Driven: 2010 Audi A3 TDI

By Brandon Turkus

August 30, 2010

While the US market may not be the largest consumer of diesels by a long shot, Volkswagen (and to a lesser extent BMW) have taken notable steps to changing that. VW’s TDI-equipped Jetta, Jetta Sportwagen, and Golf have sold briskly by offering a winning combination of fuel economy and price. Taking the idea of a diesel upmarket was a bit of a gamble, but if the A3 TDI is any indication, it has paid off.

Thankfully, the TDI appears nearly identical to the standard-issue A3. The S-line exterior package, the LED “eyebrows,” and seventeen-inch wheels are the same items found on the A3 2.0T. We are glad that Audi resisted the urge to fit gaudy pieces of trim in an effort to achieve “better aerodynamic efficiency” or identify as a “green” car. The A3 looks good as is.

The cabin follows a similar theme, with the TDI being indistinguishable from a 2.0T. It really was classic Audi, with lots of high-quality pieces, all of which were black or aluminum. A nice place to spend time, sure, but it didn’t do anything to add to the personality of the car. We did appreciate the steering wheel paddles, which were made of high-quality metal and offered a nice clicking sound when operated. Likewise, Audi’s MMI system continues to be the leader when it comes to automotive infotainment, despite the recent strides of BMW’s iDrive system and up-and-comers like Ford’s MyFord Touch. We only wish it was laid out better, with many of the buttons being too small, and the knob that handles most of the work being just out of the comfortable reach of the driver. That being said, there aren’t many $37,000 cars that share parts, especially something as important as a nav system, with $300,000 Lamborghinis.

We relished the torquiness of the 2.0-liter TDI, with its 236 pound-feet of torque on tap for passing maneuvers. Strangely, this motor suffered from turbo lag, something we didn’t experience in its VW cousins. It takes a bit to get used to, with a lighter foot offering better initial acceleration than a mashing of the throttle. The turbo lag situation was exacerbated by the S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox, which was great when underway, offering quick upshifts and precise downshifts. From a stand still, though, it was annoyingly dimwitted. The gearbox waited too long before shifting from first to second, and was hesitant to transmit power in the first place. Audi was the pioneer of dual-clutch transmissions, which makes an issue like this frustrating. We would happily order a manual in our personal A3 TDI, except that Audi doesn’t offer one. We understand the DCTs are more fuel-efficient, but if a six-speed stick is offered on Jetta TDIs and Golf TDIs, why not the A3 TDI?

We were also befuddled by the lack of a Quattro all-wheel drive option. A diesel-powered, all-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback; are we the only ones who are excited by this prospect? After all, Quattro is available on the gasoline-powered models. Unfortunately, TDI drivers will need to make do with front-wheel drive only, which might hurt the A3’s appeal in the Snow Belt.

Being an Audi, the A3 is nose heavy, with understeer cropping up quickly and without much provocation. The overall ride, however, is balanced and comfortable with vertical motions well controlled. A bit more roll stiffness would have been appreciated, as the car leaned too much during hard cornering. The steering is on the light side, but communicates well enough to the driver. Overall, the A3 isn’t about the driving experience, although this is hardly a bad thing. The suspension is more comfortable than dynamic, which allows you to eat away the miles.

That cushy suspension, when combined with a motor that is this efficient is a great setup. We filled it up on a Friday, put about 250 hard miles on it over the weekend, and still had five-eighths of a tank of gas. Is a Prius more efficient? Yes, but the A3 is more comfortable, more luxurious, and much better looking by a huge margin. There are few vehicles on the market that meld green and luxury so well.

The A3 was a good companion during our time with it, but we couldn’t help but feel that there was more Audi could do. All-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and maybe even the 3.0-liter TDI from the Q7 and Touareg would do a lot to make the A3 more involving. Adding to Audi’s TDI offerings would be nice as well. An A4 TDI with Quattro and a 3.0-liter diesel V-6 would make a pretty compelling competitor to BMW’s 335d. Overall, our biggest issue with Audi’s diesel offerings is that there aren’t enough.

2010 Audi A3 TDI
Engine: Turbodiesel inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 140 hp/236 lb-ft
Weight: 3313 lbs
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 30/42 mpg
Base Price: $29,950
As Tested: $37,425
On Sale: Now