May.
Though still a newcomer to the market, Audi has brought out an upgrade to the lineup that had been limited to 2-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engines with the addition of the A3 3.2. The 3.2 designates its 3.2-liter, 250-horsepower V-6 that provides even more spirit.
And to ensure it not only sprints from the light and shoots into and out of the passing lane, the compact hatchback has Audi’s well-known, and much-appreciated, Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system.
While the V-6 delivers a kick, the pinpoint handling of Quattro was the highlight of the test drive. Point and go, quickly and in total control.
Rain and snow meant backing off the pedal only a smidge. The A3 comes with electronic stability control to keep you from taking any unexpected detours from the intended path, while four-wheel anti-lock brakes provide the same security when coming to a stop.
Those who like their four-wheel toys will find the A3 ready for adventure. It comes with a road-friendly sports suspension to keep the hatchback planted to the pavement.
And the 6-speed automatic has a Direct Shift Gearbox, one of those manual-mode shifters with paddles behind the steering wheel for enthusiasts who like to venture between gears on their own rather than leaving the driving to the trans.
But, if simply looking for a small family hatchback or a commuter car for the daily grind, A3 probably wouldn’t be at the top of your list–despite its handling and above-average road manners.
The reason the A3 should be left to enthusiasts is that it started life as a compact and despite that sprightly V-6 and all-wheel-drive, a compact is what it stays.
Front-seat cabin room is a tad snug and rear-seat leg and knee room are tight. Front seats are a bit stiff and are contoured more for the “Next Great American Model”than the more than slightly out-of-shape automotive scribe.
If you stop at the club to work out daily, you’ll slip into the seats with ease. If you pass the club to pick up an extra large cheese and sausage, you’ll plop onto the seats and wish the side bolsters had a power expand button.
There are a few other features that the enthusiast might overlook or accept in the interest of zero- to 60-m.p.h. times.
The rear seat backs fold, for example, but not flat so if you have to carry items in the cabin as well as the storage hold, you have to balance the load with care.
Also, the test vehicle came with the optional ($1,100) Open Sky system, a fancy term for a power sunroof upfront, a fixed-glass roof panel in back. Audi says the fixed-glass roof allows occupants to commune with the outdoors, but what it really does is give cramped passengers in back a look at the sky to take their minds off the squeeze.
And when the roof was cracked open a few inches, there was a lot of wind noise and the radio had to be dialed up more than a few decibels to keep up.
The power windows are the one-touch variety. Press and the glass quickly motors down, a nice feature at the toll booth for those who resist I-Pass, but not for those who simply want to open a few inches to circulate some fresh air. The glass seemed hell-bent on opening all the way each and every time.
Also, the 3.2-liter V-6 is rated at 21 m.p.g. city/27 m.p.g. highway, decent considering the V-6’s power and acceptable considering full-time all-wheel-drive, but still a tad disappointing considering the size of this machine.
And OK, it’s a high-performance compact, but the base price is $33,980 and with the options added to the test car, the sticker was only $2,250 shy of $40,000–before tax. Had to be a hefty price per pound.
Standard equipment includes power driver’s seat with lumbar control; automatic dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filters; power windows, mirrors and door locks; front and rear side-curtain air bags; AM/FM radio with Bose sound; wiring for satellite radio so you can choose between Sirius and XM; eight-disc CD player; rear window defogger; leather seating surfaces; cruise control; and front fog lights.
Two neat features are a pair of power plugs in the stowage compartment under the front-seat center arm-rest and a small net cargo holder along the rear side wall.
2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx
We’ve drove and enjoyed the Malibu Maxx when it first came out for the 2004 model year as the hatchback companion–with a 6-inch wheelbase stretch–to the midsize Chevy Malibu sedan.
Maxx offers good room and hauls people in comfort and lots of their packages.
A clever shelf in the cargo hold can be raised or lowered to a variety of levels to accommodate items on top or underneath or, with the help of a plastic leg, can serve as an “indoors” table for picnics or tailgating.
Another neat feature is that the second-row seat moves back several inches to provide more leg room or moves forward several inches to keep the baby in the child seat close at hand.
For 2006 Malibu and Maxx got a minor front-end freshening, and both added higher-performance SS models, with a lot more spunk than the regular models.
We tested the Maxx SS with its new 3.9-liter, 240-h.p. V-6, an upgrade from the 3.5-liter, 201-h.p. V-6 offered in the regular Maxx. The 3.9-liter is teamed with a 4-speed automatic with a manual shift mode.
The SS also has a sports-tuned suspension with 18-inch radial tires to provide better handling than the standard 16-inchers on the regular version.
It’s no Audi A3 in terms of performance or handling, but the thing can scoot and turns what looks like a midsize family workhorse into a surprisingly active plaything.
With the SS hardware, Maxx goes from tame to tantalizing in terms of spirit and lead-the-pack energy.
Base price is $24,065, and for that you get anti-lock brakes; side-curtain air bags; air conditioning; and power windows, locks and mirrors.
Question is how long Maxx will be offered and in what form. The Malibu sedan is redone for 2007 and insiders said a decision has yet to be made on whether Maxx will stay in the lineup and, if so, whether it would continue as a hatchback or perhaps be transformed into a midsize crossover.
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2006 Audi A3 3.2 S Quattro
Price as tested: $36,930
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Length: 168.7 inches
Engine: 3.2-liter, 250-h.p. V-6
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual mode shifting
21 m.p.g. city/27 m.p.g. highway
$1,000 Open sky system (front sun roof, rear fixed glass roof panel)
$450 Silver metallic paint
$800 Xenon adaptive headlights
$700 Cold-weather package with heated front seats/windshield washer nozzles/outside mirrors and ski sack holder
Add $720 for freight.
– The all-season security and pinpoint handling are advantages of Quattro all-wheel-drive complemented by 17-inch all-season radials.
– Stability control standard.
– Excellent performance from the V-6.
– Good stowage room behind second seat.
– Rear-seat leg room.
– Stiff ride.
– Wind noise with roof open.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.