Class is in Session
Audi A3? Mini Cooper S? Whether you're packing Junior off to college or racing around the city, you can't go wrong with either of these refined German starters.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Rare is the $56,000 ride that can throw out 368 horsepower, surround its occupants with 16-speaker sound, and give them power windows aplenty, a jiffy-pop array of airbags, limitless leg space, an obscene amount of cargo capacity, and an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty--and did I mention the eight performance-tuned tires, six auto-locking doors, twinned gas tanks, and grabby pair of leather-clad steering wheels with gizmodic buttons galore? Probably not, because the vehicle in question is in fact two cars, namely a pair of sensibly priced hatchbacks pitched by their respective makers at a single demographic: college kids, or the generous, well-heeled parents thereof. Thus, this month I offer duel reviews: the three-year-old but already iconic Mini Cooper S and the brand-new, similarly priced Audi A3. Consider this column a back-to-school special.

My research materials arrived in my driveway within minutes of each other, tucked tail-to-snout with room left over for a game of hopscotch. Each day for a week, I alternated between them, flip-flopping like some fickle suitor. First up was the Cooper, a shoe-box-shaped go-cart swathed in Purple Haze metallic paint, then fitted with checkerboard side mirrors and a set of racing stripes. The effect was cartoonish, but that's the point. When BMW released the reimagined Mini back in 2002, it marketed the vehicle as a piece of automotive whimsy--cute but supremely capable. Sales soon topped 36,000 yearly, and a number of fanciful competitors toot-tooted onto showroom floors. Thus far, however, none has captured the imagination--or the market--quite like the Mini.

As most people know by now, the Mini is adorable. Its teeny headlights are sweet, its bitsy wheels charming, and its grille, spoiler, skirt, and supercharger intake hood impossibly delightful. (The car begs to be petted.) Inside, things are much the same. BMW's designers--who apparently included several Oompa Loompas--plunked an oversize speedometer in the center of the dash, bolted a chromey tach above the steering column, fanned a goofy line of shiny toggle switches across the center island, and plopped a metallic cue ball atop the gearshift, just for the hell of it. This is an interior without restraint or peer, and proud of it.

The A3's cabin, by contrast, is a whisper of Teutonic restraint. At the moment, Audi's perfectly executed and brilliantly designed interiors are arguably the best in the business. Heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, satellite radio, multifunction steering wheel, onboard navigation, and many other niceties lend the A3's cabin a feel comparable to that of a car costing twice as much. It's a more refined set of surroundings than the Mini, and a bit larger too. (Various versions of the A3 have been available internationally for a decade, but when Audi brought the car Stateside to compete with the Mini in the premium compact category, it tugged the tail a bit and sneaked two extra doors onto the body.) Good rule of thumb: If your kid is under 6 feet tall, go with the Mini; if over, get the Audi.

Having been assigned both cars, I set out to assess them fairly, yet with an appropriate level of collegiate irresponsibility. Therefore I mapped out a Grand Prix-style test track on my sleepy neighborhood streets. From my driveway starting line, the course ran two blocks west, made a hard turn up a 15 percent grade, spun left, right, left, sped six blocks east, then curled down a Bullitt-esque street to San Francisco Bay, at which point I would park and free my nauseated Labrador to yak on the beach. Not surprisingly, the 168-hp Mini Cooper S, a goosed-up version of the standard Mini, flew through the streets like a rat running a maze, zooming from nada to 60 in a little under eight seconds, then jitterbugging around corners with its wheels screeching. The Mini's suspension is unforgiving, and the road-feel a little hard, but Formula One-style levers on the steering column let you flow through the Steptronic transmission with equal parts aggression and ease. The car is a blast to drive: very quick, sure-footed, and fun.

The A3, on the other hand, is a wonder. Audi dropped its new 200-hp turbocharged engine into the vehicle, and the power plant makes use of something Audi terms Fuel Stratified Injection, which basically means that gas is fired directly into the combustion chamber, allowing a precise air-to-fuel mixture and greatly improving efficiency and power. Next, Audi supplied the A3 with a revolutionary gearbox--lifted from its racing fleet. Called Direct Shift Gearbox, it is a dual-clutch system that allows the transmission to preselect anticipated gears while the current one is engaged, and then shift instantaneously as required. The system is wildly complex, but the result is all that matters: The A3 shifts faster and more smoothly than any car I've tested. By marrying FSI and DSG (plus a few other things like electromechanical steering and electronic stability control), Audi has created an entry-level vehicle that speeds through its paces as well as most supercars. At any point on my ersatz racecourse--even heading straight up the steeps--I could mash the gas and the A3's torque chirped the wheels, shoved me deep into the driver's seat, and tumbled the hapless dog against the hatchback.

So, how to choose from this bargain bounty? The marketing mavens at Audi and Mini expect many of these cars to ultimately land in leafy college towns, since parents shuttling Trip or Trey off to school will want to provide their spawn with a fairly priced campus car. And as parting gifts go, either vehicle is pretty sweet. Responsible parents will carefully consider their child's personality, needs, likes, and dislikes, and then match them to either the fun-loving Mini or the stealthy Audi. There is a far better option, however: Buy both cars, keep one for yourself, and send Junior to State.