If you’ve been considering a diesel-powered, compact-sized entry-luxury sedan, you might want to consider this:
The 2016 Audi A3 TDI’s city mileage is nearly as good as the Mercedes CLA250’s highway mileage.
And the Audi’s highway mileage (43 MPG) is 10-15 MPG better.
So says the EPA.
In real-world driving, you will find the Audi TDI’s mileage is usually better than the EPA says. Hypermilers have reported mid-high 50s, which is better than a Prius hybrid.
But does it matter to people who shop cars in this class?
More finely put: Does it matter enough to overcome the Quickness Difference between the A3 TDI and gas-engined rivals like the CLA250 and the Acura ILX?
WHAT IT IS
The A3 is Audi’s entry-level compact sedan. It’s also sold in convertible coupe (cabriolet) and (soon) Sportback versions, but the TDI diesel engine is restricted to the sedan version.
Still, it’s currently the only car in its class available with a high-mileage diesel engine.
Base price is $33,200 — topping out at $42,050 for a Prestige trim.
The Audi’s competition includes Mercedes’ CLA250 sedan ($31,500-$33,500) but the Benz doesn’t offer a diesel. It does, however, offer an ultra-performance turbocharged gas engine (in the CLA45 AMG) but it stickers for $48,500.
You might also want to cross-shop the Acura ILX — which splits the difference. It’s less expensive than either the Audi or the Benz — $27,900 to start; $34,890 loaded — and gets better mileage than the Mercedes while being speedier than the Audi.
Both the CLA and the ILX are only sold in sedan form, though — and the Acura doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive (it’s optional in the Audi and also available in the Mercedes).
The really big news is the addition of the Sportback bodystyle — which will feature a new “e-tron” hybrid powertrain — but there are significant trim and options changes for the new model year, too — including an S-Line appearance package that adds LED lighting (exterior and interior ambient) as well as power-folding outside rearview mirrors, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and in-car WiFi, an upgraded GPS system and Google Earth topographical mapping.
Diesel is quieter than many new (direct injected) gas engines.
She’ll travel nearly 600 miles on a full tank.
More, if you hypermile her.
Eight inches (yes, that’s right) more backseat legroom than in the CLA250.
Dance on a dime handling.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
CLA is much quicker.
ILX is much cheaper..
Clunky iPod interface (located in a hard to see/hard to reach place).
UNDER THE HOOD
The A3 TDI’s turbo-diesel engine displaces 2.0 liters and makes 150 hp — seemingly small potatoes compared with the CLA’s 2.0 liter turbo-gas engine, which makes 208 hp (the Acura ILX’s 2.4 liter gas engine — not turbo’d — makes 201 hp).
However, the Audi diesel makes almost as much torque as the Mercedes — 236 ft.-lbs. vs. 258 ft.-lbs. (and much more torque than the ILX’s non-turbo four, which only offers up 180 ft.-lbs.). So it pulls decently — and rather immediately. Even though it is the least-quick of the three (zero to 60 in about 8.2 seconds with FWD vs. 6.4 for the Benz and 6.8 for the Acura) it’s not slow, per se.
Just relative to the other cars in this general price range.
But, your reward for giving up a second or so, 0-60, (if it comes to drag racing — and how often does it come down to that?) is phenomenally good mileage. The Audi rates 31 city, 43 highway — and (trust me) does better than that in real-world driving. In a week of thrashing it — including highway driving at a steady 80-something (with forays up to speeds well above that) I never averaged less than 38.8 MPG.
Drive it more reasonably (read: legally) and you will have no trouble averaging 40 or more.
How good is that?
Even if you go by the EPA stats, the Audi’s city figure nearly matches the CLA’s highway number (38 MPG) and its EAP-rated average (36 MPG) is about 10 MPG better.
That’s a big difference.
Here’s another — range.
The A3 TDI can go almost 600 miles on a full tank (13.2 gallons) which means three rather than four fill-ups a month for the typical driver — and longer in-betweens when you’re on a road trip.
Now, it’s true that diesel costs more than gas. Well, more than regular unleaded gas. But thumb through the manual; you’ll discover the Benz requires premium — and the Acura recommends using it (meaning, if you don’t use it, the car’s performance and mileage will be less than optimal).
The cost differential between premium unleaded and diesel is much less than it is diesel vs. regular unleaded. Which means the major cost differential is what you pay up front — amortized by what it costs to run the thing down the road.
The Benz CLA250 costs about $1,700 more to buy than the A3 TDI. But it won’t take long to recover that in down-the-road fuel savings. And once you hit break even (after about two years, rough-mathing it) you’re saving money every time you go for a drive.
The math is less favorable vs. the ILX, but you will probably still come out ahead eventually.
And if you must have AWD, the ILX gets crossed off the list regardless.
All three of these cars are — sadly — automatic-only. The Benz has a seven speed, the Acura an eight-speed… and the Audi a six-speed (“S-Tronic” automated manual). Normally — if these were all gas burners — the Audi’s six-speed would be something of a liability, fuel efficiency-wise, at least. But diesels are low RPM/high-torque engines and so the additional gearing isn’t necessary and might actually gimp the car’s mileage and performance.
The Audi’s transmission has Sport and Normal modes as well as driver-selectable manual control of gear changes (via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters or by tapping the gear shifter).
ON THE ROAD
With diesels, it’s different.
What you’ve got is the reverse of what you’d have with a gas-engined car. Instead of building revs to build speed, the speed is just… there.
Be careful with the pedal. It is easy to spin the tires (FWD versions).
Now, the A3 is not as quick — by the stopwatch — as its two main rivals. But the swell of torque and the right-now thrust that goes with it makes the A3 feel quicker than it actually is. Low and mid-range part-throttle response is particularly good. Once you adjust your driving style to make the most of the diesel’s power curve, you may find you prefer the diesel’s more easygoing nature.
It’s quiet, too.
As or more quiet, in fact than many current direct-injected gas engines (which is pretty much all of them). Which diesel at idle. Some of them so loudly you’d swear they were diesels. You can thank Uncle for this. Direct injection provides a slight fuel-economy benefit over port fuel injection and because of the pressure to meet the government’s ever-upticking fuel economy decrees, you get a gas engine that ticks like a diesel (if it’s gas direct-injected).
The TDI is also very long-legged.
I’ve written about this before (see my review of the VW Touareg TDI here). The great distances one can cover in a diesel-powered car vs. something otherwise similar but gas-engined. Despite the technology available today, gas-engined cars get pretty mediocre mileage (example: the gas-engined A3 1.8 TSI tops out at 33 highway). Especially if you hammer them. Not so the diesels. Even running at bring lawyers/guns and money speeds, the A3 TDI never dipped below 38-something MPG while in my hands.
I tried, trust me.
Point being, you can rock up to 80 or so and keep it there — and keep on going for pretty much all day long. How many hours does it take to cover 600 miles? About eight hours, give or take. You will need to pee (or eat) before the A3 needs to refuel.
That’s pretty cool.
As is the car’s ability to cut a rug.
Hybrids get great gas mileage but they are almost necessarily awkward in the curves due to being beefy (two drivetrains, the gas engine plus the electric motor… plus the batteries) and also less than optimally balanced. Most also have tires optimized for efficiency rather than lateral grip. So, you get the mileage — but the car’s usually just not very fun to drive (not counting hyper-miling, if you’re into that).
This one pirouettes, darts, dances — and recovers — like a Red Bull-guzzling Bolshoi ballerina. Especially with the optional Sport package, which includes a driver-selectable adjustable suspension and an eighteen-inch wheel/tire package (19s are available, too). So fitted out, you can really push it. The car soaks it up, dares you to push harder. The Benz is a fine car but its limits (of comfort, if not necessarily lateral grip) feel lower. The ILX has sharper steering — and is also a corner carver.
But no diesel.
And no AWD.
Final observation/opinion: The A3 is a more subtle weapon. The CLA is dramatic to its disadvantage. That SLR-inspired noseclip with foot-tall chromed three-pointed star in the grille is the automotive equivalent of chum in the water at a surfing contest. Discretion — not calling attention to yourself — is as critical as having a top-drawer radar detector. If you plan to use the car, that is.
And if not — well, why bother?
AT THE CURB
Compacts are usually cramped inside. The CLA 250, for example, is a gorgeous car … with an unusable back seat. Just 27.1 inches of legroom (and only 35.2 inches of headroom). The Fiat 500 micro-car (a two-door micro-car) has 31.7 inches of legroom in back.
The Benz is — for all practical purposes — a four-door two-door.
Not so the Audi, which has 35.1 inches of backseat legroom (and 36.1 inches of headroom). That is a full eight inches more legroom than the Mercedes. Which by the way is the bigger car overall (182.3 inches long vs. 175.4 for the Audi).
The compact-sized A3, it turns out, has virtually the same backseat legroom as the mid-sized Mercedes E-Class sedan — which has 35.8 inches (and a base price of $51,800).
The Mercedes also has a tighter-fitting front row: 40.2 inches vs. 41.2 for the Audi.
The ILX splits the difference — with a still-reasonable 34 inches of backseat legroom (and 35.9 inches of headroom) and a best-in-class 42.3 inches of front-seat legroom.
All three have smallish trunks: 12.3 cubes for the Audi and Acura; 13.1 for the CLA. But with the fold-down/pass-through to the trunk, you can manage skis or even a few 2x4s, if you’ve got no other way to handle such.
The A3 has an iPad-like “floating” flat screen that’s similar to the CLA’s, but unlike the CLA’s — which is fixed in place — the Audi’s rises up (and down) out of the dashtop. It does so automatically at start-up, but you can push a button to cause it to disappear into the dash whenever you like. This does not require shutting off the various infotainment features, either. The satellite radio/Bluetooth will still operate — and you can access/adjust such things as the drive modes via secondary buttons, as well as monitor functions via secondary (though smaller) information readouts built into the main gauge cluster. These can be toggled via a thumb wheel on the steering wheel itself. It’s very smart design because it lets you adjust stuff without taking your hands off the wheel.
Which, by the way, is still a physical (and analog) cluster rather than a flat screen (and digital) cluster. This may be less “configurable” — but it’s more comprehensible and (probably) more durable. The flat screen displays becoming very popular in higher-end cars look neat, but can be distracting and when they develop a fault, will likely cost a small fortune to replace (because you won’t repair them).
The Audi’s climate controls are similarly functional. Straightforward knobs you turn left or right to get more or less of whatever you want — rather than touch/tap inputs. Rotary ball air vents (the CLA has these, too) are much more versatile than the vertical/horizontal stack type, which have a much more limited range of movement.
If you buy the Prestige package, you get 4 gig in-car WiFi with mobile app integration and — really neat — an enhanced GPS with Google Earth imagery. This gives you real-time topographical detail of your surroundings, updated as you drive. And not just the topography. You’ll also see landmarks, including your neighbor’s house — and even his car parked in the driveway (if it was there when the satellite last passed overhead).
Small gripes include the awkward (to reach and to see) plug-in port for USB chargers and Audi’s odd little dongle thingie for connecting certain devices like music players. These are all located in the center console and very hard to deal with even with the car parked in the driveway. The upside is if your iPod or phone is charged up, you can use the Bluetooth to pipe music or whatever into the car that way — and skip the dongle connector thingie.
Unfortunately, there’s no end-run for the cupholders. Which are also awkwardly positioned too far forward, partially tucked under the center stack and ahead of the gear selector. This requires careful maneuvering of your hot coffee. If the lid is loose the chances of a spill are fairly high.
There is also DEF to take into account.
Diesel Exhaust Fluid.
Audi markets this as “Adblue.” It is basically agricultural waste (urea, horse pee) that is squirted into the exhaust stream to keep the diesel’s exhaust within acceptable (to the government) parameters. This afflicts all current diesel-powered vehicles sold in the U.S. — not just Audis. It reduces the efficiency of the diesel powertrain. Without DEF, the A3 would probably break 50 MPG — and it adds a hassle (and additional expense) to the ownership experience. You will need to periodically add Adblue, which comes in gallon jugs sold either at the dealer or WalMart/auto parts stores.
I’d be ok with this if the difference in emissions was huge (it’s not) and the mileage penalty small (it’s not). I think it’s a shame that the government puts so many obstacles in the path of diesels, which have the potential to be so much more energy-efficient than gas engines and which do not pollute grotesquely or even slightly excessively. The emissions thing has become (has been, for years) a bogey. New cars — all of them — are so “clean” in terms of their exhaust output that it’s hardly there anymore.
The government is chasing rapidly diminishing returns — and sending us the bill.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’d like a useable back seat, need AWD — and dig the idea of 600 miles on a tankful — this A3 TDI ought to hit the spot.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos