2009 MTM Audi A3 Sportback – Click above for high-res image gallery

In the automotive world, price is increasingly a function of degrees. How's that? Dial in a faster windscreen angle, aggressively rake the rear glass and – voilà! – you've just padded your margins to the tune of a few thousand bucks. Take a plain-jane sedan, hire some stylists to turn it into a "four-door coupe" with a racy greenhouse, and you can use the same mechanicals and still charge a mint. The same goes for crossovers – just steepen the backlight and you're in the ducats. Not convinced? See the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW X6 for field notes.

MTM is planning on selling only 15 of these in the U.S.
We note all of this because we're sure you're going to look at the upright profile of this MTM Audi A3 Sportback and dismissively turn up your nose when you learn its pricetag is around $55,000. But if we lopped off a couple of doors or gave it a less formal roofline, we'd be willing to bet that its price would suddenly look a lot more palatable. All of which is understandable, really, as $55k is a lot of coin to be shelling out – especially considering that at a few shekels over $27k, a base A3 starts at roughly half the money.

But shelve your bodystyle prejudices and bear with us for a moment. If you're like us, you've looked longingly at a lot of what the Four-Ringed Wunder has been kicking out on its home continent – models like the RS6 Avant, TT-RS and S3. And unless you've got some seriously deep pockets, an inside man on the gray market and a relative who owes you a favor at the local DMV, you haven't got a prayer of landing any such tasty treats here in the U.S. So while the folks at Motoren-Technik-Mayer (MTM) can't source you an assembly-line-fresh S3 for your middle-American driveway, they can build you a road-legal doppelganger, and as it turns out, that ain't half bad.

We've talked up the Audi A3's virtues and vices before, so we'll spare you the gab about how much we enjoy its well-resolved interior, grippy Quattro all-wheel drive, planted handling and surprising utility. We've also not been shy in mentioning how its price tag can get disastrously dear with just a brief once-over of Audi's options list – and that's before handing it over to a tuner like MTM. But enough with the apologies – ride along with us past the jump to see if this hot hatch is full of excuses... or full of win.

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

So, what's going on here – is this merely a North American-spec A3 swaddled in European couture? Not exactly. On the outside, MTM starts with an A3 2.0T S-Line, then fits genuine S3 aero addenda (bumpers, side skirts), along with brushed aluminum mirror covers, fog lamps, badges and – most importantly – the S3's 13.6-inch front rotors and monobloc calipers. Those new clampers are shrouded in a set of massive Pirelli PZero-clad MTM Bimoto alloys and the whole works has been dropped to within an inch of its life.

When we picked up this tester at MTM's offices in suburban Detroit, we were simultaneously excited about how great the Sportback's stance looked and nervous for the well-being of both its 19x8.5-inch wheels and our backsides. Seriously – it appeared we'd be shaving tread on the fender liners just negotiating the parking lot apron. Interestingly – and perhaps tellingly – the fair dinkum S3 runs around on 18s.

Of course, this isn't simply an appearance package. MTM has reflashed the 2.0-liter turbo's ECU and fitted a larger 70-mm stainless steel exhaust system, alterations that are ultimately good for 272 horsepower and 274 pound-feet of torque (+72 and +67, respectively). For those keeping score, those figures actually better this car's European inspiration by 11 additional horses and 16 torques.

Not enough petrochemical carbonation for you? If you've got the cash, MTM will burrow under the hood again until you've got as many as 380 ponies – but as fun as that sounds, we wouldn't bother with the extra parts (bigger turbo, downpipe, blowoff valve, etc.) or tweaking because the engine is plenty spirited as-is. MTM's codepushers haven't just liberated some extra fizz from the 2.0T, they've minimized a bit of the lagginess we've observed previously. As before, the six-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox wallpapers over any such shortcomings with lighting fast gearchanges when you man the paddleshifters.

The free-revving quattro-port (eh?) and the revoiced exhaust note combine to create the same sort of electric zizz soundtrack that we experienced earlier this year in the Audi TTS, albeit without that car's lag. We think it's an infectious and distinctive noise that's a breed apart from the typical can-of-bees four-cylinder import exhaust, but this still isn't the sort of tone that's likely to appeal to fans of big displacement bombast.

How about those stiffer lowering springs and watchstrap tires? We're happy to report that we never once pondered phoning our chiropractor – or a tow truck. Yes, the MTM's ride is markedly firmer than a garden-variety A3, but it's not so brittle as to wreak Jenga with one's vertebrae. The stiffer springs pay dividends in reduced role and quicker direction changes, and those stickier tires and bigger discs deliver feel-good halt in short order. That said, we'd still opt for a minus-one wheel/tire fitment to shave off a few bucks.

We've been a bit cavalier about money to this point, and yes, there are less expensive ways to get similar all-wheel drive performance (Subaru WRX STI, Mitsubishi Evolution X, not to mention Audi's own S4), but even MTM's officials admit that this example spec'd out at more than what they were hoping for. Our suggestion? Save a bit on the oversized rolling stock and ask if you can get a small discount for deleting the 'Sportback' rocker panel appliqués. With the money saved, you might even spring for the S3's flat-bottom wheel (it makes the rockin' world go round).

Just remember: When your friends chide you for spending over fifty grand on a lowly hatchback, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that genuine S3s run German customers upwards of $50k anyhow. Besides, MTM is planning on selling only 15 of these Stateside. And at least in our world, talent, versatility and exclusivity go a long way toward trumping fashionable silliness like faster windshields and compromised headroom – and not just by a few degrees.

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

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