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car review

2010 Audi A3 TDI

Buy an Audi in Canada and three years later you'll find that it's held 45 per cent of its value. That's fourth-best in Canada among premium brands (Infiniti, BMW and Acura are better, says Automotive Lease Guide).

Buy an Audi A3 and you have one of the safest vehicles available - a Top Safety Pick of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Buy an Audi A3 TDI, which is fairly new to Canada, and you have the 2010 Green Car of the Year in the United States, a clean diesel legal to drive in California or anywhere else in Canada and the United States. Fuel economy: 6.7 litres/100 km in the city and 4.6 on the highway. That's good enough to meet the stringent 2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, though diesel emissions in 2016 are another matter entirely.

Another viewpoint: You can expect more competitors for A3 TDi as new fuel economy rules come into effect

The point is, the A3 TDI (TDI being Audi's code for diesel) may not be cheap for a compact hatchback with four doors ($35,300 to start), but it's a brilliant package overall. Not perfect, mind you, but really something special.

The diesel engine is powerful and quiet and responsive, and the six-speed automatic transmission is a gem. Oh, yes, the six-speed S Tronic tranny, a dual-clutch, automatically shifted manual, is responsive and smooth, yet with those paddle shifters behind the wheel, it allows you to play a high-performance tune if the road conditions are right.

Don't be fooled by the horsepower numbers for the 2.0-litre, turbocharged, direct-injection four-banger, either. Sure, 140 hp doesn't sound like much, but this diesel's 236 lb-feet of torque (at a low 1,750 rpm) is way more than you get from the six-cylinder engine in the BMW 128i coupe. The Bimmer has 200 lb-ft at 2,750 rpm and 230 hp, and starts at $33,900.

The A3's torque translates into muscular, off-the-line starts, aside from just a moment's hesitation when floored from a standing start. The high-revving 128 feels more like a jumpy thoroughbred. Hands down, the Audi wins on fuel economy. The 128 comes in at 10.8 city/6.9 highway.

As for the rest, the A3 comes with a massive sunroof and that means on a cold day the seals might squeak. I've heard of this issue, but didn't experience it with my tester. I could live without a sunroof anyway.

And here's another oddity: Audi in both Canada and the United States does not offer the A3 TDI with all-wheel drive, just front-drive. Without AWD, the sticker is manageable for more drivers. That is, there are fewer mechanical bits and pieces for one. And by not having to pass safety and fuel economy certification for the AWD model, Audi saved a pile of dough.

But Audi is the Quattro AWD company, right? Won all those rally races thanks to Quattro, right? Quattro has been a signature of the brand since Quattro arrived in 1980, right? Hmm.

Audi also equips the A3 with its MMI (multimedia interface) control system, which is okay, but like all these interfaces, it unnecessarily complicates things. Why not just have regular, old controls - directly accessible ones - for all the everyday functions? Why ask drivers to punch their way through a menu to change the change radio bands?

Regardless, this is a great car if you like driving. The fast and precise six-speed dual-clutch transmission delivers the easy operation of an automatic gearbox with the control and response of a manual. Fabulous. You can run in manual mode and do it yourself. However, the fully automated shifting is so fast and efficient, most drivers will surely let the car run the show.

Out on the road, the little A3 clings to curves, sitting flat and stable as you round the bend. The sticky high-performance tires help here, but they throw off crud over time and you will need to get winter tires if you plan to drive in wicked Canadian weather. That said, the tires grip.

Meantime, the steering is nicely weighted - not too heavy, not too light - and is both fast and predictable. You ride in relative quiet, too; the engine has plenty of sound insulation, so the diesel's distinctive tapping sound is almost completely muffled.

The engine itself has vibration-reducing balance shafts that VW-brand diesels lack. Meanwhile, Audi's version of the six-speed dual-clutch produces quicker, more pronounced shifts than VW's version of the same transmission.

Remember, Audi is the luxury brand of VW and the two share much in the way of technology. To underline one difference, Audi says its version of this transmission changes gears in just 0.2 seconds, faster than VW's.

Finally, the cabin as a whole looks very nice, though some less-pricey cars now have interiors that look richer. Still, the insides are roomy and the hatchback means the storage space in back is flexible, given the seats fold down. The sport seats fit like a glove, but not a tight, uncomfortable one.

The sum of the parts here is impressive, more than anything thanks to the huge contribution made by that great diesel engine and the spectacular transmission. A completely new version of the A3 is not far off, but this current one certainly sets the bar high.

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2010 Audi A3 2.0 TDI Premium

Type: Compact premium hatchback

Base Price: $38,000; as tested, $39,995

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, turbocharged, direct injection

Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/136 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual mode

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/4.6 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Lexus HS 250h hybrid, Mini Cooper Clubman, Volkswagen Golf TDI diesel