Wheels: Big Luxury in a Pleasantly Small Package

Newport, R.I. — This stunningly beautiful town, bounded by three bodies of water, has been our family’s summer vacation spot for five years. We always drive — choosing a car small enough to easily navigate Newport’s narrow streets, powerful enough to safely get us through the mayhem of Interstate 95, and comfortable enough to hold three people and a large chocolate Labrador.

Past trips have required compromise in the choice of automobiles. Small often lacked needed power. Powerful enough often proved too large.

And because Newport is a stylish place, there always was the matter of the swank factor — a car luxurious enough to fit in, but not so overwhelming in presentation that it reeked of trying too hard.

This year’s driving choice was easy — the compact Audi A3 2.0T Quattro sedan, all new for 2015. The car replaces the A3 hatchback, which had been a pleasure to drive but had the persona of an overpriced economy car.

The cost of the new A3 sedan remains dear for middle-income wallets, starting at $29,900 for the “base” Premium model and moving up to $38,350 for the top-of-the-line A3 Prestige. We happily muddled in the middle with the all-wheel-drive A3 Premium Plus, which has a starting price of $32,900.

It was a good choice. The car came with an optional 2-liter, turbocharged (forced air) in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine that delivered impressive power (220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque) and almost reasonable fuel economy — 24 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway.

I would have called those mileage numbers “good” for a small luxury sedan. But the turbocharged engine requires premium gasoline, which cost as much as $4.22 a gallon when we visited these parts in late July.

But it was a small sacrifice given the nature of the A3 sedan’s remarkable performance. The car was a sheer joy to drive — wonderfully responsive in high-speed highway traffic, easy to maneuver on congested streets.

I would’ve preferred that the A3 used for this journey had also come with a backup camera and blind-side warning system. Those advanced safety technologies would have been useful on some of this town’s streets, packed with cars, bicyclists and pedestrians generated by the recently concluded 2014 Newport Music Festival. But as often is the case with automotive pricing, you have to spend more to get those available safety items.

Still, the A3 remains a pretty good deal for people shopping for luxury on a budget. The car has one of the most well conceived and rendered interiors of any automobile in any class — attractive in its simplicity, outfitted with high-quality materials, ergonomically sensible. It is a good place to be in on a long drive, even with a large dog.

The A3 sedan also is deceptively fast. At times I looked at the A3’s speedometer and was surprised to find that I was running at 80 mph. I usually “feel” that kind of speed as a car moves against the wind, or “hear” it in terms of a whining or straining engine. But none of those cues were evident in the A3’s smooth, quiet, seemingly effortless performance.

I looked at the speedometer and slowed down, which required moving over to the right lane on I-95. Like it or not, legal or not, going slower than 80 on that highway, especially in the left or middle lanes, is often going too slow. I yielded to substantially faster traffic.

I suffered no loss of ego in conceding to faster drivers. Confidence is knowing you can go faster in response to necessity or will. During a nearly 1,000-mile drive here from our home in Virginia, I developed maximum confidence in the Audi A3 sedan. It is not hyperbole to claim that I fell in love with the little car.

It did everything I wanted it to do exactly when I wanted it to do it. It was a control freak’s motorized dream. Notice to the BMW 2-series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti G-class sedan and Mercedes-Benz CLA: Your Audi competition has arrived and is quite willing and able to snatch market share.