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Driven: 2010 Audi A3 TDI

Joe Loriowriter

The 2.0 TDI engine is the new optional powerplant for the A3, Audi's small-car offering that first arrived here for 2006. The TDI certainly makes a lot more sense than the 3.2-liter V-6 (which has been dropped) as the alternative engine offering in this car, particularly as the latest version of the A3's standard, 2.0-liter turbo four boasts the drivability of a V-6. Indeed, only a small fraction of buyers chose the V-6, but Audi expects the TDI -- which just went on sale in December -- to account for 40 percent of A3 sales.

While the A3's gasoline engine comes with a choice of transmissions and front- or four-wheel drive, the TDI is offered exclusively with the six-speed S Tronic dual-clutch automatic and front-wheel drive. The latter might seem strange given that Audi's identity is so strongly wrapped up in Quattro all-wheel-drive, but most TDI buyers are going to be looking for maximum fuel economy. And the A3 TDI does deliver some standout numbers, particularly its 42 mpg EPA highway rating, which is the best of any premium-nameplate car, better even the Lexus HS250 hybrid -- although the Lexus hybrid easily tops the Audi's 30 mpg city figure. A more direct comparison is with the gasoline-powered A3. Similarly configured (with S Tronic and front-wheel drive), the TDI crushes the 2.0T's 22/28 mpg ratings. Considering that Audi charges only $1200 extra for the diesel, the TDI makes a pretty compelling case on economics alone. (Of course, the truly hardcore green eyeshade type wouldn't even shop in an Audi store; he/she would be down at the VW dealer, haggling mercilessly over a Golf TDI, which has the same powertrain.)

So, the TDI is far more economical and not much more expensive than a standard A3, but how does it drive? The short answer is: much better than the numbers suggest. Like all diesel engines, the TDI is relatively short on horsepower (140 hp) but long on torque (236 lb-ft) compared to its gasoline sibling (200 hp, 207 lb-ft). The low power figure explains the relatively long factory-quoted 0-to-60 mph time of 9.1 seconds (versus a brisk 6.9 seconds for the gasoline version). But the TDI actually feels much quicker in real world driving, because of the wealth of torque on tap at low engine speeds -- as low as 1750 rpm. So the relatively light throttle openings you use in most everyday driving produce lots of thrust.

Normally, sending a lot of torque through the front wheels is a recipe for torque steer, but any steering wheel twitchiness is well suppressed. Without the benefit of Quattro, pulling out onto a busy street can briefly overwhelm the front tires and call upon the services of the traction control system, but it's not much of an issue. The only negative with regard to driveability is the TDI's distinct diesel engine note, which is always present.

Other aspects of the A3 are not influenced by its diesel powertrain. Interior space is not bad considering the trim exterior dimensions, and the hatchback body style makes for a generous cargo hold -- 19.5 cubic feet (which is already more than a sedan of any size), expandable to 39 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. My test car was a fully loaded example, equipped with the titanium sport package , which includes sport seats with leather and Alcantara (suede) upholstery and contrasting stitching. The car also came with the optional navigation system (at an eye-watering $2050), but here the A3 shows its age somewhat, as the user interface and some of the controls are not as good as those found in newer Audis.

The titanium sport package also includes a sport suspension, which is firm but not harsh, despite the large, eighteen-inch wheels (with a dark finish). The A3's steering is decently weighted and very precise, but don't expect a whole lot of feel through the contoured wheel rim.

A3 sales are still a small part of the Audi total, but the fact that this car is in the lineup marks Audi as a forward-thinking luxury-car maker, a position that is reinforced by the addition of the TDI. Looking ahead, it's pretty easy to see that luxury is becoming disengaged from size, and that fuel economy and environmental consciousness is not a virtue only for lower price segments. The A3 TDI puts Audi on the vanguard of these trends, and makes for a pleasant (if pricey) way to drive green.

Base price (with destination): $30,675
Price as tested: $39,425

Standard equipment:
2.0L 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine
6-speed S Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission
Stability control
Leather seating surfaces
17" alloy wheels
S line exterior trim

Options on this vehicle:
Navigation and iPod connector - $2050
Titanium sport package - $2000
- 18" wheels, high-performance tires
- Sport suspension
- Sport seats with leather + Alcantara upholstery
- Black interior trim and headliner
- Black grille surround
Premium plus model - $2000
- Xenon headlights
- Bluetooth
- 3-spoke leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel
- Power driver's seat
- Illumination package and storage package
- Aluminum belt line trim
- 17" ten-spoke wheels
Open sky sunroof - $1100
Convenience package - $1000
- Auto dimming rearview mirror w/compass
- Rain and light sensor
- Bose premium sound system
Cold weather package - $500
- Heated front seats
- Heated washer nozzles + exterior mirrors

Fuel economy:
30/42/34 mpg

Size: 2.0L DOHC turbocharged 4-cylinder diesel
Horsepower: 140 hp @ 4200 rpm
Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 1750-2500 rpm


6-speed dual-clutch automatic

3318 lbs

18" alloy wheels
225/40 R18 tires

Competitors: Lexus HS250h, MINI Cooper S