On paper, the Audi A3 TDI is an exercise in futility. The model shares platform bits with a Golf Rabbit. It’s smaller than a Jetta Sportwagen. It carries a lofty price premium; the diesel-powered A3 “boasts” the same engine that can be had across the street at the Vee-Dub for thousands less. It’s not as fast, sporty or capacious as the rear wheel-drive BMW 335d. By any rational measure, the A3 TDI is an answer to a question that few Americans even thought about asking. Which is why it’s better to judge the A3 TDI “in the flesh.”
The A3’s styling is becoming old-hat for us Yanks. The ’09 nip-tuck of the A3′s airdam, and the headlights, and the tail lamps update (complete with Audi-requisite LED blingery) have done nothing significant to either increase or decrease the model’s aesthetic appeal. The “new” A3’s “Sportback” shape still finds a comfortable middle ground between A5 sexy and Jetta Sportwagen dorky. Rumor has it that Audi is contemplating a trunk-ified sedan version of the A3 for US shores. And rumor it should remain lest Audi’s product planners receive the same swift blow to the back of the head I’ve given the Germans responsible for the ungainly BMW 1er. Metaphorically speaking.
There’s nothing new to see inside the A3 TDI. In fact, it’s hard to see anything inside the A3′s all-black interior. (Unlike this photo, our tester had cloth seats and no steering wheel controls.) Purists will continue to relish the Audi’s affectation-less cabin, with its robust materials, Teutonic haptics and simple, tasteful and effective ergonomics. That said, A3 TDI well-heeled buyers can opt for the same froo-froo wood inlay, chrome trim and “ambiance” color harmony decorating the car’s bigger siblings.
The A3′s bolstered and comfortable front buckets swallow six-footers with ease. The rear seats do not. A quibble: the Audi’s trip computer bongs after two hours elapse on the trip meter. I can only surmise that this means that it’s time to break for bier und schnitzel. (I obliged.)
The A3 TDI’s engine is only new in terms of Audis. The VW group’s 2.0-liter transversely-mounted four-banger stumps up 236 lb·ft of [3.2-liter V6-matching] torque. The lackluster 140 horsepower is irrelevant—unless you’re planning Baruthian speed runs. (Sixty miles per hour appears from rest just shy of nine seconds, though your calibrated rump will suggest that it’s a faster sprint.) For the other 100 percent of driving, torque’s where it’s at.
The engine’s usability is its real beauty. Lugging is a sport in a TDI; its Kansas-flat torque plateau spans 1750 to 2500 RPM. Swift, short-shifting of the long-throwing, yet precisely-sprung six-speed manual keeps the car in a constant forward acceleration. It’s not clear whether Audi will sell the A3 TDI mit stick stateside; the chances of a “stripper” A3 TDI joining its up market brethren on the showroom floor are, unfortunately, slim. The six-speed DSG paddle shift gearbox is sure to make an appearance. Sampling VW’s paddle shift gearbox in the Jetta TDI suggests that A3 TDI DSG buyers will sacrifice little enjoyment to the gods of automation.
In any case, the manual gearbox’s sixth cog keeps the TDI’s turbo on the boil, ready to pounce into the overtaking lane. Flat-out blasts on the Autobahn are a tiring exercise in mental awareness in any vehicle, but the little Audi feels relaxed and stable at its max speed of 129 mph.
The A3 TDI’s handling dynamics provide an excellent reason to trade up and leave Das Auto zu dem Volk. Body motions are well damped. Even with power fed to the front wheels, the A3’s Goodyears cling through corners with admirable if not inexhaustible tenacity. Even with a significant shove on the gas pedal at an inopportune moment, you’re more likely to see torque-induced wheelspin when exiting corners than plow at turn-in. In general, torque-steer demons are noticeable only by their absence.
The A3 TDI’s electric-assist steering is gratuitously boosted at about five mph and absolutely numb above 45 mph. While the helm is tight and reasonably precise, it offers little in the way of tactile feedback. So much for a non-Quattro helm feel bonus.
Whether or not the A3 TDI’s elevated sticker price (relative to VeeDub’s oil burner) proves an insurmountable barrier to American sales success remains to be seen. Audi sees this car as filling a vacant niche: “The Audi A3 moves into a market space presently unoccupied in the luxury segment, that of a highly efficient diesel small luxury car.” Again, who asked?
If price be damned, the Audi A3′s damned good. A thousand merciless miles of Alpine thrashing, traffic jam lugging, Black Forest dancing and wide-open Autobahn blasts set up the A3 TDI’s no-excuses punch line: 40 mpg average. Around 600 miles on a single fill-up. Diesel and Audi premium aside, that’s what I’m torquing about.