Payne: Santa, can I have an Audi A3?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
  • A3 tops Christmas list
  • AWD fun
  • Is cousin GTI a better bargain?

It's red. It's pulled by 220 reindeer. And, man, does it fly. Ditch the sleigh, Santa, get an Audi A3.

I told him so last week. Right after I asked him for one myself.

Sure, a 6'5" guy looked a little foolish on Santa's knee (Don't get too many 220 pounders, huh, Nick?) at my office Christmas party. But drive the crimson, 220-horsepower, all-wheel drive Vixen I had in my driveway for a week and you'll be making a dash for the nearest mall Kringle too.

I first discovered the A3 on Hell, Michigan's terrific twisties this fall when judging entrants for the North American Car of the Year. It was Heaven. This all-wheel drive athlete changes direction quicker than DeMarco Murray.

Compact SUVs may be hot as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the A3 heads an expanding class of $30K-something compact sport sedans that are wicked, affordable fun. Indeed, the $30K-$40K bandwidth is a mash of luxury and mainstream brands – Mercedes, Ford, BMW, Subaru, Buick - unthinkable a decade ago.

Makin' a list, checkin' it twice.

I'm a slobbering slave to branding. Priced at the high end of the $30 grand range, the sexy, all-wheel drive Mercedes CLA250, BMW 228i, and Audi make my heart race. Cross the fast-but-more-homely, AWD Subaru STI and Buick Regal GS from my list. The JV German team even makes me forget their E-Class, 3-series, and A4 varsity siblings which have grown fatter with time (haven't we all). The new kids are whip quick, torquey, and every bit as lovely as their bigger-boned sisters.

But the A3 tops my list.

Audi dresses up its VW Golf-based chassis with all-wheel drive, a toned torso, and the brand's signature full-fascia grille.

I could stare at the Bimmer all day, but even in this low-frills segment, BMW upcharges $4,045 for power leather seats. On the Audi they come standard. The four-door CLA is the supermodel of the bunch, but beauty is only skin deep as the Merc's interior sports a tacky screen (literally. It's tacked on to the dash), tight pedals, and a less-powerful, 208-reindeer – er, horse - power plant.

The A3's screen rises from the dash like Excalibur from the water. Its eager, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger sprints from 0-60 a half-second quicker than the Benz. Like its rivals, the A3's 250-plus pound-feet of torque kicks like Comet. I fling the Audi into a corner, 19-inch wheels churning, four tires gripping like glue. I nail the gas, and . . .

Passengers, we appreciate your patience while the turbocharger spools up. Thank you and enjoy your flight.

Turbo laaaaaaag. It's an affliction all small-block turbos suffer – even the insanely fast, carbon-fiber-light Alfa Romeo 4C.

Note to list: Santa, I wish I had a V-8.

Like the buttery-smooth, normally-aspirated V-8 in a new Ford Mustang. Same $32,900 base price as the A3. Double the horsepower. Instant juice. And the curvy, Euro-styled Mustang will make heads spin like a CLA supermodel. Inside, the Ford's round, cockpit vents mimic the Merc and Audi. The console, however, is all-American, with a touchscreen that is intuitively easier to use than the Europeans' distracting, slow, rotary knobs.

Still, the 'Stang comes with its own asterisk. It'll accelerate like an F-14 off the USS Nimitz, but at 3,800 pounds, the big sled isn't nearly as tossable as the little A3. Option Ford's superb, 2.7-liter turbo and the Mustang is a more nimble 3,500 pounds (the AWD Audi weighs in at 3,300), but you'll have shed the trademark V-8.

Like Santa Claus, it seems, the perfect $30-something sedan is a fairy tale. Or is it? Seems the answer has been right under my nose all along.

On the same chassis as the A3, the VW Golf offers a more affordable, $31,000, sporty four-door: The GTI. For $9 grand less, the seventh generation GTI packs the same 220-horsepower turbo mill as the A3. The same black leather seats. An intuitive, Ford-like touch screen. An ingenious, torque-vectoring differential system that makes the front-wheel drive, 3,000 pound GTI nearly as fun to flog as the AWD A3.

And the GTI boasts something none of the other, fast-backed sports sedans have: A roomy hatchback. That means lots of headroom for 6'5" elves like me and yawning, 53 cubic-feet of cargo room with the seats down.

Which means Santa has room for his toy bag. And it means we don't have to fight over the gorgeous, sleek Audi A3. I'll take good care of her, Santa. On Vixen!

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Audi A3

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport sedan

Price: $32,900 base AWD ($40,545 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,362 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/27 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Go-kart handling; Athletic proportions

Lows: Clumsy console rotary control; Cramped back seats

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★