Carmakers and buyers who think diesels can't appeal in the U.S. should spend a day with the A3 TDI (Audi's code for diesel).
Car companies that believe they must tune transmissions to shift somewhat unresponsively to get good fuel economy should run the A3 TDI around their test tracks, then try to develop something as good as the six-speed S Tronic — a dual-clutch, automatically shifted manual. Those are growing in popularity because they are more fuel-efficient than most automatics or even conventional manuals.
The only tiny wrinkle might be a moment's hesitation when floored from a standstill. So, gold medal for the drivetrain.
Now, what about those gripes? Noises, mainly. And Audi portrayed most of them as unique to the test car, saying it isn't getting similar complaints from owners or other test drivers.
•Horrible grit spit. The wide, sticky summer tires kicked up sand, debris and whatever else was on the roads after a couple of snow-removal applications. The clatter against the wheel wells was striking.
Audi says all-season tires wouldn't spit so much grit. Also would perform much better in snow.
•Dreadful sunroof creaks. "It's a large glass sunroof, and on a cold day I could see how the seals could squeak," says Carter Balkcom, A3's U.S. product manager. Yes, but when you buy a brand such as Audi, you don't expect to make such compromises.
•Haunting rear suspension groans. Happened often after the car had been parked for a while. Balkcom said it was a unique complaint, might have a vague parking-brake connection.
•Intermittent rear clunks. Inside the car, behind the driver, as if something were loose inside the back door. Didn't always happen — and you can bet it wouldn't when you're with the service manager. Nor had Balkcom ever heard of such an odd noise.
•No all-wheel drive. Several reasons. Limiting it to front-drive saved Audi a second round of federal safety and mileage certification for the AWD model. It also keeps the price down and makes the diesel an attractive alternative.
And FWD is about 2 mpg higher on the government fuel-economy ratings vs. AWD, Balkcom says, allowing Audi to advertise a higher mpg number.
And a lot of people don't seem to think AWD is important. In the often-snowy Pacific Northwest, TDI is 75% of total A3 sales, Balkcom says.
•No backup camera. Shows its age. If it were new on the market, it surely would offer one; all your finer rigs have them nowadays.
•Nonsensical control system. That damnable MMI (multimedia interface). Perhaps simpler than in higher-price Audis, but one might have hoped it would be replaced with knobs and switches to keep down the price of the smallest Audi.
Our standard: Every control you regularly use should be directly accessible. You should not have to select a mode on a screen and then punch your way through a menu, however short, just to tune the radio or do other simple tasks.
Nobody's yet bettered the decades-old approach to car radios: volume and tuning knobs, station preset buttons, couple of tone and balance controls.MORE TEST DRIVE: Archive of Healey's columns SIDE BY SIDE: Compare this vehicle to others
•Slam-bam ride. Hey, it had the sport equipment; of course it'll feel stiff, Audi says. Still, it was a bit much to see the headlights shake over potholes.
The biggest disappointment, though, was a vague sense that the A3 interior has been bypassed by fresher rivals. Even a mainstream Mazda on hand for test driving seemed to have nicer trim, better overall decor, nicer-feeling panels and controls.
The A3's not cheesy or junky, just no longer sweet inside.
Yet for all its foibles and failings, the diesel and S Tronic gearbox were nearly enough to balance out.
If you can find one with no noises, don't need the latest-greatest interior and perhaps actually like the MMI control system, you are dead meat. You will find it pretty close to impossible to leave the Audi store without buying one.
ABOUT THE AUDI A3
•What? Diesel-powered version of four-door, small hatchback/wagon. Diesel available only with front-wheel drive, automatic transmission.
•When? On sale since October.
•Where? Made at Ingolstadt, Germany.
•Why? Diesels get better mileage than gasoline cars. Audi thinks that has appeal.
•How? Piggyback onto corporate relative Volkswagen's popular Jetta diesel, which uses similar platform.
•How much? TDI model is a modest $1,200 more than gasoline model, starts at $30,775.
•How many? TDI is 55% of total A3 sales.
•How potent? 2-liter turbocharged direct-injected (TDI) diesel is rated 140 horsepower at 4,200 rpm, 236 pounds-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm (2-liter turbo gas engine is 200 hp, 207 lbs.-ft.). S Tronic six-speed, dual-clutch, automatic with manual-shift mode is only transmission available on TDI.
•How big? Subcompact: 169 inches long, 78.5 in. wide (including mirrors), 56 in. tall on 101.5-in. wheelbase.
Passenger space: 89 cubic feet. Cargo space is 19.5 cu. ft. behind rear seat, 39 cu. ft. when back seat's folded. Turning circle diameter: 35.1 ft.
•How thirsty: Rated 30 miles per gallon in town, 42 on the highway, 34 in combined driving. Trip computer in test car showed 25.5 mpg (3.92 gallons per 100 miles) in mixed city and suburban use that included several days of severe winter weather. Requires ultralow-sulfur diesel; tank holds 14.6 gallons.
•Overall: More drivetrains like this, please.