April 25, 2012

Review: 2012 Audi A3 Sportback

My dad has a friend in Germany, a mechanical engineer who is also an outstanding cook. He once treated my family to an eye-opening preparation of trout, with the even more eye-opening explanation that he wanted to share a particular bottle of Pouilly Fuissé with us, and that he had chosen the trout recipe to go with it. It was the first time I had seen anyone choose the food to accompany the bottle of wine.

Perhaps the automotive equivalent of that would be to choose the engine first, and then the skin to go with it. In that spirit, my search for a family car had started to form a vortex around the frugal 2.0L TDI diesel engine fielded by the Volkswagen Group (who don't offer the even more frugal 1.6L TDI in the US).

The 2.0L TDI is part of a platform shared by the Audi A3, the VW Golf, as well as the Golf Variant, known in the US as the Jetta Sportwagon. Indeed, a whole family of models including the VW Beetle, the Škoda Octavia and the SEAT Altea. What drew me to the A3 was the option of leather seats, which may help avoid the toxic outgassing of synthetic car interiors, so I went to visit the local Audi dealer.

What is designated the A3 in the US is actually the A3 Sportback, a five-door hatchback that's slightly longer overall (by 4 inches) than the Golf but less large than the Jetta Sportwagon. A cello might fit in the A3's trunk more comfortably than in the back of a Golf, so I brought the cello to the dealership to check the fit.

As it turned out, I never did find out. Just asking for the A3 started me off on the wrong foot: the dealer told me that they had none on the showroom floor, and none on the lot to show, having sold out their stock to the last specimen.

I thought to myself that either that was not a smart move on the part of the dealership, or someone was desperate enough for that last A3 that they made an offer the dealer couldn't refuse. The latter would be in line with the recent popularity of cars in the US that are both small and powered by diesel, judging by the soaring sales numbers. As it was, the best they could do for me was to see if one of their employees personally owned an A3 and whether they might be willing to unlock it for me to see if the cello would fit. Odd that a dealer wouldn't know what his colleagues are driving.

The conversation really went south when I asked about the possibility of buying a diesel A3 with standard transmission. This dealer saw fit to tell me that Audi doesn't make the 2.0L TDI with a standard shift. I'm sorry: even if I weren't CelloMom, who has been avidly researching everything automotive, you still can't tell me that Audi makes an automatic-only version of any of its models. All I have to do is go to audi.de to get the scoop.

Besides, it is only in the US that a shift stick on a dealer lot is like the proverbial needle in a haystack. In the rest of the world, "standard" transmission still means manual, and automatic transmission comes at a premium price.

The audiusa.com site does list only an automatic version of the A3 2.0 TDI, but since they are made in Germany anyway I thought I would inquire about the possibility of shipping an odd one from Ingolstadt with a standard transmission. I mentioned, perhaps foolishly, the advantages: a standard-shift car is less expensive to buy and and its higher fuel economy is friendlier on the planet, which also means it's less expensive to run.

I had expected a firm No. What I got was a lecture on how I couldn't beat, in a standard-shift car, the fuel efficiency of an automatic transmission anyway. Whoa. Perhaps that dealer was having an off day. Perhaps he could tell an upstart mom when he saw one - it's hard to deny I am one. Perhaps he was peeved that the last A3 had been sold and now he has nothing to show this eager customer. (And I had declined to look at the A4, knowing it would be too large for me). For my part I was peeved by his attitude, and I daresay I didn't improve his mood by pointing out to him that it's trivial to find out that in Europe the standard transmission A3 got the coveted "A" label for CO2 emissions, whereas the automatic was good for only a "B". Meaning the standard transmission does beat the automatic for fuel efficiency.

For the record (see table below), Audi's German website shows that for the same trim, the automatic version is € 1,750 ($2,300) more expensive than the manual version, and that its fuel efficiency is lower: 48mpg compared to 53mpg for the manual. These official numbers overestimate the fuel efficiency, which are reported by real-life drivers in the UK to be 38mpg (auto) compared to 44mpg (manual). In the US the specs quote an average fuel economy of 34mpg for the auto transmission, but the EPA test tends to understate the fuel economy of diesel engines.

Since this dealer was insisting that a manual-transmission version of this car does not exist, he couldn't very well accomodate a request for a special import, could he?.

Pity. Unlike CelloDad, I must have that stick. And the next-nearest Audi dealer is nearly an hour away: too far. And that is how our family ended up with a Golf TDI.


I suppose that once small cars come into their own in the US, consumer choice will broaden. As it is, the Audi A3 is offered in the US in just a few choices : two trims, "Premium" and "Premium Plus", and two engines, the 2.0L TDI diesel (auto transmission only) and the 2.0 TFSI gasoline (manual, S-tronic auto or Quattro all-wheel drive).

In contrast, the German page for the A3 Sportback offers a wonderfully bewildering array of possibilities: a total of seventy-five combinations of four trim levels, 1.6L and 2.0L TDI diesel engines, and 1.2L, 1.4L, 1.8L and 2.0L TFSI gasoline engines. Choice of manual transmission, S-tronic auto or Quattro. It's exhilirating just to scroll, and scroll, down the list. This is what I call consumer choice.

It doesn't end there: there are corresponding lists for the three-door A3, the three-door S3, the five-door S3 Sportback, the open-top A3 Cabriolet, the over-the-top RS 3 Sportback. Check it out: have a ball.

I was ready to call the American "Premium" trim designation a choice example of grade inflation, like calling the smallest available coffee cup "tall", but after some digging came to the conclusion that the naming is accurate, and probably comes with a premium price tag attached to it. Here is a list of items that are options on the German A3 page but which come "standard" in the US "Premium" trim, together with the price in Euro.

€ 1750 Auto transmission
€   600 Metallic paint
€ 1680 17" alloy wheels (upgrade from 16")
€ 1655 Leather seats (non sport)

From my quick and probably incomplete peek, here's € 5,685 ($ 7,500) in "options". (Apparently air conditioning is no longer a real option even in Germany: you get it standard.) Remember, the German prices include a hefty tax. But if you decide you can do without any or all of that, too bad: you get to buy it anyway. It's that supersizing trick at work.

Scrolling through the German options, I spied one that I would find sorely tempting: leather upholstery all over the interior (€ 1,015). Getting away from the synthetic materials altogether would be worth it to me. One day I will find out whether or not that is included in the US "Premium" version: but not, I suppose, at my local Audi dealer.


Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI, Auto vs. Manual Transmission.

2.0 TDI S-tronic
2.0 TDI 6-speed
Type Attraction Attraction
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5 "B" EURO5 "A"
MSRP € 28,000 € 26,250
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 5.8 / 4.4 L/100km 5.5 / 3.8 L/100km
Avg. quoted 4.9 L/100km (48mpg) 4.4 L/100km (53mpg)
Avg. actual 38 mpg 44 mpg

2.0L Turbodiesel

2.0L Turbodiesel
Power 140 HP @ 4200rpm 140HP @ 4200rpm
Gears 6-spd Auto 6-spd Manual
Fuel Diesel Diesel
Length, mm(in) 4292mm (168.9 in)  
Width, mm(in) 1765mm (78.5 in)  
Height, mm(in) 1423mm (56.0 in)  
Weight, kg(lbs) 1460kg (3219 lbs) 1435kg (3164 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 370L  
Turning radius, m(ft) 10.7m  
Top speed, kph(mph) 210 kph 210 kph

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