Mountain Wheels: Reinvented Audi A3 sedan shows small is still powerful |

Mountain Wheels: Reinvented Audi A3 sedan shows small is still powerful

2015 Audi A3

Base MSRP: $29,900-$32,900

Powertrains: 170-HP 1.8-liter or 220-HP 2.0-liter TFSI four-cylinders, six-speed automatic

Estimated EPA figures: 27 mpg combined (23-24 city, 33 highway)

Menlo Park, Calif. — Perhaps the nicest part of Audi’s across-the-board Quattro all-wheel-drive system is its normally unfelt integration into a very charming and seemingly benign offering such as the all-new A3 sedan.

You go about your business like a normal driver, and Quattro — the standard issue on the larger of two engine choices available for the new, no-longer-hatchbacky A3 — lurks behind the curtains.

But during an inadvisably spirited romp along the Santa Cruz Mountains’ Skyline Drive, my fellow driver managed to illustrate that Quattro can indeed save your bacon when you decide to get into a redwood-lined, rain-soaked corner at three times the posted speed limit, quickly and equally unobtrusively serving to grab whatever grip there is and keep the car pointed down the road.

When the color returned to my face (and I had slapped my co-driver on the side of the head), I realized it was a pretty good worst-case-scenario test, not to mention an illustrative experience for the joy that lies beneath this newest and currently base-level member of Audi’s U.S. market offerings.

You’ll remember the old A3 as a snazzy but extremely niche-y hot hatch, available even as a diesel model, but never a particularly big mover for the company. (Audi explains that the average money spent on one of its cars in the U.S. is a healthy $52,000.)

So for the 2015 model, the A3 has been reinvented — and this is apparently entirely with the American audience in mind — as a sprightly four-door bigger than the TT, but 11 inches shorter than the current A4, and with its own sporty looks, a truncated rear deck and … a price starting at $29,900, to attract younger buyers.

That price tag, of course, has a pretty big asterisk behind it: If you want the 2.0-liter turbo with Quattro versus the base, front-wheel drive 1.8-liter, it’s $3,000 more, and if you start piling on the multitude of options (one big package of add-ons is $8,450), you’re suddenly in A4 territory.

But so it goes. The pleasant news is that the Hungarian-built A3 does not scrimp on quality, design or a fun-as-you-want-it-to-be driving experience, with even the base model coming with leather seating, a sunroof and bi-xenon headlamps.

And yes, the 1.8-liter’s 170 horsepower does result in a slightly underwhelming feeling, but the 220-HP 2.0-liter goes off like a turbocharged rocket and can get the 3,362-pound A3 into as much traditional Audi trouble as you’d like — though safely grounded by the aforementioned Quattro miracle.

A3 is wider, longer, roomier — still with about 12 cubic feet of luggage space in the trunk – and doesn’t feel ridiculously cramped.

Should you opt to check off some of the option boxes, A3 is indeed heavy on the revolutionary technology you’d normally find on the very spendy A6s, 7s and 8s. There’s MyScript, a cool system that allows you to virtually write out letters on a circular pad on top of the MMI infotainment controller, like a new-fangled PalmPilot — making eyes-on-the-road navigation input and phone calls a little easier.

No matter the package, the wafer-thin MMI screen now pops out of the dash like pumpernickel out of a toaster, or can be hidden away if you want to stick to the clean looks of the dash and its new jet-engine air vents. You can also get a 705-watt, 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system.

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