A base A3 2.0 TDI FWD S-Tronic runs $29,950. The VW Golf TDI we recently tested runs $23,090. In the review of that car we mentioned how the $7k discount for the Golf might be the way to go. After all, you can’t get this flavor of Audi with quattro AWD, which would differentiate the Audi diesel from the Volkswagen. And both share a chassis, a 2.0-liter turbocharged motor good for the same juice—140hp and 236 pound-feet of torque—and get identical fuel economy as well, 30 city/42 highway.
But the counter argument is that you can get baubles with the Audi that the VW doesn’t offer. Options we’d find very hard to resist include the $2,000 Titanium Sport Package, which includes 18-inch wheels with 225/45-series tires, a tweaked suspension for sportier character, S-line seats in Alcantara, gorgeous piano black trim that’s way slicker than wood inserts and a black headliner that subtly ups the sex appeal of this cabin (and if you add up those seats, trim and headliner the entire cockpit is way hotter than the quarters in the VW).
Would we opt for the $2,000 Premium Plus package that features Xenon headlights and slick LED daytime running lights as well as Bluetooth phone syncing? Probably not; ditto the $1,000 sunroof; the $2,050 navigation system is way steeper than a Garmin so meh to that as well. But $500 for the Cold Weather package (heated seats, washer nozzles and mirrors) would get a check from us for certain—if you live in Florida you could skip that one.
So that’s pushed the car to roughly $32,500, well more than that Golf.
Which is a false comparison, actually. The TDI Golf we tested had heated seats, a sweet DSG transmission and other goodies that boosted the sticker past $27,000, a price that actually puts the two cars at least in the same neighborhood, if not quite in the same zip code.
Interestingly a deciding factor for us, if the Golf itself wasn’t a stretch, would be that the Audi is a hair roomier than the Golf, and the S-Tronic is slightly more willing to let the driver push the boundaries of the diesel motor than the DSG in the Golf. Yes, that’s odd, because the DSG is supposed to fully emulate a manual gearbox, and it does—save that it pre-shifts a full 500rpm ahead of redline, and won’t hold a gear up to a rev limiter the way a true manual does.
Which is also a sin the S-Tronic is guilty of. The bonus with the S-Tronic is that it doesn’t upshift until it’s grazing within 150-200rpm of redline, and even better, seems to more readily accept downshifts into a near-redline gear (say from 3rd to 2nd when you’re approaching a corner). It’s still not a replacement for an actual manual because of the pre-shifting snafu, and for safety reasons not just sporting ones, Audi should seek a solution, as should VW. Safety? Yes. Because you could be using the transmission in a low gear to engine brake down a snow-covered hill. Now, all of the sudden, the engine upshifts and you’re accelerating unexpectedly.
Like we said, we do like this transmission, despite those shortcomings, because for everyday driving it affords a lot of the joys of a manual with fewer stop-and-go-traffic-induced headaches.
We also like the ergonomics of this car tremendously. It can feel a little tight for larger drivers—one lanky tester behind the wheel wished for more rake. That said, he was hugely helped by the tilt/telescoping steering wheel. This simple function isn’t a given in a lot of cars, even at this price (or another bracket up). Audi also gives this car its S-line treatment gratis, which includes suedelike door inserts and metal just about wherever fingers touch switches or dials. This, too, is a subtle but appealing bonus that the Golf TDI cannot offer.
Handling is excellent. While both the VW and the Golf are within whiskers of each other in this department, the Audi feels tauter (thank you, sport package), and the wider rubber doesn’t hurt here, either. Steering effort in both cars is very commendable. Some Audis can be a little numb at the tiller, especially larger ones, but the A3’s wheel is precise without being delicate or twitchy.
Note that we’ve come this far in the review and haven’t mentioned the “dieselness” of the powertrain. That’s because there’s not much to say save praise; the peak torque hits right off idle and for cruising on the highway this Audi is quieter than a lot of gasoline-engine cars, running at low revs even well above the speed limit. We also had a few cooler mornings during our Audi test and besides a slightly noisier motor for the first few minutes of operation there was zero hesitation or bitter aftertaste to rolling on oil rather than gas.
Given that about the only rival to this car that also achieves this kind of fuel economy and utility, as well as sportiness, is another VW product, the TDI Sportwagen, it would seem that any way you slice it, a buyer wanting all of these attributes is buying from the VW/Audi empire.