2012 Audi A3 2.0 TDI FWD S-Tronic Road Test

2013 Audi A3 TDI S-tronics brings fuel economy, power in one attractive package, German-style.

What It Is
The 2012 Audi A3 TDI S-tronic is a hatchback aiming to give a sporty drive while being fuel efficient.
Best Thing
Plenty of engine power
Worst Thing
Higher fuel economy may not justify the higher price tag
Snap Judgment
The 2012 Audi A3 TDI S-tronic is best for German purists


We posted that hatchbacks are making a comeback here in the states in our review of the 2012 Lexus CT 200h. Hatchbacks, like any vehicle, come in all shapes and sizes to fill shoppers' niches. The Lexus CT 200h attempted to fill four: utility, luxury, high fuel economy, and sport, coming up short only on the last one.

So does that mean you'll always have to sacrifice one of those goals? Not at all. Shortly after the CT 200h left our testing grounds, Audi pulled up with its A3 TDI S-Tronic. The "TDI" means this is a diesel version of the A3 hatchback, while "S-Tronic" is Audi's name for its manumatic transmission system. Translation? You can shift the gears manually, which always means sportiness.

So is the 2012 Audi A3 TDI S-Tronic the Holy Grail for those looking for utility, luxury, high fuel economy, and sport in one stunning package? Or does it compromise in one or more of these areas like the CT did with sportiness? We spent a week in the Audi A3 TDI S-Tronic to wring out every bit every juicy bit of goodness to find out.

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What We Drove

The Audi A3 is available in two basic trims: Premium and Premium TDI. The base, gasoline-powered A3 starts at $29,625 which includes $875 for destination and handling. Our Audi A3 TDI starts at $31,125 which adds the potent 2.0-liter diesel engine. Standard features are mixed. While an Audi A3 comes equipped with leather seating, for example, expected at this price point, drive seat adjustments are manual. Same with the A3's manual tilt and telescoping steering wheel. To get powered seat adjustments, you have to opt for the Premium Plus trim ($2,000) which also adds better headlights, more fancy wheels, and fancy interior lighting. You also have to upgrade to Premium Plus to get Bluetooth. Otherwise, break out the CDs to use with the A3's standard CD-player.

Our A3 TDI added $500 in black roof rails, while the "monza" silver metallic costs an additional $475. The Titanium Sport package ($2,000) adds the deepest changes after the diesel engine. Besides the unique 18-inch rims, sports front seats, and interior design inserts, the A3 TDI's suspension is tweaked to truly give the sporty hatch a, well, sporty feel. Get ready to drop $36,975 for your European pocket rocket.

You know you'll be safe, though. Front, side, and side curtain airbags are standard on the 2012 Audi A3 TDI. Same with the tire pressure monitoring service. Note the A3 TDI is only offered in the U.S. as front-wheel drive; no all-wheel or "quattro" version is available. Finally, the 2012 Audi A3 TDI comes standard lower anchor and tethers for children, or LATCH which our editors found standard.

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The Commute

One of the first we noticed when we started the Audi A3 TDI S-Tronic is the engine sound. The hatch is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder diesel engine, and the sound is startling to those only familiar with gasoline models or even hybrid vehicles. It's not annoying, just different. It's omnipresent, though, especially at stops and when accelerating. The A3 TDI, like most vehicles in this small segment, has a quiet interior, and sounds normally drowned out by road and wind noise seem amplified in comparison. We have to wonder if Audi plans to do something about the sound since most automakers have made concerted efforts to minimize engine noise in their vehicles. You had to literally be putting your ear to the hood of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S-Class S350 BlueTEC luxury sedan while idle before you heard any engine noise, although in fairness, the Benz costs more than three times as much as this Audi.

Not as easy to ignore was the Audi A3 TDI's Recaro seats. Half of us had no issue with them, while the others found them hard. The latter's not really surprising since the Audi A3 TDI is a sports hatch. But that hardness can quickly become wearing on long commutes and rough roads. The A3's stiff suspension did a fine job blunting the edges off most road imperfections, but its sportiness means folks looking for some cush for their tush should look elsewhere.

The A3's cupholders were of sufficient size for our drinks while the storage unit in the front row was just adequate. A open alcove below the center stack stored our smartphones. The small glove compartment locked away valuables and there was a delicate-looking cupholders for the rear passengers. They also had a coin holder to hold change.

But comfort is the last thing labeled "S-Tronic." Stomp the throttle and the TDI engine rapidly revs up. Acceleration is not neck snapping (power delivery is too smooth for that) but you'll see those cars around you rapidly shrink in your rearview mirrors. The A3 TDI's steering is appropriately stiff at these times, making it easy to hit those tight corners and higher speed. The paddle shifters are responsive once you get used to them. You quickly realize such sport paths are the A3 TDI's true home: in day-to-day driving, the steering feels numb and heavy while throttle and gas pedal are on the touchy side.

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The Grocery Run

Hatchbacks evolved in Europe to navigate narrow roads and tight urban environments. You can imagine, then, the sheer joy we felt we slipped our Audi A3 TDI into crowded parking lots with nary a concern about the two large crossovers to our sides. The hatchback's blocky design helps minimize blind spots and the side rearview mirrors are quite large. The A3's small size made parallel parking easy as well.

Inside, there's plenty of room for four adults to sit comfortably in the A3. We especially like the A3's high sides. Parents and caregivers, though, will have to ditch the front passenger seat for use if using a backward-facing baby seat in back. Shoulder space also shrinks using standard forward-facing child seats. Trunk space in the A3 also takes a beating, with enough room for a few bags of groceries and a duffle bag or two stacked on top of each other. The A3's rear row does fold down for more cargo room, but we couldn't help notice the oddly heavy hatch, considering this is such a small vehicle. The Audi A3 TDI feels comfortably cozy when fully packed with passengers and cargo and never, never, lacking in power.

The Weekend Fun

We took the 2013 Audi A3 TDI S-tronic on a long, lazy loop from Los Angeles through Orange County to San Diego and back up again. The so-called "diesel drone" from the engine faded into the background and even the Recaro seats softened a little. We tested the TDI's fuel economy and averaged around 33 mpg which is a tick below the EPA-estimated 34 mpg combined for the A3. Note, though, we were quite merciless in flogging the A3 TDI on the trip, which consisted of long, undulating freeways, rising roads, and swoopy curves. The A3 TDI's high torque, or pulling power at low speed, is addictive, making you want to stomp at every turn. We did resist and found the A3 an easy enough vehicle to live in, though small.

The most exasperating utility we found in the Audi A3 TDI was the climate control system. All the controls were simple to use except the climate control dial. To change the temperature, you had to click back and forth the dial several times. Why not a simple smooth dial system or even switch found in most of today's cars?

Summary

The 2012 Audi A3 TDI S-tronic is fast, responds quickly to steering and throttle inputs, and handles the twisties nearly as good as its AWD siblings; the A3 only comes in front-wheel drive is FWD. But unless you're a die-hard German car fan, it's hard to justify its existence as a daily driver. Yes, you can get used to the hard seats. And the touchy brakes and pedal. But the regular gasoline A3 model has more horsepower and nearly as much torque as the TDI. Buyers will have to weigh if the diesel's higher fuel economy figures can offset the TDI's extra $2,000 - $3,000 extra price tag over the gas model. The 2013 Audi A3 TDI's materials, fit and finish, and features also did not feel like those found in a $36,000-plus vehicle. No pushbutton start ignition? Manual adjustable front row seats? Note the Audi A3 TDI is only available in front-wheel drive configuration, a sad exception to a company based on its AWD "quattro" drivetrain.

Our quest continues.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $36,100
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 30 mpg
EPA Highway: 42 mpg
EPA Combined: 34 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 493 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"I unabashedly love it. It's a car I could see myself owning/driving/entering a domestic partnership/holy union with. I didn't get the exact reading, but the gas gauge barely moved in my full commute, which means I'm getting impressive mpg. " -Matt Askari, Assistant Editor
"Ultimately, the A3 TDI is a car nerd's car—the sort of chic European diesel enthusiasts are always clamoring about that they'll buy but they never do" -Blake Z. Rong, Assistant Editor
"But as an overall package, it's stylish other than the stickers, it feels incredibly well-made, and it has plenty of cargo space. I wouldn't get one, though. If I wanted a diesel Volkswagen Golf, I'd get the diesel Volkswagen Golf" -Jacob Brown, Assistant Editor
"I thought the seats weren’t too forgiving for people under 200 pounds but the sharp steering response made me forget about that, for a little while at least. It only took a few seconds to see that the interior materials were crafted with care. That extra attention to detail makes you feel like the A3 was personalized just for you." -Trevor Dorchies, Assistant Editor

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