REVIEW: Audi A3 diesel is an expensive way to save money

How much are people willing to pay to appear frugal? The answer to that question may lie in how many A3 TDI diesels Audi sells. The A3 TDI is a sporty, fuel-efficient and dauntingly expensive compact hatchback. On the frugal side, the A3's smooth...

How much are people willing to pay to appear frugal?

The answer to that question may lie in how many A3 TDI diesels Audi sells. The A3 TDI is a sporty, fuel-efficient and dauntingly expensive compact hatchback.

On the frugal side, the A3's smooth and powerful 2.0-liter diesel engine scored EPA fuel-economy ratings of 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway. That fuel economy is unsurpassed by any non-hybrid car on the road. It's virtually identical to the only small luxury hybrid, the Lexus HS 250h.

On the one hand, the loaded A3 I tested staggered under the weight of a $36,600 sticker price. All prices exclude destination charges.

Prices for the Audi A3 TDI diesel start at $29,950. All A3 TDIs come with Audi's torquey 2.0-liter direct-injection turbodiesel. TDI stands for turbocharged direct-injection. That combination of features allows modern diesels to combine excellent fuel efficiency with powerful acceleration.


A fast and precise six-speed dual-clutch transmission is also standard equipment. Dual-clutch transmissions combine the easy operation of an automatic gearbox with the control and response of a manual.

Audi does not offer its hallmark Quattro all-wheel drive system on the A3 TDI, presumably because even a luxury-brand's marketing executives blanch at the prospect of a $40,000-plus compact hatchback.

The A3 TDI I tested featured options that included a navigation system, sunroof, Bluetooth hands-free phone operation, USB music interface, Bose sound system and heated seats.

The A3 TDI's most-direct competition is the Lexus HS 250h compact hybrid sedan. Prices for the HS start at $34,650.

An HS 250h equipped like the A3 TDI I tested would cost about $41,500. The HS 250h's EPA combined city/highway fuel economy of 35 mpg is 1 mpg better than the A3 TDI's.

That equates to an annual savings of $91 on fuel, according to the EPA.

Clearly, a person can spend a whole lot of money at the dealership in order to save a little at the fuel pump.

In addition to the Lexus HS, the A3 TDI competes with sporty and fuel-efficient small cars like the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Golf TDI diesel.


In addition to terrific fuel economy, the A3 TDI boasts good performance, excellent handling, style, comfort and practicality.

The nimble little car clings to curves. The body remains flat and stable during fast turns. The nicely weighted steering is fast and responsive.

The dual-clutch transmission performs beautifully. The shifts are fast and smooth, letting the engine rev high for strong acceleration.

It also functions well in manual mode, which allows the driver to change gears via the shifter or steering-wheel mounted paddles.

However, the fully automated shifting is so smooth, fast and efficient that most drivers should have very little call for the manual mode.

The engine has plenty of sound insulation to render the diesel's distinctive tapping sound unobtrusive.

Audi and its corporate parent Volkswagen share plenty of technology and components, but the A3's engine benefits from vibration-reducing balance shafts that VW-brand diesels lack.

Software changes to the transmission controls also give Audi's version of the six-speed dual-clutch quicker, more pronounced shifts than VW's version of the same transmission. Audi says the transmission changes gears in just 0.2 seconds.


The A3 turbodiesel produces just 140 horsepower, but accelerates powerfully thanks to a beefy 236 pound-feet of torque.

The little 2.0-liter diesel produces more torque than a BMW 328i's 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Thanks to the A3's turbocharger, the torque is available from 1,750 to 2,500 rpm for immediate acceleration when you floor it.

The interior is roomy and comfortable. The controls are legible and easy to use, and the materials have Audi's usual high-class look and feel.

The hatchback provides a generous 19.5 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seat and 39.0 cubic feet with that seat folded down.

The A3's systems for Bluetooth hands-free phones and iPods leave something to be desired.

The phone system cannot dial by name from your directory. The iPod playlist reverted to its default setting of playing every song in alphabetical order whenever I restarted the car.

The navigation system's traffic guidance system misled me about a couple of construction zones on my route.

Despite those shortcomings, the A3's handling and performance make it an enjoyable little car. The A3 TDI's great fuel economy also guarantees its owners will have something to brag about at dinner parties.

Whether those pleasures justify the substantial sticker price comes down to how much people will pay to appear frugal.



--Front-wheel drive five-passenger compact hatchback

--Engine: 140-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder direct-injected turbodiesel

--Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch

--Base price: $29,950 (excluding destination charges)

--Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive five-passenger compact hatchback

--Price as tested: $36,600 (excluding destination charges)

--Rating: Three out of four stars

--Reasons to buy: Fuel economy, handling, looks

--Shortcomings: Price, iPod and hands-free phone operation

Ratings guide:

--Four stars: Best in its class

--Three stars: Above average

--Two stars: Competent

--One star: Below average



2010 Audi A3 2.0 TDI FWD S-Tronic

--Vehicle type: All-wheel drive six- or seven-passenger crossover wagon

--Base price: $29,950 excluding destination charges

--As tested: $36,600

--Safety equipment: Antilock brakes, electronic stability control, front-seat side air bags, curtain air bags.

--Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve turbocharged direct-injected four-cylinder

--Power: 140 horsepower at 4,200 rpm; 236 pound-feet of torque at 1,750-2,500 rpm

--Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch

--Fuel economy: 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway

--Wheelbase: 101.5 inches

--Length: 169.0 inches

--Width: 78.5 inches

--Height: 56.0 inches

--Curb weight: 3,318 pounds

--Where assembled: Ingolstadt, Germany



Automatic transmission models:

--Audi A3 2.0TDI S-Tronic: 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway/34 mpg combined. Diesel fuel.

--BMW 128i: 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 mpg combined. Premium fuel.

--Lexus HS 250h: 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway/35 mpg combined. Regular fuel.

--Mini Cooper: 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined. Premium fuel.

--Volkswagen Golf TDI: 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway/34 mpg combined. Diesel fuel.



Automatic transmission models, excluding destination charges:

--BMW 128i: $30,525

--Lexus HS 250h: $34,650

--Mini Cooper: $20,050

--Volkswagen Golf TDI: $23,255

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