Front-wheel-drive layouts worked better twenty years ago, when cars were lighter and engine output was akin to a couple of ponies on quaaludes. Today's obese modern cars require serious, purebred muscle to haul them around, and as a result, quick front-wheel-drive cars suffer from easy-to-provoke wheel spin and steering that's been novocained to mask torque steer. Point a powerful front-wheel-drive car up one of San Francisco's famously steep grades and try--just try--to get moving without squealing the front tires. Now try it in the rain, or--heaven forbid--snow.
Audi solved this dilemma years ago by sending some power to the rear wheels and calling it Quattro. The A3, which is the Volkswagen GTI's lower-roofed, more luxuriously appointed cousin, was heretofore available with Quattro only when paired with the optional 3.2-liter six-cylinder. For 2009, the four-wheel-drive A3 can be ordered with the more fuel-efficient and less expensive 200-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder and dual-clutch automatic.
The result is an upscale GTI that won't roast the front tires. The A3 Quattro handles even better than the VW, too, thanks to its improved balance, lower overall height, and available magnetorheological dampers. It exhibits almost no torque steer, and it suffers from none of the GTI's syrupy brake-pedal feel.
The A3's for-2009 evolutionary face-lift includes the de rigueur LED daytime running lights (when equipped with xenon headlamps). The front-wheel-drive Audi carries a price premium of about four grand over the GTI, and the four-wheel-drive system adds another two grand. Our fully loaded test car was priced at a hard-to-swallow $41,700, but the diminutive Audi had no problem swallowing four adults and $265 worth of groceries. Even with all the extra weight, San Francisco's most ardent leadfoot couldn't coax a squeak from the Audi's front tires climbing and hill-hopping the city's steepest inclines. The same silence wasn't exhibited by his passengers, of course.
On Sale: Now
Price: $31,325/$41,700 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft