Over the past few years I’ve made a habit (or perhaps a tradition) of driving an Audi from the Toronto area to the annual North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit. I made the requisite phone calls well in advance of this year’s drive to ensure I would have a reasonable shot at keeping my streak alive.
This year I was offered an A3. I have to admit to some level of deflation given the prior pattern. I had started out with the range-topping A8. Subsequent years saw my ride slip down the product range. Was there a hidden message here? How would I fare in what is considered Audi’s entry-level mover?
Well, if you’ve ever been in an A3 before the notion of entry level is something of a misnomer.
To make matters more interesting, I soon learned that the A3 was actually the newly introduced TDI clean diesel model. The same vehicle that had been named 2010 Green Car of the Year by The Green Car Council, an invited jury that included some rather unusual tree huggers – Carrol Shelby and Jay Leno.
Audi has done wonderful things for new technology. It has been able to effectively use the mystique of the four-ringed logo to bring All-Wheel-Drive (AKA Quattro) off the tundra and into performance motoring. More recently, the company has taken tractor fuel and is rapidly making it chic. When Audi went racing and won with its R10 turbo diesel LeMans Race Car, it demonstrated the true potential of the diesel. Not only is it great on fuel economy, it can deliver tremendous performance.
From the outside, the A3 TDI looks no different than the gasoline powered model – a pretty sharp looking vehicle itself. It shares the same corporate styling profile with the large centre grille, the swoopy front end and the now trademark string of LED lights (they look like an electronic eye-line). The wide, low profile stance, muscular wheel arches and a tapered roofline then speaks to the A3’s athletic intentions. It also reminds anyone the onlooker that it shares its roots with the $180,000 R8 coupe or S8 sedan.
Standard features on the base model include dual-zone automatic climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows, locks and heated mirrors, leather seats and an audio system that includes am/fm/cd/mp3 with an SD card input and 10 speakers. The Premium model adds an eight-way power driver’s seat, a leather multi-function steering wheel, matte aluminum trim and an auto-dimming rear view mirror. My tester was equipped with an S-line package that is available for the A3 Premium and that adds 18″ alloy rims wearing P225/40 tires, sport seats, sport suspension, multi-function 3-spoke steering wheel complete with paddle shifters. Of course it also gets the S line S body kit – it puts some meat on the A3’s bones.
Cabin occupants are spared the over indulgence of designers looking to establish themselves. The designers at Audi have already been recognized as some of the finest in the business. In the A3 they have created a cockpit that is not only visually pleasing, but Teutonic in its efficiency and comfort.
The dashboard features rich black plastics and leather, while the gauges are rimmed with bright chromed rings. The centre stack, which houses the HVAC and audio controls is ergonomically sound. It all comes together very nicely.
The seating was ample for both the driver and front passenger, with nicely contoured and bolstered bucket seats. The rear seat, likewise, accommodates taller adults with surprising room.
The 60/40 split rear seat brings the expected flexibility and capacity – 20 cu ft seats up and 50 cu ft folded down.
This is more than a sports sedan, but less than a full fledged wagon.
In scanning the interior I became alarmed at one notable omission. No matter where I looked there were no Quattro emblems to be found. What had they done to me? A quick call to Audi confirmed that the vehicle was indeed a front-wheel-drive model – the Quattro model arrives later in 2010.
A glow plug light on the dash cluster as well as a sticker advising you to only use ultra-low sulfur diesel are the only reminders not to reach for the unleaded pump out of habit. The A3 TDI starts as easily as the gasoline version I drove last year and without any of the typical diesel clatter I remember from earlier generations of oil-burning engines.
Acceleration is peppy thanks to the extra torque, 236 lb-ft, the 2.0L turbo diesel motor produces compared to the 207 lb-ft yielded in the TFSI gas model. In runs up to 100 km/h, the TDI showed times of between 9 and 10 seconds, which is about 1 to 2 seconds slower than the gasoline-powered car. The TDI is only available with the 6-speed twin-clutch gearbox. The twin-clutch is more efficient and certainly the better choice in this model. However, given the engine’s characteristics I found little use for the brushed aluminum paddle shifters on the S line – the electronics that control the gearbox responded with a neat downshift whenever needed.
Once the day of reckoning arrived, the weather for most of the trip turned out to be less of a factor than I imagined, except for one stretch of the 401 between London and Chatham. The front-wheel-drive A3 and its traction control was more than adequately prepared for anything I encountered.
The suspension was so adeptly tuned it provided a firm and sporty ride without the harshness one finds in less sophisticated arrangements. Even with the Sports suspension package, none of the broken pavement I encountered seem to unsettle the A3 or its occupants.
The real test was did the fuel economy live up to the billing that earned it Green Car of the Year? Audi rates the A3 TDI at 6.7L/100KM in the city and 4.6L/100KM on the highway. Well two things were working against me on this trip. First, the vehicle was virtually brand new and the engine did need to be properly broken-in with a few thousand kilometers before the fuel economy peaked. Furthermore, I was not using my hypermiling techniques. I won’t go into specifics but I was still pleasantly surprised when the A3 diesel returned 7.7L/100 km on the highway ride to Detroit and back. Completed on almost fully on one tank of fuel I might add. However once back in the city and puttering around a typical driving cycle, I was able to get down to 6.8L/100KM without trying.
The only downside of my time with the A3 had nothing to do with the vehicle itself but rather some of the inherent difficulties with diesel in North America. All along the Highway 401 diesel was readily available. Trying to refuel the vehicle in suburbia proved more difficult and stressful as the gauge dipped towards fumes. Finally, the natural viscosity of diesel means it tends to dribble from the pump. That leads to messy and oily area around the base of the pump. It requires a bit more effort to keep the oily mess out of the cabin.
As it stands the A3 really rides along in limited company. The market for premium compacts is pretty small in North America. However, the most recent fuel cost crisis has tweaked people’s interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles. This is allowing manufacturers to bring some interesting smaller vehicles to our shores. As for the entry-level thing, most North Americans, do not think of small cars being relative expensive. Not so in Audi-land , nor most of Europe.
The A3 TDI starts at $38,000 CDN and our tester topped out $43.500. Hardly your typical entry level compact but a premium vehicle regardless of external dimensions or fuel requirements!