Blame the Cadillac Cimarron for the scarcity of cars like the Audi A3.
Compact cars that are premium rather than second-rate, that is. Compacts admired for elegant, tailored looks as well as exceptional fuel efficiency. Luxury automobiles, yet distinctly athletic in character.
Today's Audi A3 TDI fits the description tidily.
Yesterday's Cimarron was compact, otherwise none of the above applied. It was an overdressed, over-priced version of the Chevrolet Cavalier peddled as a Cadillac through the mid-1980s to the detriment of the brand and to any subsequent compact that aspired to anything worthwhile.
The earlier successes of the BMW 320, Audi 4000 and Saab 900 among others inspired Cadillac's failed experiment. It may not have been coincidence that successive models of these European imports grew ever larger.
Who knows how many North Americans decided on the basis of having seen, heard, or even worse drove, a Cadillac Cimarron that no compact-sized car could ever merit a luxury price?
We'll soon find out, in any event, how many drivers are willing to rethink the matter as new fuel-efficiency standards beginning in 2012 surely will herald another wave of smaller vehicles.
The Acura CRX, BMW 135i, Mercedes-Benz B200 and Volvo S40, as well as the regular Audi A3, are current examples of luxury compacts. The A3 TDI moves a step beyond them in fuel efficiency. As the 2010 Green Car of The Year, this diesel-powered model (TDI stands for turbo direct-injection diesel) provides a model for every major manufacturer's product planning.
The lesson is simple. Technology needs to be highly advanced if a car of compact dimensions is to command large prices while exceeding fuel consumption standards. The 2.0-litre diesel fills the bill. So while the A3's styling has become familiar over the years, bordering on old, the new engine has moved the TDI model up a notch in prestige and price.
A gasoline-powered A3 starts at $32,200. The TDI commands $35,300, or $38,000 in the case of the test car, which is labelled a premium model. The price keeps building, ours totalling $45,495 as Audi demonstrates the knack common among German manufacturers for adding bits and bucks.
Yet the A3 TDI is a collection of Volkswagen components - the TDI engine is the same as in a $24,475 Golf - as surely as the Cimarron was a Chevy. Two significant differences establish why this car is a triumph, the other a mistake. The moving parts shared with Volkswagen are built to an extremely high standard. An A3's body is distinct from a Golf's whereas the Cadillac was recognizable as a Cavalier with a false mustache.
The end product is a lively treat to drive - for those drivers who prefer European character. The antithesis of an American luxury car, in this A3 you feel the bumps (in a controlled manner, but thuds nonetheless), feel the road through extremely communicative steering, feel the automatic transmission's constant shifting among its six gears. This car has been engineered for connection rather than isolation.
The premium model, at the $38,000 price point, might please more drivers than would our test car. Our car's S-Line sport package ($2,900) firms up the suspension and sharpens response with 18-inch wheels, but at the cost of harshness. Other major options are a Bose sound system ($1,700) and bi-xenon headlamps ($900).
We average 8.0 litres/100 km in a week's city-area driving. The official city rating is 6.7/100, so the TDI misses the laboratory measure in real-life stop-and-go as is usually the case with our Eco Driver reviews. For the sake of comparison, a recently tested Ford Fusion Hybrid averaged 7.5/100 in the same conditions. Won't the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid version of the Fusion, coming this fall, broaden the appeal of smaller luxury cars?
After all, the A3 TDI may be a leader, but it's not perfection. Just try carrying two medium cups of coffee - they won't both fit at the same time without rubbing shoulders and lifting lids. Try reversing to seize a parking space in heavy traffic - that same automatic shifter that snaps through the forward gears always pauses for an irritating second or so before finally producing reverse.
A world of latitude exists for future luxury compacts. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transport mandating annual improvements of 5 per cent in corporate fuel consumption averages between 2012 and 2016, most manufacturers can be expected to introduce models intended to convince consumers bigger isn't always best. Some will be diesel-powered, some hybrids. Many will be engineered to please traditional American tastes, soft-riding and nearly silent, in complete contrast to the A3 TDI.
2010 Audi A3 TDI
TYPE: Four-door hatchback
BASE PRICE: $32,300; as tested, $45,495
ENGINE: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four diesel
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 140 hp/236 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY (litres/100 km): Government lab test result, 6.7 city/4.6 highway; our actual urban driving 8.0; diesel fuel
ALTERNATIVES: Acura CSX, Mercedes-Benz B200 Turbo, Volvo S40, BMW 135i