We like the idea of the 2009 Audi A3, a small, sporty five-door hatchback (Audi refers to it as a Sportback). It seems rather like the grownup big brother of the 2009 Volkswagen GTI, which which it shares some underpinnings.

In the States, Audi has offered the A3 since 2006 with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four or a 3.2-liter direct-injection V6. But this year the company plans to introduce the A3 TDI, the first A3 diesel and only its second US-market diesel, after the 2010 Audi Q7 TDI.

Last week, we got a chance to drive an approximation of what this car will be like. Ours was a European-spec version, so it didn't have US emissions controls or safety equipment. We suggest treating these comments as rough first impressions.

Like all diesels, the A3 TDI has gobs of torque at relatively low engine speeds. It's geared so it moves right out, and the splendid S-Tronic double-clutch automated 6-speed manual transmission offers paddle shifting or quick, smooth automatic shifts.

There's still some turbo lag, however, despite the typically low redline of 4500 rpm.  We got used to planning ahead and kicking down earlier than we would have otherwise. Regular diesel drivers know and accept this; we wonder if Audi's existing gasoline drivers will.

At times, we found the A3 TDI a bit cumbersome at low speeds and low engine revs. Making the diesel howl kept it moving along smartly, and like most alternative powertrains, it's a matter of getting used to the specific characteristics of the car.

The handling is delightfully neutral, despite being the front-wheel-drive version without Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Pressed hard, the front end did push a little--but just a tad. Otherwise, you'd hardly have known this was a FWD car.

Inside, the all-black interior and relatively short windows gave the A3 a close and somewhat tight feel. The switchgear is clean and austere, only relieved by vents and instruments surrounded by polished metal rings that are just this side of garish.

The driving position was just about perfect for our 6-foot frame, with well-positioned steering wheel, paddle shifters, and gauges. The A3 has some of the most heavily bolstered seats we've seen this side of a luxury car, but they worked for us.

While it's just 3 inches longer than the Volkswagen Golf, the A3's third side windows make it look much longer. We're undecided about the styling; some angles are fine, others seem awkward. But the length offers a large 20 cubic feet of rear load space, a definite plus.

Overall, we liked our short drive in the A3 TDI. Our question is simply: Does this car come in with two strikes against it? It's a small, pricey hatchback (meaning low sales numbers) and it's also a diesel (a new concept for the Audi brand in the States).

We believe Volkswagen will be the big winner in small diesels, but we fear Audi may have a rougher road ahead of it. Tell us what you think about the A3 TDI ... at what price would you consider buying it?

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model

2007 Audi A3 4dr HB Auto DSG quattro interior cockpit

2007 Audi A3 4dr HB Auto DSG quattro interior cockpit

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model

Audi A3 TDI clean diesel - European model