Audi A3 is more exciting than it looks
(MCT) -- No Audi ever seared my synapses like the raucously exotic R8 roadster, a shrieking 10-cylinder dazzler.
It resembled an angry metallic teardrop wrapped around 525 horsepower.
When started on cool mornings, the mid-engine R8 would erupt into ragged snorts and snarls, sounding like a trunk full of wolves from the Black Forest.
We seized every day with retina-flattening, chest-compressing acceleration.
Life was good for a while.
But the sensual, six-figure R8 also established an extremely high standard for other Audis - fairly or not.
So when I first walked up on the silver 2015 A3 sedan I had recently, I thought: small, lumpy and tame.
As I am learning, though, things aren't always what they seem.
The A3 is the second near-luxury compact German sedan to arrive in the U.S., closely following the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 - both of which are typically priced under $40,000.
And while the strutting CLA is dressed for dancing at a bar at midnight - in a thumping clump of bizarre people - the A3 looks more business casual.
But ignore the A3's clean-but-conventional lines for a second, because a whole lot of goodness is stuffed into its rather unremarkable packaging.
Actually, I'm probably being a little hard on the A3. It is a fairly handsome small sedan. It just has to follow in the deep, unique tire tracks of stunners like the R8, A5 and A7 - cars with such proportion and potency that they light up garages.
Like most Audis these days, the A3 I had sported a deep seven-bar grille that dominated its rounded face.
Mildly fierce modern headlamps abutting it slid into relatively short front fenders.
As a matter of fact, the A3's slight overhangs front and rear, coupled with its tall top, made it appear to be smaller than the CLA.
But the truth is it had better leg- and head-room in back than the CLA, as hinted by its big doors.
Taking a fairly conservative tack, the A3 wore a standard character line above the door handles on its fairly flat sides, as well as a less obvious line down low.
The hood was mostly flat, and the car rode on nice-looking 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 225/40 tires.
Attractive and practical, the A3 was nonetheless pretty easy to lose on a crowded parking lot.
But like that woman your mom tried to talk you into marrying - the one you ignored to focus on flashy, flaky Frida - the A3 has a lot of unseen beauty.
Built on the newest Volkswagen GTI platform, all-wheel-drive models of the A3 like the one I had will pull an impressive 0.94 g on the skidpad, according to Car and Driver.
That number underscores the outer limits of the A3's handling, which is balanced, composed and grippy in routine driving.
Though the car felt quite firm going down the road, its longish wheelbase helped soak up most of the harshness and was considerably better than the clomping CLA.
With its deep German roots, the A3 turned eagerly - maybe even aggressively - into corners, showing a touch of body lean just to remind you to get off that blankety-blank cellphone and pay attention.
Once into a corner, it settled into a clean line, ripping comfortably through every curve I could throw at it.
Its steering felt lighter and livelier than the CLA's, with slightly better road feel.
But the A3 mostly seemed more agile and flingable than the CLA.
Besides all-wheel-drive, my 3,400-pound A3 was equipped with Volkswagen/Audi's fine turbocharged two-liter motor, a tough little warrior that has been tweaked and shaped into one of the best four-bangers on the market.
It churned out 220 horsepower, 12 more than the CLA.
Though the engine was bolted to a six-speed automatic - the CLA had a seven-speed - the A3 was a second quicker to 60, completing the sprint in an impressive 5.4 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
It felt more refined, too, leaping away from stops with minimal turbo lag and solid torque as it pulled smoothly past 5,500 rpm. But lag awaits you if you catch the car putting along in a high gear at low speed and punch it hard.
I also thought the dual-clutch automatic in the A3 was less clunky at low speeds than the seven-speed in the Mercedes.
But you pay for the goodness. My A3 carried a sticker price of $39,495, about $3,000 more than the Mercedes.
That's a substantial spread for those of us who make monthly payments.
In addition, the CLA gets better fuel economy - 26 miles per gallon in town and 38 on the highway compared with the A3's 24/33.
The interiors were a toss-up.
The doors on my A3 opened to deep black everything but slightly fewer hard surfaces than the Mercedes.
A sleek, rounded dashboard featured decent-looking flat-black plastic and round climate-control vents trimmed with silver rings that broke up the darkness.
A 6-inch touch screen rose from a slot in the center of the upper dash after the car was started and retracted once the ignition was turned off.
Like the CLA, the A3 featured a simple horizontal center stack with functional climate-control and sound-system controls - something richer models of both compacts should be strongly encouraged to adopt.
The A3's door panels, meanwhile, were mostly black plastic with lightly padded armrests and silver accents.
Its sectioned, nicely stitched black seats offered decent bolsters, but - like the CLA's - they felt kind of coarse to the touch.
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest difference between the two is the A3's more spacious back seat, which has adequate leg- and headroom for real adults.
That's not particularly important to me - my stature stalled out long ago.
But if I were stroking the check, I would stretch to select the A3 over the CLA250.
While the little Audi is less flashy than the stylish CLA, it pops with better performance and driving dynamics, and it feels more refined.
In fact, if you gave me a slightly modified A3 - I know we can push up the boost in that turbo - I just might be able to squint hard and see a line or two from the R8.
2015 AUDI A3 2.0T QUATTRO:
-Type of vehicle: Five-passenger, all-wheel-drive compact sedan
-Fuel economy: 24 miles per gallon city, 33 highway
-Weight: 3,369 pounds
-Engine: Turbocharged, direct-injected 2-liter four-cylinder with 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque
-Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
-Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds
-Base price, excluding destination charge: $29,900
-Price as tested: $39,495