First Drive: 2010 Audi A3

June 22nd, 2010

First Drive: 2010 Audi A3

Is the Green Car of the Year Worth Your Green?

By Chris Neprasch

Photography: Chris Neprasch

The thought, “Eh, that’s it?” was the first thing to cross our minds when we sat in the ’10 A3 TDI. It may be the Green Car of the Year and whatnot. But for a base MSRP of $29,950, you’d expect to at least have radio controls on the steering wheel, not to mention the unacceptable lack of lights incorporated into the visor mirrors. It was hardly the initial impression we were expecting, especially from an entry-level luxury car.

Chew on this: It does have a 2.0L diesel with its 30 mpg city and 42 mpg, yet you can spend about $5,000 less for the SportWagen, and get the same 140 hp, 236 lb-ft of torque with more cabin room. The other option is to spend about $10,000 more for the BMW 335d and get 155 extra hp, along with an additional 189 lb-ft of torque in a sportier package. Then there’s the Golf TDI, the cousin of the A3 and Jetta priced about $8,000 less. Given those nuggets to chomp on, how could anybody justify buying the A3? We found ourselves asking the same question for the first few days we had the car.

Minus the four rings instead of the VW logo, the 2.0L TDI is the same as in what you’d find in the Jetta TDI or Golf TDI. Considering the usable torque, clean tailpipe and quiet operation, that’s a good thing.

Maybe it was because Audi offers the A3 with its trademark Quattro all-wheel-drive system…oh wait, Audi didn’t bring that diesel-powered “sportback” over the Atlantic; we only get the front-wheel-drive variant for now. It certainly couldn’t be the butt-blistering thrill that a 0-60 time of 8.6 seconds generates. Given all of those factors, would we even consider an A3 if we were in the market for a new turbodiesel car? That would be an “Aye, aye captain!”

If you don’t look at the window sticker and immediately discount it based on price alone, it actually grows on you, starting with a healthy list of standard features. On the convenience side, the A3 seats are leather, and it comes with dual climate control. The 60/40 split folding rear seat along with the very usable 19.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats while they’re up, as well as the convenience of a rear hatch make it extremely versatile. We were able to pack the storage space with three large duffle bags and a cooler with room to spare while four adults sat comfortably. Sitting about 4 inches longer than the Golf and roughly 11 inches shorter than the Jetta, the A3 makes good use of what space is available.

The dials on the dual-climate control took some getting used to since they didn’t rotate fully, rather click right for hotter and left for cooler. Overall, the controls were convenient and the in-dash AM/FM/Sirius CD player’s front-and-center mounting was enough to make the lack of steering wheel controls only mildly inconvenient. The overall feel of the interior was on par with what you’d expect from any automobile having the four rings on its unmistakable grille, though at cruising speeds the road noise was louder than your typical luxury car.

Dual climate control and leather seats are among the long list of standard items in the A3 TDI you’d expect from the Audi name.

Also on the list of standard features is the six-speed S Tronic transmission, one of the brightest points of the A3. Using a dual clutch setup, the gearbox will shift itself, or if you prefer to liven things up, you can click over to the Sport mode, which allows for manual gear selection. While in auto, transitions were calm and civilized. Slide it to Sport mode and the shifts are held longer, with a definitive feel between the gears, making you almost forget you’re driving a car that runs 16.8-second quarter-mile times.

Continuing with the standard features that helped us grow to like the car, the 17-inch alloy wheels and S Line package give off more of a hipster high-end coffeehouse vibe than the sensible family look of the SportWagen. In fact, the exterior styling with its sleek fender rolls and prominent Audi grille would be on the top of the list of reasons to give the A3 consideration in the new car market. Basically, it looks the part of a fun, sporty Euro wagon without having to move to do it.

It runs larger wheels, has the sporty look, and the suspension is tuned more aggressively than the Jetta, which translates into more fun through the corners. When you push the A3 hard, there was noticeable plowing, indicating an understeer scenario, and the steering response on the vehicle speed-sensitive electromechanical power assist did have a tendency to feel slow and numb at times. The steering does redeem itself in the 35.1-foot turning circle, which adds even more to the car’s versatility. One thing the A3 was missing, which we think would put the driving experience into high gear and set it apart from the crowd, is once again that absence of Quattro.

Of course, the draw to any automobile wearing the TDI badge is going to be economy, and the A3 definitely lived up to it. Combined mileage for street and highway consistently stayed between 40 and 42 mpg. After one130-mile loop of conservative highway driving, we were able average a hair over 51 mpg, and when you consider the 14.63-gallon tank, the Audi has exceptional range. By the end of a week, we actually got impatient waiting to see if the fuel warning light would come on.

We’d have liked to see Audi turn up the 2.0L diesel a little for the A3; they have a more potent version available in Europe with about 20-percent more power. The good thing is that, thanks to gobs of torque pretty evenly spread out through the powerband, the A3 feels quicker than the numbers would indicate. It provides usable torque, whether you’re leaving a stoplight or passing at highway speeds.

The ’10 A3 TDI falls into a gray area. While the money factor may put it out of reach for someone seeking a true economy car, for those in quest of a practical car but aren’t quite ready to go the way of the SUV or station wagon, the A3 is a solid performer in the utility arena, offering a beautiful exterior package with a luxurious, well thought-out interior. If only those letters Q-U-A-T-T-R-O weren’t still sitting in the back of our minds.

SPECIFICATIONS

2010 Audi A3 2.0 TDI FWD S-Tronic

Base Price                                     $29,950

Price as Tested                        $30,450

Engine                                                2.0L Four Cylinder

Horsepower                                    140 at 4,200 rpm

Torque                                                236 at 1,750 rpm

Transmission                                    S Tronic 6-speed

Wheelbase                                    101.5 in

Front Suspension                        Independent McPherson Strut

Rear Suspension                        Four-Link

Curb Weight                                    3,296 lbs

Fuel Tank Capacity                        14.63 gal

EPA Fuel Economy                        30 mpg city / 42 mpg hwy

0-60 mph                                    8.6 seconds

Top Speed                                    130 mph

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