Audi A3 TDI (syndication)

Although the Audi A3 clean diesel small wagon won’t hit US shores until early 2010, we enjoyed a first-drive preview of the highly anticipated clean diesel wunderkind. The particular car was a Euro-spec model driven in the Audi Mileage Marathon in Fall 2008, but is extremely similar to the forthcoming US-version.

The only difference worth mentioning is that our test car does not have the exact 50-state legal TDI formula as the one bound for the US. So, emissions are a little varied. But as far as performance, fuel economy, and aesthetics go, the two versions are identical.

TDI is a direction injection system where fuel is sprayed directly into each cylinder, rather than into a pre-combustion chamber. A turbocharger and intercooler are also used. Together, these components result in cleaner emissions and better acceleration, the latter due to diesel’s higher-torque characteristics. This advanced < ahref="/diesel-efficient-cars">clean diesel technology requires no blue-fluid or separate after-treatment system to “scrub” pollutants out of the exhaust.

The front-drive A3 TDI utilizes a 2.0-liter inline-four-cylinder engine, tied to an S tronic dual-clutch transmission. Output is 140 horsepower with 236 pound-feet of torque.

Audi A3 TDI
Audi A3 TDI

Audi A3 TDI. (Photo: Shamit Choksey/HybridCars.com. All rights reserved.)

Mileage Matters

We took our A3 TDI on a real-world mileage test on a mixed route from Havre De Grace, Maryland to Towson, Maryland to Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and back to historic Havre De Grace. The drive was 114 miles long, comprised of interstate driving (about 35 percent), two-lane country routes (about 55 percent), and the rest of the journey was on city streets and a couple of small towns.

To get an accurate fuel economy range, we traveled this route twice. The first time, very passively. Meaning we stayed pretty much under the speed limit—which ranged anywhere from 25 to 65—drove in the right lane of the highway, accelerated modestly from the standstill position, and even kept the heater off. The result? We achieved an impressive 43.7 miles per gallon combined. That’s just shy of mileage numbers for the current-generation Prius. It should also be noted that during the Audi Mileage Marathon, some drivers reported fuel economy surpassing 50 mile per gallon, but we assume this only occurred in steady highway driving.

On our second run, we shifted to a more spirited driving style. We drove in the fast lane of the highway, accelerated ambitiously on the on-ramps and at traffic lights, and passed slower moving cars when the situation allowed. And this time, the cabin was nicely heated. And though all of these adjustments took their toll on fuel economy, we still managed a very subcompact-like 31.2 miles per gallon combined. No doubt a big hit to efficiency, but in the grand scheme, much better than most cars on the road.

Road Manners

The A3 TDI exhibited excellent handling and ride quality. The suspension is good and firm, allowing quick turns and a highly responsive feel. In typical Audi fashion, ride comfort is also given its due attention. But in the end, this is a small, sporty car, so the ride is not going to be its first priority. We’re not saying it’s harsh, but it’s nowhere close to the plush feel of a larger luxury sedan. There was also some road noise, and we could feel the bumps on the pavement.

Audi’s high quality materials and modern lines give the cabin a sophisticated look. Since this was a Euro-spec car, the speedometer was solely in kilometers per hour. There was, however, a separate digital readout for ‘mph.’

Seats were supportive and comfortable all the way around. The front height adjusters are very helpful for people who don’t like to sit too close to the ground—the A3 rides pretty low. The second row seats, however, are a little tight for adults. The car is considered a wagon, but feels like a compact. Nonetheless, the hatchback’s cargo room is plentiful, especially with the rear seats folded down.

From the outside, the A3’s styling is sharp, like the rest of the Audi line-up For anyone that likes hatchbacks, this one will be a favorite. No wonder it’s so popular in Europe.

Overall, the Audi A3 TDI is a clean, performance-driven little car with style and practicality. The sticking point for buyers may be cost—no definite pricing yet, but MSRP will probably start in the low $30,000s, and go up from there. Think of it as a step up from the Jetta TDI Sportwagen, without going as far as expensive clean diesels from Mercedes and BMW. The luxury hatchback will be a welcome addition to the American diesel landscape.