Audi A3 TDI and Lexus HS250h: A winning premium green car formula?

It’s no secret that automakers are desperately trying to find a way to make a profit on environmentally friendly vehicles. Green propulsion technology is extremely expensive and engineering-intensive, and yet it’s most often applied to low-margin compact cars. Success at selling high-end green vehicles such as the Lexus LS600hL and the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid has been limited, at best. Faced with this dilemma, some automakers are responding with the oldest trick in the book: take an inexpensive, popular car, and sell a premium, expensive variant. I recently explored this new frontier in green cars by sampling both the Audi A3 TDI and Lexus HS250h.

To be clear, neither of these vehicles should be labeled as rebadges, as neither shares its sheetmetal with any lesser car we can buy. That said, there’s no doubt these cars’ sole mission is to target some of the folks who have bought cheap green cars, namely the Toyota Prius and Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and get them into something a bit less cheap.

I got my first taste of this new strategy in Los Angeles last week when I climbed into a black Audi A3 TDI. Automobile Magazine just completed a year with a long-term 2009 Jetta TDI, and I was among its biggest fans, so I was quite interested to see what another $8000 might improve on VW’s refined, relatively luxurious fuel-sipper. The answer, at least in terms of equipment, is “not much.” The A3’s sleek hatchback profile and requisite Audi jewelry makes for a sexier wrapping than the utilitarian Jetta (obnoxious press car “TDI” stickers notwithstanding). But the $31,275 A3 lacked some of the features that had come standard on our $23,090 Jetta, including a sunroof and steering wheel controls.

As I drove the Audi from Los Angeles to Dana Point, and then later in the week up to Malibu, my displeasure softened. The Jetta, for all its basic goodness, lacks that last bit of dynamic excellence that makes a car exciting to climb into after a long day. The A3 TDI more than sufficiently addresses that issue. At the advice of an Audi engineer, I turned off the Pacific Coast Highway onto the winding Topanga Canyon and discovered that the A3’s sharpened reflexes compare more with the VW GTI than with the comfort-oriented Jetta. The A3 also comes standard with the excellent S Tronic dual-clutch transmission. Stick-shift bias aside, this lighting-quick automatic is much better a match for the 2.0-liter diesel’s narrow powerband than the six-speed manual on our Jetta. And despite my flat-footed antics, the indicated fuel economy never dropped below 35 mpg, which makes the 30/42 mpg estimates from the EPA sound quite credible. (We observed mid-thirties fuel economy from our Jetta TDI over the year, and occasionally got close to 50 mpg on highway trips).

So Audi’s formula for a pricier green car is simple: more sex appeal and more performance. Lexus, not surprisingly, follows a different route with its first near-luxury green car. For about $6000 more than the A3 I drove and a hefty $15,000 over a base Prius, the HS250h lavishes its driver with standard features like 18-inch wheels, Bluetooth, a sunroof, and heated and cooled leather seats. The model we currently have in our fleet in Ann Arbor is additionally loaded with $10,000 more in options, topping out at a rather shocking $46,457. Clearly, no one can accuse Lexus of scrimping on equipment. And though I was unable to push it as hard as I had the A3 on account of Michigan’s wet, sometimes frozen roads, it’s safe to say the HS250h drives at least as well as the new Prius, which is to say, not bad at all. Steering is surprisingly quick and responsive, body motions are reasonably well controlled, and the regenerative brakes betray little of the sponginess that plagues other hybrids.

And yet, the HS250h is in some ways even less convincing a luxury car than the sparsely equipped A3. From its awkwardly tall, narrow shape and its surprisingly brittle ride to the distinctly hard plastics that hide beneath a veneer -– albeit a very nice veneer — of leather and wood trim, the HS250h gives off the unmistakable air of a car that was born cheap and then made expensive after the fact. Though it’s more powerful and much better equipped than the average Prius, it feels much less cohesive, both as a vehicle and as a statement.

At some point, an automaker is going to find the right formula for a premium green car, and will make a lot of money in the process. But neither of these cars seems to have hit that sweet spot. The A3 TDI is a wonderful, fun-to-drive compact car, but so is the better-equipped Jetta TDI, which happens to be available for 2010 with a beefed up suspension. The HS250h sorely lacks the novelty and ingenuity that has made the Prius such a deserving hit, and for all its gadgets, doesn’t always feel like a legitimate Lexus. Fear not though. No automaker, not in the least Lexus or Audi, will be giving up. For the sake of their continued survival in a world of tightening emissions and fuel economy standards, they don’t have a choice.

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