Driving out of traffic in San Bernardino I reached the 15/215 Freeway interchange that starts the Cajon Pass, a two-mile twisting ascent that connects Angelinos with the high desert, and then Vegas. About to merge into even more SoCal traffic on a respectable 3 percent grade, I needed muscle to punch through the impending logjam.
The Audi A3 TDI destroyed it. Fatigued gas-powered sedans obliged and kept to the right as LTM ("Little Torque Monster") gripped the road and kept giving, at modest RPMs and no gear hunting, high rev whine or engine pushback.
I looked down at my trip meter's average miles-per-gallon and it kept inching upward: 41 mpg, 41.5 mpg, 42 mpg. I thought back to all the cars I've driven that rivaled that mpg average: Prius, Civic Hybrid and that car wannabe, the Smart fortwo. I've always been disappointed by my personal fuel economy, due in no small part to my lead foot. For me, EPA fuel economy numbers are like MSRP-"suggested."
After the 200- mile day trip, with mostly highway driving, I averaged an astonishing 44.5 miles per gallon. And that's enjoying what the torque-y diesel engine has to offer, not "hyper-miling." This is one instance where the actual fuel economy outshone the EPA numbers (30/42) on the window sticker.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder FWD with 140 hp in a gas engine does not get anyone's blood racing. But combine that with the 236 pound-feet of torque of a new, six-speed clean turbo diesel engine in a car weighing 3,300 lbs.; that's a different story.
The A3 TDI will never win a zero to 60, but who cares. It's there for you in real-life situations, such as up a hill or off the line at a light. (I have read reports though that the A3 TDI engine performs just fine maxed out at 129 mph, which is only real life on the autobahn.) The ride is befitting a suspension-tuned sport compact wagon.
The exterior is handsome for a "small station wagon" and the front half benefits from the handsome signature Audi grille. The interior is Spartan but functional, especially if you're into black. No hybrid comes close to the cargo space offered in this hatchback.
Non-diesel folks will notice a slight diesel clatter in the cabin. I forgot about it soon enough, though the A3 cabin is not as quiet as an entry premium car should be.
A nice interior feature, for anyone dealing with "real" winters, is the A3's separate space heater that heats the cabin up almost instantly. (Waiting for the diesel to heat up would take awhile.)
How green is your diesel? Not as green as hybrids, though the Audi A3 TDI won Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year for 2010. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the folks who put together the annual Greenest and Meanest Vehicles lists, diesel models (specifically the Volkswagen Jetta TDI and Jetta Sportwagen TDI, the A3 TDI's VW counterpart) miss their top 10 "greenest" list by a hair.
At the onset of another day trip, and with another press vehicle, a friend asked me, "You're not going to be driving a diesel again, are you?" (She was referring to a diesel 1-ton dually pickup used well on a snowy mountain weekend.) This is someone who sells solar and is up on everything green, yet she had to be schooled out of "the old diesel attitude," and told how 2007 and 2010 emissions standards fit diesel emissions into an extremely tight box. Apparently it's still a marketing battle for manufacturers.
That being said, while driving the Audi A3 TDI, I got approached by an admirer in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market in West Los Angeles, ground zero for the terminally hip, green-conscious crowd. He congratulated me for driving the vehicle, for some reason.
For fleet considerations, the diesel premium is only $2,600 over gas, and that would be made up in residual value and engine longevity. And the diesel tax credit helps. Paying 20 cents more at the pump for diesel hurts a bit, though. Courtesy of Vincentric, check out the enclosed fleet lifecycle comparison of the A3 TDI with some non-diesel choices.
Fleet overseers will like the fact that drivers won't have the expense and hassle of replenishing a urea tank as part of an exhaust after treatment system.
The Audi A3 TDI is a lifestyle choice, an "aspirational vehicle" for the young and upwardly mobile who want style and function, akin to a Volvo XC60. It could be a worthy reward vehicle on the selector list for a small premium. And it's a lot of fun to drive.