2010 Audi A3 TDI
Audi spent a lot of money recently on a controversial commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. The ad, for the new 2010 Audi A3 TDI, was polarizing. It was the most popular car commercial of the Super Bowl, yet it got bad press from all sides. Environmental groups didn't like it, because they thought their cause was being ridiculed, anti-government groups didn't like it, because they thought Audi was condoning eco-fascism, and Jewish groups didn't like the evocation of the Green Police, which also happened to be a German police force in the bad old days. People were so outraged that there has been an online call for a boycott of Audi and some even called the local dealers to vent. Oh dear. Was all this trouble worth it? I test drove an A3 TDI to find out.
For 2010, the 3.2 liter engine is gone from the A3, leaving only the 2.0 liter TFSI direct-injection gasoline engine and the 2.0 liter TDI diesel engine. The 2.0 TFSI is available with a six-speed manual transmission and quattro all-wheel drive (though not at the same time), while the TDI is only available in front-wheel drive, with Audi's dual-clutch, flappy-paddle gearbox. Except for that limitation, the TDI can be configured in any and every way as the gasoline A3. Other than the small TDI badge on the rear hatch, there is no visual differentiation between the two models.
My demo car was an Ice Silver over black leather S-Line, with the Premium Package (Xenon headlights, power driver's seat, 3-spoke, multifunction, leather-wrapped steering wheel) and the aluminum roof rails as the only options. The car is handsome, especially from the front, which shows off a more aggressive new look, now with Audi's trademark LED eyebrows and integrated front fog lights.
Optimistic 167 mph speedometer.
The interior is Teutonic simplicity, like a J.A. Henckels chef's knife. Black leather and plastic is sparingly interrupted only by small aluminum details. The instrument cluster and center stack are nicely arranged and the interior comes across as business-like and looking very much like...a car. This is unlike the interiors of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which look like spaceships from the future, filled with unusual glowing gauges and controls haphazardly strewn about the cabin, eco "shame" lights that tell you when your driving is killing the anteater babies, and auto-tranny shifters that look like optional joysticks for the Wii. Like a car from the olden days, the A3 has a shifter that a caveman can understand. The A3 doesn't have Audi's MMI (Multi-Media Interface) system or even a push-button start. This is good.
The leather seats are comfortable and supportive, especially with the optional power lumbar controls, available for the driver. The optional three-spoke steering wheel is also very good and has controls for the stereo and Bluetooth. Interior storage is abundant and the glove box is cavernous, with room enough for shelves within. The 12 V power outlets and stereo aux. input are grouped nicely in a covered bin between the seats. There is room for real adults to sit in the back and it might be a little known fact that the A3 has more rear passenger room than the previous generation A4. If you don't have any rear passengers, the seats can be folded down for 39 cubic feet of cargo space, about the same as the Prius at 40 cubic feet.
I do have some quibbles with the interior. The climate controls look like a piece of high-end audio gear, but the stereo doesn't. Also, the knobs which control the temperature look great, but sound like clicking a cheap ballpoint pen when using them. Finally, there is genuine aluminum trim throughout the interior, which looks great. But there is also some trim, specifically the air vent surrounds, which Audi calls "Aluminum Optik" trim, that does not...optik enough like real aluminum. Instead, it looks like cheap plastic and for such a small thing, it really sets back the interior. Except for these things, I give the interior very high marks, but understand that there is no disguising the fact that this car is an adopted cousin from the Volkswagen side of the family and the interior, as good as it is, does not approach the jaw-dropping, sophisticated interiors found in even the entry-level A4.
So, how does it drive? The A3 felt tight and light on its feet. I got the feeling that steering, brakes, and throttle tip-in were all over-boosted, but most people probably like that and I got used to it quickly. I took the car down the tortured-tarmac test loop (I'm looking at you Anderson Mill Rd.), which has all manner of potholes, patches, pavement gradients, gravel, bumps, and dips. There was a bit of road noise transmitted into the cabin, but there were no squeaks, rattles, or thumps. The A3 handled the rough road very well, with no dodging or tramlining.
From there it was on to the secret, public-road handling course. By this time, I had already grown annoyed by the S tronic (the transmission formerly known as DSG) in Drive mode, so I switched to Sport mode, to see if that would tighten things up. It did (a little), but Sport mode holds upshifts until redline, which is annoying in ordinary driving. So, I switched to Manual mode and began shifting for myself. That was much better, although the aluminum shift paddles are too short for my liking. At least once I went to downshift and flashed the brights instead.
225/40R-17 Continental all-season tires
It was on the back roads that the A3 TDI surprised me. I thought the TDI engine would struggle, but with 236 lb-ft of torque available from 1750 rpm, the A3 easily pulled itself out of tight switchbacks without any hint of bogging down. In fact, with the ESP turned off, you can easily overpower the traction of the front tires accelerating out of a corner. Don't get me wrong, this car isn't going to snap your head back with forceful acceleration (Audi says 0-60 in 8.9 seconds), but the chassis feels light and nimble and the brakes are good, so you can just set a comfortable pace through twisty roads and have a lot of fun with this car.
One area where the engine did not surprise me was the sound. You know the car is a diesel the moment you start it, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It doesn't sound like your neighbor's Dodge Ram, but you can tell all the same. In ordinary driving, the engine noise isn't noticeable, but at speed, it makes a high-pitched sound (more clickity than clackity) much like a sewing machine.
I can see this car working for several groups of people. I think it's a perfect college car (you know, the kind where the parents buy the car, but the student has to fill it up), that will take that student well into his or her first job. I think this car would work for older people who can appreciate its practicality and upscale simplicity. Mostly though, I see this as a legitimate Prius alternative. The cars are about the same size and if you option the A3 carefully, they are about the same price. The A3 TDI has EPA ratings of 30 city and 42 hwy, but in a real world mileage challenge, Audi managed IMSA-certified mileage of 50 hwy and 44 mpg combined. In a mileage cage match, the Prius will still win, but the A3 TDI is faster, has a better chassis, has a nicer interior, and it doesn't look like a Coleman tent from the side. Audi says that green has never felt so right. I agree.