Higher prices at the pump have renewed interest in diesels and their attractively high fuel-economy ratings. Audi recently announced that by 2015, it will offer U.S. consumers the choice of a diesel version of almost every vehicle in its lineup. In the meantime, the A3 TDI soldiers on as the sole Audi diesel passenger car for stateside consumption (there's also a Q7 TDI, for SUV fans).
The excellent interior materials Audi has become so well known for are present and accounted for in the A3. Nearly all surfaces are either slush-molded, soft-touch plastics or leather. From the driver’s seat, visibility is excellent, while the supportive seats and flat-sided steering wheel give the A3 a sporty flair that its driving dynamics support.
Available only with FWD and the S-Tronic six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the diesel A3 handled itself well on a twisty mountain pass, demonstrating surprisingly high grip levels and mild understeer at the limit. Complements go to the well-designed MacPherson-strut front and multi-link rear suspension. The high-performance tires offered more grip than one would expect from an all-season tire.
Handling aside, the 140-horsepower TDI is definitely more of a momentum car than an outright Autobahn stormer. The diesel torque arrives to the party early with nary a hint of turbo lag, but like all diesels, the cops break up the party early, with the engine running out of steam at a relatively low 4,500 rpm. The 0-60 mph run passes in a leisurely 8.9 seconds.
But where the Audi really excels is in its ability to serenely melt away the miles, chugging along at low engine speeds. Effortless interstate passes are just a press on the pedal and downshift away. With 42 mpg highway (30 mpg city) and a relatively large fuel tank, the Audi can travel more than 600 miles between fill-ups. We did have trouble finding diesel stations in urban areas on occasion, but the optional navigation system points out fuel stations for you on its high-quality, 6.25-inch LCD display.
Despite having an updated MMI interface for navigation and stereo controls, the system still begs for the simplicity of a touch-sensitive screen. Not that the system is bad, but it’s clear how much Audi improved the new MMI systems found in the A5 and A8.
While drivers will undoubtedly adjust to the A3’s other ergonomic foibles such as its unintuitive climate controls and inconvenient glove-box mounted iPhone hook-up (thankfully corrected on more recent Audi designs), it does show that many of Audi’s competitors, even non-luxury players, have found simpler ways to integrate all these functions.
Overall, the A3 TDI is a great vehicle for Europhiles looking for a sporty, roomy hatch powered by Europe’s favorite fuel. Audi acknowledges this vehicle is aimed at diesel ‘enthusiasts,’ which makes it all the more disappointing that opting for the diesel engine means these enthusiasts can have neither AWD nor the company’s slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, both of which are offered on gas-powered A3s.
All this Euro fun will cost you – our tester was $37,250 out the door, including over $6,000 worth of options including navigation ($2,050), sunroof ($1,100), and the cold weather and premium plus packages for $2,500. For the more budget conscious, the same engine and transmission can be found in the more pedestrian VW Golf and Jetta, starting at $22,995 (and for the few who care, the six-speed manual is an option for the VWs).
With other manufacturers’ on-again off-again plans for diesels, it’s good to know that VW gives us several solid choices, including the Audi A3 TDI.