There is now a record number of hybrid-electric vehicle models on the market, with everything from the $20,000 Honda Insight to the over $60,000 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid representing the segment. American drivers have definitely warmed to the technology that was considered kind of oddball only about five years ago.
But as efficient as hybrids can be, there are also other fuel-saving technologies that will supplement them in the marketplace. While mass production of plug-in pure electric vehicles is still a long way out, they hold promise for some driving situations, mostly local trips. For longer journeys on the highway, other propulsion systems are likely to work much better.
This year, Audi is making a big push for its diesel models. Yes, diesel, as in very efficient, low emissions, and low CO2 output. But no, not diesel as in slow, smoky vehicles that seem to move at a snail’s pace. It’s a new era for diesel technology, and like fellow German brands BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Audi has been raring to show off what they can do.
Very soon you’ll be able to buy an Audi Q7 SUV with diesel power and an overall rating of 20 miles per gallon. That might not seem great, but it’s a fairly large 7-passenger vehicle that’s rated at 15 mpg with a V8 gasoline engine. The diesel equates to a 33% improvement in fuel economy.
And late this year, Audi will create a new vehicle segment in the U.S. with the A3 TDI, a compact car with luxury amenities and fuel economy rivaling that of many hybrids. Initial ratings are 30 mpg in city driving and 42 on the highway, but a careful driver can improve upon those numbers.
The A3 is mechanically related to the Volkswagen Rabbit and Jetta, so it gets the same 2.0 liter direct-injected and turbocharged diesel engine that has been a runaway success in the VW models. As of right now, the Jetta TDI sedan and wagon are just about impossible to get, as buyers have snapped up nearly every dealer’s allotment for the 2009 model year.
In the A3, the TDI engine is well-suited to the car’s size and highway manners, with effortless high-speed cruising possible. On a trip to Irvine from the Valley while I had the car, the on-board computer showed an average of nearly 49 miles per gallon. And let’s just say I wasn’t poking along in the slow lane below the speed limit. My overall mileage for a tank, calculated manually after fill-up was 37 mpg, which is just about what the car is rated at.
Combining with the TDI engine is a 6-speed dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission that’s well suited to the diesel engine’s torque. It does just fine in automatic mode, and there are paddle shifters behind the steering wheel for selecting gears manually. This is actually a pretty sporty car, and would probably surprise a lot of people by how well it moves along and tackles corners.
Highway travel is where diesel will beat hybrid almost any time. Hybrids work best in low-speed driving, when the gasoline engine can shut off when not needed. Once up to speed, the small gasoline engine will be spinning away just like a non-hybrid, but carrying all the extra weight of the hybrid system along with it.
Ever see someone in a Prius flying along in the carpool lane at 80 miles per hour? At that kind of speed, the hybrid is at its least efficient, probably getting worse mileage than a conventional compact car. For a diesel, with the right gearing, highway cruising has the engine loafing along at a relaxed pace, as its torque allows for good performance at lower rpm.
Overall, the A3 is a wonderful car. It’s a five-door hatchback design, with tons of room in the back, especially with the rear seat folded down. Due to its premium placement above Volkswagen in the marketplace, the interior is also crammed with amenities. This would be a very easy car to drive all day on a road trip. Sitting in it for an hour or so on a long commute would be a snap.
I was rather smitten with it, and I have a feeling that buyers will be too. Audi hasn’t announced pricing, but I’m told the car will start at right around $30,000 or so when it goes on sale in December. Dealers may already be shaking hands on deals right now, as there’s been lots of buzz about the car on the Internet since Audi announced it would be coming here.
The best thing about the Audi A3 TDI is that it’s really several vehicles rolled into one. It’s a sport sedan of sorts, with crisp handling and a performance demeanor. It’s also a utility vehicle, with its rear hatch and ample cargo space. And best of all, it’s an economy car with stellar mileage figures, especially considering how roomy and crammed with features it is.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.