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Published: 10/28/2014 - by Ben Stewart, Contributor
Many buyers hunting for a fuel-efficient small car might instinctively think "hybrid" first. But since 2010, Audi has offered an alternative in the form of the A3 TDI hatchback, a diesel model that could rival hybrids for fuel efficiency. Redesigned for 2015, the A3 TDI now comes as a sedan only and features an upgraded 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine that delivers smoother operation, slightly more power, improved fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions. It's still tight on space, but in every other respect the A3 TDI is an attractive and practical sedan that might make you rethink that hybrid.
What Is It?
The Audi A3 TDI is a diesel-powered compact entry-level luxury sedan. It features a clean-sheet redesign for 2015 with a sharper style that looks more upscale, as well as a larger interior that will make it more competitive with other small luxury sedans.
The breadth of Audi's A3 lineup of vehicles is far more extensive than before. The car is available as a sedan, convertible (Cabriolet) and, next year, a hatchback called the Sportback. If you want all-wheel drive, the only A3 models that offer it are the gasoline 2.0T and high-performance S3 sedans. The new TDI comes exclusively as a front-wheel-drive sedan.
The 2.0-liter turbodiesel, called TDI in Audi's nomenclature, is a revised version of the engine that powered the last-generation A3 TDI. The new diesel now delivers 150 horsepower (10 more than before) and 236 pound-feet of torque. Though these hard numbers are nearly identical to the diesel in the last A3, Audi has made quite a lot of internal upgrades to ensure the engine is not only better to drive but quieter and cleaner than before, too.
The TDI is paired exclusively with a six-speed Sportronic transmission. What exactly does that mean? Sportronic is a sophisticated dual-clutch automated manual transmission that acts very much like a traditional automatic most of the time. However, during spirited driving with the transmission in Sport mode, the shifts are often crisper and quicker than many automatics. In manual mode, the transmission allows the driver to upshift (by pushing the gearshift lever forward) or downshift (by pulling the gearshift lever back) and that translates into a more fun and involving drive.
What Body Styles and Trim Levels Does It Come in?
For the 2015 model year, the A3 TDI is only available as a sedan with front-wheel drive, although next year a four-door hatchback version (Sportback in Audi terms) will join it.
The TDI starts at $33,495 (Premium model) and that price buys you quite a few standard features including a leather interior with a power driver seat, sunroof, separate driver and passenger zones for climate control and a safety system called Pre-Sense Basic. Pre-Sense can detect if the driver is performing an emergency maneuver to avoid a collision and readies the vehicle by tensioning the seatbelts. This system helps keep passengers properly aligned in the seats so the other safety systems like seatbelts and airbags can do their jobs properly.
The A3 is equipped with standard electronic stability control and plenty of airbags (front, side, knee, rear and side curtain). So thorough are the standard safety systems in the A3 that the car earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus this year, with a "Good" in all five categories, the company's highest rating.
The A3 TDI's price tag might start in the low $30Ks, but as with many luxury cars today that sticker climbs quickly when expensive technology is added. Available options include Audi's MMI Touch with navigation, 4G LTE Internet connectivity from AT&T, a rearview camera with parking plus (provides acoustic warnings if objects are detected), adaptive cruise control (automatically maintains a preset distance between you and the vehicle in front, even in traffic), active lane assist (warns you if you are drifting out of your lane), and Audi Drive Select, which allows the driver to tailor vehicle systems to match the road conditions. The top Prestige trim level for the A3 TDI is $41,945.
How Does It Drive?
As soon as you grip the sporty steering wheel of the A3, you realize it's not going to be a boring drive. Audi says the TDI will run to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. That's slightly slower than any of the other A3 models but quicker than many other "high-efficiency" cars.
The TDI driver won't long for more around-town thrust because this engine has a great rush of torque at very low engine speeds that makes the modest 2.0-liter feel like a much larger engine. In fact, the diesel is strong enough that you can often maintain speed on steep freeway grades without needing to downshift to a lower gear — which of course helps fuel economy.
Audi's German sport sedan roots can be felt in the bones of this car. It rides firm, but not hard enough to make you spill your morning coffee on your pants. Occupants will certainly feel larger potholes and pavement ripples, though, a trait that is largely the result of the optional 18-inch wheels and tires that were on our test car. The TDI is still a very easy car to live with. We logged more than 700 miles behind the wheel of one over the course of two days, and after each long stint behind the wheel, we arrived without fatigue.
At its core, the A3 is a fun-to-drive car that likes a curvy road. It feels nimble and light, which makes it easy to drive quickly. The optional 18-inch tires on our test car delivered very good grip, while the firm suspension controlled body lean well. It takes a lot of speed to finally hit the limits of the A3 TDI's capabilities. To go beyond them requires you to step up to the more expensive and hotly tuned S3 sedan. But then, you'd of course be sacrificing some efficiency for speed.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
If the A3 TDI has a prime directive, it is to deliver excellent fuel economy along with its sporty demeanor. There's a $2,700 premium for the TDI above the cost of a front-drive 1.8T gasoline A3. And for that extra cash, you'll get an extra 9 mpg combined, according to the EPA. The official figure is 36 mpg combined (31 city/43 highway) that can be beaten easily if you drive with a careful right foot.
In order to prove just how efficient the A3 TDI can be, we competed in Audi's TDI Challenge. It was essentially a marathon fuel economy run from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to San Diego, California. That's an 800-mile stretch that we attempted to cover on just one tank. We didn't make it the entire distance but did manage 714 miles on one tank, which equates to almost 56.5 mpg. Impressive, considering we drove that distance only just below the speed limit with the air-conditioning on.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
The A3 looks just like a scaled-down version of Audi's larger A4 and A6 sedans. On the inside, the A3 certainly feels expensive and provides perhaps class-leading attention to materials and overall interior execution. It's a great place to spend time on a long drive.
On our MMI Navigation Plus-equipped test car, the rocker-type toggles for navigation, telephone, radio and media feel reassuringly solid. And similarly, the silver rings that open and close the circular vents move with a precision that isn't usually found in a car of this price class. Just about every surface you touch feels expensive in this car and reminds you why spending a little more for a luxury brand can make everyday drives better.
The nav screen, which is about as slim as an iPhone 6, looks very expensive with bright beautiful colors. We particularly like that this nav system displays both current elevation and the speed limit for the road you are travelling. The infotainment hardware and interface as well as the simple, uncluttered dash are really the benchmarks for other brands competing in this class.
As good as the furnishings are, the living space inside is certainly tight. Yes, the wheelbase is longer than that of the old A3 Sportback, but that rear seat still isn't limolike. It's tight for a 6-footer in the backseat. And adults in that size range will find the backseat somewhat confining if they need to sit behind someone who's equally tall.
At 12.3 cubic feet, the A3 has a reasonably roomy trunk, if slightly smaller than both the Lexus CT 200 hybrid (14.3 cubic feet) and the Mercedes-Benz CLA (13.1 cubes). But more importantly, the old A3 Sportback delivered 19.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up and nearly 40 cubes with them folded. So if large load-carrying capacity is the reason you bought the last A3, wait until next year for the Sportback TDI.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
There are only a handful of cars that blend the style, luxury features and fuel-efficiency of the A3 TDI at the same price point. And none of them are diesel-powered.
The BMW i3 electric vehicle is much more radical in both its style and its powertrain than either the Lexus CT 200h or the Audi. And at least visually, there's much more punch from the i3 than most $40,000 cars. BMW's small EV is an interesting alternative for those buyers looking for a mix of alternative power and ultrahigh-tech luxury.
The Lexus CT 200h is in many ways the closest competitor to the A3 TDI. The hybrid CT 200 delivers a solid 42-mpg combined and the Lexus is priced a little less than $1,000 below the A3 at just over $32,000. The hatchback bodywork offers a level of practicality that the A3 sedan doesn't have, but the Lexus is much slower than the Audi and it doesn't sound pleasant when accelerating hard. The Lexus is also less rewarding to drive and feels disconnected and artificial rather than engaging like the A3.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
It delivers exceptional fuel efficiency generally, yet flies under the radar. It looks just like any other Audi — so it doesn't shout its mission to the world — yet it provides the same rewarding drive and luxury features as every other A3. If driving a little cleaner and greener appeal to you (and your wallet) but you'd like to retain an upscale and entertaining drive experience, this compact sedan is a great choice.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Hybrids can find fuel at any gas station. The same cannot be said for diesel-powered vehicles, especially in urban areas. The A3 TDI isn't the best choice for bigger families, as there are larger sedans that can handle people and cargo better. Also consider that Volkswagen's Golf TDI offers the very same diesel engine in a hatchback package at a lower price.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.