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Proof is in the punch

Audi's compact convertible has an outstanding interior, amazing driving dynamics

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Buyers can easily justify the purchase of an S3 based on its interior alone. It is fitted with the same high-quality pieces and thoughtful ergonomics found in much pricier Audis.

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2006 Audi A3 2.0T for $9,987

2006 Audi A3 2.0T

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MUNICH, Germany - Audi has big plans to expand its compact A3 family. The proof lies in the new 2015 Audi S3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro, just one of a host of new and future models in the German automaker's burgeoning small car corral.

In the past, Canadian and U.S. buyers only had one Audi A3 model to choose from: the Sportback four-door hatchback. But Audi's ambitious sales growth plans and the increasing popularity of small-but-luxurious cars in general means the number of models and body styles for its third-generation A3 will grow -- a lot.

In addition to the new 2015 A3 1.8 and 2.0 TFSI four-door sedans on sale in Canada now -- the first A3s with a trunk since the first-generation arrived in Europe in 1999 as a lone, two-door hatchback -- there's the forthcoming S3 high-performance sedan and the A3-based Q3 four-door compact crossover arriving before the end of this year.

As well, the North American return of the new-generation A3 Sportback was all but confirmed by Audi at this spring's New York Auto Show. And while the subject matter of this review, the two-door S3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro, has not been confirmed for North America, it looks like a shoo-in; especially with BMW planning to launch a convertible version of its new-this-year compact 2 Series.

Unlike its compact rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the 2+2 Audi convertible doesn't penalize its owners with a down-market interior. Forget its thrilling, turbocharged performance or confidence-inspiring handling -- buyers can easily justify the purchase of an S3 based on its interior alone, fitted with the same, high-quality pieces and thoughtful ergonomics found in much pricier Audis.

Opting for the high-performance S3 version only adds to the A3 Cabriolet's sense of specialness. The driver's instrumentation is similar to other Audis, with large dials for the tachometer and speedometer, white LCD hash marks reading out the fuel and temperature status, as well as a small turbo-boost gauge within the speedometer.

Audi's console-mounted Multi Media Interface central controller is tweaked in S3 form with a pair of new toggle switches and a larger control knob. Its top surface is now employed as a touchpad for finger-gesture inputs for the navigation and audio systems that are viewed through a retractable, dash-top screen.

Throw in S3-spec red stitching and two-tone sport seats, and you'll want to power down the S3 Cab's three-layer cloth top (that opens or closes in 18 seconds, even while driving at speeds up to 50 kilometres per hour) just to show off your compact Audi's cockpit.

No one expects a small, 2+2 convertible to fill in for your brother's pickup truck when it comes time to haul stuff. And you shouldn't with the new S3 Cabriolet, either. But at least Audi's made some effort to give S3 Cab' owners a weekend's worth of luggage space. The convertible is longer and its trunk is larger than the Audi A3 hatchback, and although its 285 litres of rear trunk space is 150 L shy of the A3/S3 sedan (245 L with the roof down), its 60/40 split and folding rear seats help provide a bit more room.

For extra driving zoom over the A3 Cabriolet European models, which start with the 125 horsepower A3 1.4 TFSI, the topline S3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro turbo-four delivers in spades.

The S3 Cabriolet uses the same drivetrain found in the S3 Sedan (and the new Volkswagen Golf R hot hatch). Some driving enthusiasts may whine the Audi convertible comes only with a slush box (a six-speed, dual clutch auto), but with 300 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque on hand via its 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine, all-wheel drive and launch control, Audi says its compact convertible will go from rest to 100 km/h in just 5.4 seconds, topping out at 250 km/h. However, during my day's drive in the Euro-spec S3 Cabriolet from southern Austria to southern Germany -- from its steering to its brakes to its gearbox -- I also discovered that Audi's small convertible is more than just a straight-line bandit.

Starting with its standard 18-inch 225/40 performance rubber (19s are optional), the S3 rides lower than an A3 Cabriolet, and gets stiffer springs and shock absorbers, thicker anti-roll bars and sport-tuned elastokinematic properties. So even on a cloudy day, when there's little reason to drop its top, the S3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro is a very satisfying performance car to drive hard.

As expected in any Audi with an "S" badge attached to it, the S3 Cabriolet's road manners exhibit superb control. Whether burbling along at more than 200 km/h on open German autobahn or boogieing on twisty Austrian Alpine switchbacks, the small Audi convertible was composed and sporty. With minimal turbo lag, the gutsy turbo-four pulls strong in any of the dual-clutch automatic's six gears, activated by a console shifter or steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. And each gear change is accompanied by an enthusiastic "pop" from the S3 Cab's quartet of exhaust pipes.

Audi Canada has not officially said the S3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro will be imported, so pricing is of a speculative nature. But expect costs to be competitive with the forthcoming BMW M235i convertible at around $50,000, or about $10,000 less than the larger Audi A5 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Quattro.

--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

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