Author’s note September 2015: Having learned that Audi cheated on TDI diesel engine emissions tests, we can no longer recommend the diesel version of the A3 until the issues are fixed and we know whether or not the fixes adversely affect overall performance and efficiency. All other aspects of the review remain valid.
In an era where the news about luxury cars always seems to be quicker, faster, louder, the Audi A3 TDI is something of an anomaly. It proudly boasts a 0-60 time of a leisurely 8.1 seconds. Its 2.0 liter diesel engine hums quietly with little of the clatter typically associated with traditional oil burning power plants. And, when I put nearly 1,000 miles on its clock over a four-day weekend trip around Lake Michigan, I averaged — yes averaged — 50.3 miles per gallon.
The A3 is Audi’s entry-level sedan. Riding on a 107-inch wheelbase, this compact four-door is clearly designed for young adults who may or may not have small children. The back seat is more than serviceable for adults over short distances, but trips of more than an hour or so may require a stop or two to let your rear-seat denizens stretch their legs a bit. But even given its diminutive size, there’s a lot to like about this little sedan.
Let’s start with the design.
Nothing about the A3’s overall look could be described as bold. Inside and out the A3 is an exercise in understatement. Much like Apple devices and Bulthaup cabinetry, Audi expresses its designs with clean, organic lines, focusing on quality materials and impeccable fit and finish to distinguish itself from its competition. This minimalist approach leaves some cold, but ensures a design that will continue to be relevant as it ages. And while its “form follows function” philosophy may look simple, as Apple and others demonstrate, simplicity is anything but easy. I applaud Audi’s design team for continuing their commitment to modernist sculptural styling and interiors that are designed to perform instead of distract.
The best example of the latter is the retractable multimedia screen. While others make their screens a permanent fixture that begs to be checked again and again while one’s focus should be on the road, Audi understands that the best way to avoid temptation is to remove it. So once you’ve selected your station, input your destination and connected your phone, you can press a button and watch the touch screen disappear into the car’s dashboard. It may seem a little thing, but not having that screen constantly vying for the my attention seemed to reduce the stress of the drive and keep my focus on the road, both good things.
The interior on my test model was black leather with aluminum accents. Again understated is the word of the day. No contrast stitching, no superfluous surfaces, no extraneous technology. Yet every detail was meticulously executed so the seams and surfaces were flush and fluid. The instrument binnacle is smooth and unobtrusive and every switch and interface is designed in a way that makes it easy to operate whether you’re sitting still in your driveway or flying along at extralegal speeds on an interstate highway.
Which brings me to the tour we were taking in the A3. The intent of the trip was to be a scenic drive on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, up the Wisconsin coast, across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on US 2, over the mighty Mackinac Bridge down US 31 along the eastern shore of the lake, through Chicago and back home to Madison. And that’s mostly what we did. However, the weather conspired against us that weekend and we were unable to take advantage of the many scenic opportunities as rain, thunder and lightning kept us indoors when we weren’t driving. So while we did get to drive on some great roads, there were no scenic stopovers. No lighthouses, no Sleeping Bear Dunes and worst of all no golf. And that’s too bad, because the Audi easily handled everything we needed for what was supposed to be a weekend of outdoor fun. There’s plenty of room in its trunk for a couple of sets of clubs and overnight bags. And when the back seat isn’t occupied by people, it’s the perfect place to stash a cooler and a couple of briefcases as well as the camera gear I didn’t get to use.
I did however, get to use the Audi’s rain sensing wipers which is one of those technologies that does its job so well, it’s almost invisible. Basically you just turn the wipers on and unlike traditional intermittent wipers where you have to adjust the speed, sensors detect the amount of water on the windshield and adjust wiper speed accordingly to the point that when there’s no rain, they stop completely. I never once felt the need to manually operate them to improve visibility.
The inclement weather, however, didn’t take away from the driving experience, which while not pulse-quickening, is pure Audi. The A3 TDI has a solid road feel for a car so small. It’s set up more for comfort than all-out handling which is to be expected, but even when you push it into the corners, body roll is minimal and the electromechanical power steering is very direct, providing plenty of road feel. But unlike Audi’s diesel-powered ALMS race cars, this oil burner isn’t really designed to carve up the corners. It’s a long-legged tourer that’s best suited for all-day drives on interstates and open two-lane highways. It hums along comfortably allowing you to enjoy the scenery all while knowing you’re doing it as efficiently as any internally combusted engine will allow.
Which brings me to one final point. Having to stop for fuel just once on an 982 mile trip is a luxury even the richest of us can enjoy.
2015 Audi A3 TDI
150 hp, 2.0 L Direct Injected Turbo Diesel
Six-speed S tronic automatic transmission
EPA MPG: 31 city 43 highway 36 combined
0-60: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed: 130 MPH
Price as tested: $38,645