The Audi A3 turbo diesel is a car full of apparent contradictions.
It costs $47,800 – but you have to pay extra for cruise control. It weighs 1370kg and has only 103kW... but then there’s the 320Nm of torque! It’s got a sophisticated 6-speed auto – but at times the gearbox seems to have a hyperactive will of its own. Off the line it can be slow and sluggish – but the mid-range punch is very strong. At a test average of 6.6 litres/100km, the consumption is very good... until you compare it more widely. The interior is quite roomy but the high waistline and dark trim of the test car made it at times feel claustrophobic.... Hmmmm.....
The front-wheel drive TDi fits into the A3 range at the upper end. (Other than the 3.2-litre quattro V6 that at $75,300, towers above all.) You can step into a 1.6-litre manual A3 at $34,900, graduate to the 2-litre FSI models starting from $39,000 (see Audi A3 FSI Ambition Test) or get the one-model diesel turbo. The diesel’s $47,800 list price is easily blown-out if you add cruise control ($750), leather (a whopping $3,200), premium sound ($1,900) or xenon headlights ($1,900).
So in effect, with the level of luxury that you’d expect from this sort of car, you’re looking at the mid-high $50K mark.
What you do get in the base price is a beautifully built car with dual-zone climate control, six airbags, big alloys featuring 225/45 Michelins, sports suspension and electronic stability control.
But the driveline is its heart.
The newly-developed engine uses a four-valves-per-cylinder head and a variable vane turbocharger, complete with intercooler. The peak torque of 320Nm is available from 1750 – 2500 rpm... which might not sound a broad spread of revs in petrol engine terms, but this diesel has a redline of 4500 rpm. Fuel is injected directly into the combustion chambers via 6-hole injectors controlled by a Bosch EDC 16 system.
The engine drives with characteristic turbo-diesel mid-range punch: the only time any turbo lag can be felt is when accelerating away from a standstill. In that situation, as with some others we found, the sophisticated Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) isn’t as good as a conventional auto trans - a torque converter would go a long way to covering the initial torque hole. Noise is well suppressed and the factory 0-100 km/h figure of 9.4 seconds makes the car sound much slower than it actually feels on the road – the rolling acceleration can be strong.
The engine is amongst the very best passenger car diesels that we’ve driven.
The DSG transmission can be thought of as an automatically controlled, manual gearbox. It uses twin multi-plate clutches, which allows two gears to be in mesh simultaneously. When a gearchange is required, the clutch of the gear in mesh is disengaged and the other clutch engages, allowing gears to shift under load without a power interruption.
From a driver’s perspective, the system behaves much like a traditional automatic – the gearchanges are a little crisper and quicker, but that’s about it. However, the downer is the frequency with which the system makes gearchanges: it’s not uncommon to have four gearchanges occur in a few hundred metres! Together with the low redline and the torquey engine’s ability to pull high gears, at times it feels as if there’s an internal competition happening to see how close together up-changes can be made. We also occasionally found the trans jerkily reluctant to automatically down-change.
If the driver wishes to manually control the ‘box that’s an option – a Tiptronic-style gearlever is supplied and there are also paddles mounted on the steering wheel. One of our drivers, who has driven other cars with automated manual gearboxes (BMW, Aston Martin), was very impressed with the DSG system, suggesting that if the driver didn’t know differently, they’d assume it was just an auto trans. But that’s the point – it may as well have been...
Fuel consumption is the key benefit of diesel passenger car engines, and Audi claim a combined urban/extra urban consumption of 5.7 litres/100 km. At times we saw consumption that was outstanding – including mid-Fours at cruise on a freeway – but we became a little suspicious when we realised that we seemed to be going a lot faster on the speedo than on the road. A check showed a 10 per cent optimistic speedo and when this correction was applied, overall fuel consumption on test came in at 6.6 litres/100 km. While still very good, this is no longer brilliant fuel consumption in the class – the better equipped Toyota Prius is more frugal with fuel... and at a lower purchase price.
The interior of the car is generic Audi, with all the good and bad points that involves. The steering wheel lacks audio system controls but has an excellent size and rim shape. It controls steering which is precise and quick but lacks feel. The digital climate control uses what appear to be rotary knobs to set the temperature, but the knobs turn out to be two-position switches which aren’t intuitive to use. In fact the centre part of the dash looks good but takes some familiarity to operate quickly – the radio buttons, for example, aren’t immediately clear. The instruments are superbly laid out but – as we’ve said often in the past – the speedo markings change oddly in their increments. The central electronic driver information panel is excellent – it includes outside temperature, trip computer and audio settings.
The cloth-trimmed seats (leather’s an option, remember!) are comfortable and the room in both the front and back (when a front seat is slid slightly forward) is good. However, in the test car the mixture of dark trim and the body design’s high waistline made the rear feel a bit claustrophobic. (And without the optional sunroof this would have been more so.) The rear windows don’t open. Oddments spaces in the front and rear are well designed, and the room under the hatch is large. Delve further into the boot and you’ll find only a steel spare wheel. The rear seat folds on a 60:40 split, but when the seats are folded, a stepped floor results.
The handling grip from the big tyres and sports suspension is excellent – but only up to about 7/10ths. Go past that limit and you’ll find that the A3 just understeers and understeers – despite the fitment of the stability control system. Other than backing off the throttle until the front regains grip, there is little throttle control available. On good roads the ride is excellent... but put the car on patched and broken bitumen and the ride quality drops away dramatically.
The A3 TDI is a good car – but not at $47,800. If it came in at $40K-even – and perhaps $50K with options like the sunroof and cruise control and premium sound system – we’d be recommending it. But as it stands, we think the dollars a bit much for what you get...