Finding a balance between fuel economy and performance is never easy; and all cars must compromise somewhere. Take the Tesla Roadster. Fast, emissions-free, and nearly zero maintenance. The compromise? Range. Not to mention the $100,000 price. Or, take the more pedestrian Toyota Prius. It’s inexpensive, gets great fuel economy, and makes a great accessory in Los Angeles, but it’s also a car-guy’s punchline. Car guys who want to save money at the pump know there’s only one place to turn: Diesel.
| 1. The A3 TDI uses the same 2.0L turbodiesel found in the Jetta and Golf, making 140-hp and 236 ft-lbs of torque. |
2. Fuel economy is rated at 30/42-mpg (city/hwy).
3. Pricing starts at $29,950, while the similar Golf TDI starts at just $22,189.
But while shortsighted emissions laws from four decades ago relegated diesel engines to trucks here in the U.S., Europeans have been developing properly sporting diesel engines for some time. Fortunately, in more recent years, they have been kind enough to share a few of them with us, which brings us to the Audi A3 TDI. Does the A3 have the sporting chops that car-guys want and the economy that many of us need?
TDI ADDS NEW TWIST TO OLD PLATFORM
The A3 itself is nothing new. It was launched in North America in 2005, and has sold consistently well. In fact, it may be getting a bit long in the tooth, and due for a restyle in the next year or two. Nevertheless, it’s handsome, and generally an attractive car from all angles. The big news here is the turbodiesel engine.
The 2.0L common-rail, turbocharged diesel engine makes 140 horsepower, and, more importantly, 236 ft-lbs of torque through the S-Tronic Dual Clutch transmission, the only transmission available. That’s enough to scoot the little Audi to 60 in 8.7-seconds and return up to 45 mpg on the highway, which is significantly slower than the 6.7 seconds it takes the 2.0T, but significantly more efficient as well. And let’s not forget, the 2.0T takes premium fuel. Additionally, the 2.0 TDI engine doesn’t have an additional Urea Injection system like the Q7 and Touareg TDI. Our test car, a base model equipped only with the Cold Weather Package, lists for $31,500.
About that cold weather package: Because the A3 is so efficient, the engine produces less heat than a gasoline engine and takes longer to warm up. So Audi includes a trick electronic space heater to heat the cabin until the engine takes over. Neat, right? Wrong, because no one who lives in a cold climate will buy this car.
SORRY, NO QUATTRO
The A3 TDI isn’t available with Quattro. We understand that AWD systems reduce fuel economy, and that front-wheel drive cars, with proper snow tires, are just fine in the snow. But Audi has built its reputation on Interiors and Quattro, and eliminating Quattro as an option for this car eliminates a large portion of buyers.
EXCELLENT CHASSIS AND DUAL-CLUTCH TRANSMISSION
We didn’t have the opportunity to push the car to its limits on anything but dry pavement, but in the Malibu Canyons the A3 is a worthy dance partner. Its chassis is rock-solid, there is very little body roll, and despite all the torque from the oil-burner, torque-steer is all but absent.
Our non-sport pack car didn’t have the paddle shifters on the steering wheel and Audi’s manual mode on the shift lever is still completely backwards (you’re supposed to pull to shift up, and push to shift down), so we just left it in Sport Automatic and let the S-tronic do its thing. The computer kept the revs where we needed them, right in the middle, and wasn’t upset at all by left foot braking mid corner.
The A3 TDI feels much faster than the numbers suggest, thanks to the surge of torque out of a low-speed corner. It corners so well that we found ourselves hanging on for dear life just trying not to slide out of the base model seats, which are desperately in need of bolstering.
JUST A REALLY EXPENSIVE GOLF TDI?
All the other Audi’s we’ve driven recently have had sport seats and a sport steering wheel, which we love. This one didn’t. If you want those in the A3, you need the Sport Package. Need a sunroof? Pay up. In fact, if you want any of those things that truly set the A3 apart from its humbler brother, the Golf TDI, expect to spend about $38,000.
The Golf TDI has the same engine, same driveline, same interior dimensions (The Audi has 5 cu.-ft. more in the trunk), gets the same fuel economy, and has the same stellar build quality. In fact, you can get a fully-loaded Golf TDI for under the price of a base A3 TDI. And since Quattro isn’t available on the A3, why wouldn’t you?
Value aside, the A3 is a wonderful long-distance tourer, able to eat up the mileage in nearly silent comfort while returning anywhere from 40-44 miles per gallon, depending on how big a rush you’re in.
With the rear seats folded down, a mountain bike, drum set, or a honeymoon’s worth of luggage will fit no problem. In very mixed driving conditions, we averaged well over 30 mpg, and ran nearly 600 miles on a single 14.6 gallon tank of diesel on one road trip.
Visibility is excellent in all directions, and the 4-wheel disc brakes do a fine job bleeding off speed, with minimal fade after repeated hard stops. In sport mode, the car will engine brake for you as well, depending on how hard you press the pedal.
Does the Audi A3 TDI make the perfect compromise between performance and economy? Unfortunately, no, because it, like all other cars, had to compromise somewhere: price.
With the desirable options, the A3 is simply too expensive to be taken seriously as an economy car. The good news is, there’s another car that fits the bill just as well within the VAG family, and it costs about $7,000 less: The Volkswagen Golf TDI.