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2006 Audi A3

    TALIHINA, Okla. — It’s sunset on the Talimena Scenic Drive, a two-lane stretch of asphalt that winds through one of the most gorgeous landscapes in middle America: the ancient Ouachita mountains in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.
     I’m hours away from the constant craziness of big-city life, having traded pollution and traffic gridlock for miles of wide-open roads and pure, 75-degree mountaintop air, if only for a weekend. There’s virtually no civilization out here aside from a few towns that could make the cover of the Saturday Evening Post if they were a bit less scruffy, and the views from around each bend take my breath away for their Ansel Adams-style serenity.
     Behind the wheel of Audi’s new A3, it feels like I’m in heaven — if heaven could possibly feel this good.
     I’ve driven plenty of impressive cars and trucks in the past — most of which I’ll never be able to afford — but none have been as absolutely amazing as this one, which is why I had to take it on a weekend rendezvous in the mountains. I fell in love with this car.
     It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth without any exaggeration. I’ve driven faster cars, more comfortable cars and better looking cars, but none of them have totally blown my mind like this one did.
     Why? Because it costs less than $25,000.
     When I’ve driven $100,000 cars in the past, I’ve fully expected them to have the kind of extraordinary features that $100,000 cars should have, but that’s not an impressive feat. That’s just meeting expectations.

     This $25,000 Audi — a car I might be able to afford on my humble journalist’s salary — looks and feels in every way like it could cost twice that much and still be a bargain. It accelerates like a rocket, handles like a BMW, has an interior with the quality of a full-blown luxury car and a body that looks like it was penned by an exclusive European design studio. It even has four doors so my wife and two-year-old daughter can comfortably ride in it.
     In fact, the one and only thing that keeps this car from costing twice as much is its size. It’s a small car with a relatively cramped back seat, but not unreasonably so.
     Driving through mountains that are hundreds of millions of years old — with a geologic history that goes back well before the dinosaurs — the A3’s cutting-edge technology really stands out. It has plenty of high-tech features worth mentioning, but three are particularly noteworthy for being ahead of their time.
     One is the A3’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine that makes 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque. It’s the world’s first production engine to combine direct gasoline injection with a turbocharger, resulting in an engine that is amazingly powerful and responsive to input from the pedal but also very fuel efficient. It gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway. It also doesn’t have a hint of turbo lag, which is the annoying period of time between when the driver presses the gas pedal and when the turbo spools up to provide a boost in power.
     The second is an optional Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) that allows the transmission to shift without disengaging from the engine. Unlike a standard transmission, which has a single clutch that essentially disconnects from the engine between shifts, the DSG has two clutches so it is never out of contact with the engine. The result is lightning-quick shifts with no loss of power, something enthusiastic drivers would appreciate.
     The third is the A3’s steering system, an electromechanical marvel that changes the amount of power assist depending on speed. When zooming down mountain roads, it reduces the amount of power steering assist to make the car feel more responsive at high speeds. At lower speeds, like in parking lots in the city, it boosts the amount of assist to make parking a breeze. It’s truly impressive.
     When the steering system, transmission, engine and suspension all combine, the A3 feels like a driver’s car in that grand sports-sedan tradition. At the same time, it’s also smooth and supple like a luxury car on the highway, with a sophisticated suspension that combines comfort on the road with excellent feel in the corners.
     The interior is far better than those in other $25,000 cars, as Audi — widely regarded as maker of the world’s best interiors — pulled many parts from its high-end models to use in the A3’s cabin. It’s easy to see bits and pieces that came straight out of a TT or an extremely expensive A8.
     As expected in premium-brand car, there’s lots of standard equipment. Automatic climate control with pollen filter, a 10-speaker stereo, cruise control, keyless entry, and power windows and locks all come at no extra cost.
     Audi’s greatest hurdle in the marketplace is likely to be the public’s perception that small cars from German luxury brands are pieces of junk, as two-door hatchbacks from Mercedes and BMW have bombed in recent years because they didn’t meet the expectations of their bigger and more expensive counterparts. They were watered-down cars without much intrinsic value, so they relied on their badges and logos to sell.
     This Audi, on the other hand, has got to be the bargain of the year, if not the decade.
     Not only does it have some seriously amazing technology, but its performance, style, refinement and overall build quality are all befitting of a high-end, very pricey European car.
     It’s caviar at a Big Mac price.

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