2010 Audi A3 2.0 TDI FWD S-Tronic

Some of my European colleagues have long been puzzled by the fascination that a certain number of people in the U.S.—consumers and vehicle manufacturers, alike—have with hybrid vehicles while they, harkening back, whether they realize it or not, to Rudolph Diesel, whose compression ignition engine received a U.S. patent in 1898.

Some of my European colleagues have long been puzzled by the fascination that a certain number of people in the U.S.—consumers and vehicle manufacturers, alike—have with hybrid vehicles while they, harkening back, whether they realize it or not, to Rudolph Diesel, whose compression ignition engine received a U.S. patent in 1898. They would argue that whereas a hybrid combines an engine and a motor, a diesel-powered vehicle has but one, and is consequently far less complicated. In light of the Prius recall (and the Ford “Bring in your Fusion Hybrid and Milan Hybrid and we’ll reprogram the brake system” program), these people are undoubtedly chuckling about the hybrid’s complexity. Meanwhile, after more than 100 years of diesel technology. . . .

What is possibility surprising to some—in the U.S., anyway—that for the past two years, Green Car Journal has named diesel-powered cars its “Green Car of the Year.”

Consider that while the jury of the North American International Car of the Year named the Ford Fusion Hybrid as 2010 car of the year—and arguably, that group is more high-octane-oriented than Green Car Journal, the 2010 nod from Green Car Journal went to the Audi A3 TDI. Yes, a diesel.

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And what is interesting to note is that even Audi considers its primary competitors for this product to be: the Lexus HS 250h, Toyota Prius, and Honda Insight—all hybrids.

For those who are looking for a car that is highly fuel efficient, then the Audi A3 with its turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel engine must be on the short list: it provides an EPA estimated 30 city/42 highway mpg, and in real world driving, this is really the range that you’re likely to experience. It is a well-styled vehicle with the contemporary Audi cues that make it stand out from the pack. It looks more like a car and less like a science experiment.

“But,” you might think, “whereas a hybrid is cool, new(ish) technology, the guy down the street has that diesel pickup truck, and not only does it sound like someone is firing a loud machine gun every time he starts it, but there is that awful smelling cloud that belches from the tailpipe.”

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Know that when the diesel proponents, like Audi, talk about “clean diesel,” not only do they mean that the engine can be sold in 50 states, they also mean that (1) it doesn’t make that knockknockknockknock noise and (2) it doesn’t smell bad.

However, one thing that does take some getting used to is the fact that when you go to the gas station for diesel fuel, note that we call them “gas stations” and not “fuel stations,” so you’re going to have to make sure that the station in question actually has a pump for diesel fuel. What’s more, the smell of the fuel and its more oily nature are different than those of gasoline, and that will also cause some getting used to.

One of the things that will also take getting used to is the fact that whereas you might imagine that something that is so fuel efficient would be something that, like many foods that are “good for you,” is rather bland, the vehicle has a considerable amount of oomph as you hit the accelerator. Yes, the wonders of the low-end torque of the diesel engine is a revelation.

The car is equipped with the S-Tronic transmission. It is a six-speed automatic that you can choose to shift yourself. It is a dual-clutch transmission, which essentially means that it is ready to engage the next appropriate gear for fuel efficiency. Again, this might take a bit of getting used to as it isn’t the common automatic that many of us are familiar with right down to our bones.

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One part of the car that I am a little disappointed in is the interior materials quality. Audi is the class leader in interiors, but I must say that the hard plastic on the IP is not what is now the norm in $20,000 cars, to say nothing of a $30,000 car.

Still, when it comes to an entry-lux car that seats five (although no one is really going to want to sit in the middle of that back seat—really) and provides relief at the pump, you can’t go wrong with the A3 TDI.

Selected specs:

Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four diesel with direct injection

Engine material: cast-iron block; aluminum head

Horsepower: 140 @ 4,200 rpm

Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 1,750 to 2,500 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed, dual clutch automatic

Wheelbase: 101.5 in.

Length: 169 in.

Height: 56 in.

Width (including mirrors): 78.5 in.

Fuel economy: 30/42 city/hwy mpg

Base MSRP: $29,950