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A nice review because they tested the sport package. Love those seats!

The ranks of premium compact cars are thin but growing, and are currently dominated by European brands. The number of diesel-powered cars is even smaller, with the Europeans again holding all the cards after the cancellation of diesel projects by other manufacturers.

But a diesel engine in a premium compact car? It’s a field of one at the moment with the recent introduction of the Audi A3 TDI. Based on the previous-generation Volkswagen Golf platform, the A3 can now be equipped with the latest 2.0-litre turbodiesel four we first saw in VW products on these shores last year, but which, of course, is proven and widely available in many models in the rest of the world.

Most people who have driven a modern diesel car have quickly become big fans of them for reasons such as great fuel economy, generous mid-range torque that’s ideal for city driving, and the lower costs of ownership.

With the obligatory pro-diesel pitch out of the way, we can talk about why a fully-equipped Audi A3 TDI might be worth nearly twice as much as a VW Golf with the same engine.

First, there are the four rings on the massive grille making the A3 a premium-branded car no matter what it is based on. Audi’s work on the compact platform has yielded a small hatchback with all of what one would expect from a European luxury car – high style, especially in the interior, exemplary fit-and-finish of high-quality materials, all-day comfort with a wide range of convenience features, and a feeling of dynamic performance that the Europeans do so well.

The TDI engine plays a bigger part in that performance profile than you might imagine. It may be a little less lively off the line than the comparable 2.0 TFSI gasoline engine also available in the A3, and of course, its redline is about 2,000 rpm less than that engine, but for everything in between, in the mid-range, this thing really pulls, with 236 lb-ft of torque available from as low as 1,750 rpm. Acceleration times are slightly longer than with the gas engine, but it doesn’t feel slower.

Backing the engine is the now-familiar six-speed S-tronic twin-clutch automated manual transmission, which is well-suited to the diesel’s characteristics, and offers the options of a ‘sport’ automatic mode, or shift-yourself manual operation. The traditional sporting driver might lament the unavailability of a full-manual box and pedal clutch, but really, the S-tronic is everything one needs with a great combination of convenience and performance.

The power is directed only to the front wheels in the TDI, as the Audi signature quattro all-wheel drive system is not offered; too bad about that, as it just seems like an Audi should have quattro.

The equipment at the four corners of the A3 was upgraded on our tester with the S-line Sport Package, which, for $2,900, includes great looking 18-inch (up from the standard 17s) tri-spoke alloy wheels around which are wrapped 225/40R18 summer-only performance tires. With this set-up, one can mount the necessary winter tires on steel wheels and have a great set of rubber for the warmer months, instead of settling for all-season tires.

The big, grippy tires plus the sport suspension of the S-line package yield a really taut ride, with all that implies. Cornering is level, steering reaction is immediate, and the suspension is compliant over rough pavement, but the ride quality is perhaps less smooth than with the suspension on non-S A3s, so one must decide on priorities, as usual in these cases. The hunkered-down good looks of the bigger wheels and tires, and the elevated performance, are well worth a bit of ride roughness, in my opinion.

Inside, the premium profile of the A3 is most evident. Indeed, other than the obvious compact dimensions, one might think one is sitting in an A4 or A6, as the design and trim details are all top-drawer. The S-line Sport Package adds very firm and supportive sport seats and a multi-function sport steering wheel to the aforementioned running gear. There is plenty of room for the two front-seat occupants; indeed, the A3 is one of the few cars in which a person around six-feet tall will be too far from the controls with the seat all the way back. The back seat is, as expected, a little cramped for anyone close to that height, and while it will fit three abreast, the middle person will not be comfortable.

That back seat folds down in the expected 60/40 fashion, yielding a not-quite-flat load floor and a usable cargo area, obviously not as high as drivers of CUVs are used to.

The level of standard equipment on all A3s is extensive, with such features as power windows/locks/heated mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry, heated leather seats and CD/MP3 audio with auxiliary jack all accounted for at the base price (TDI S-tronic) of $35,300.

The move up to Premium trim (which our tester had), for $2,700, adds more stylish 17-inch wheels, Bluetooth, multi-function steering wheel, power driver seat with lumbar, auto-dimming interior mirror, rain sensor, storage package, interior lighting package, aluminum trim, and Open Sky system, which is essentially a full-width sliding glass sunroof that reduces head room, front and rear.

The Bose audio upgrade including Sirius satellite radio was a welcome addition (for $1,700) to our A3, and stand-alone options on our tester included Bi-Xenon headlights ($900) and special metallic pearl-effect paint ($650), a beautiful light blue called Sphere blue. The only available option our tester lacked was rear side airbags ($500). One would call an A3 so well-equipped to be “loaded,†and the TDI’s full price of $43,500 reflected that.

Still, with all this equipment, the A3 TDI can be seen as several different cars for one price. In the broadest sense, it is a fully-equipped premium compact car that will appeal both to people moving down from a big premium model, and moving up into a more luxurious small car. It is useful with its hatchback design and accessible cargo area. It is eco-friendly, as the TDI clean diesel technology garnered the A3 TDI the Green Car of the Year award for 2010. It is fun-to-drive with legitimate performance credentials, especially equipped with the Sport Package. And, of course, it is a fuel miser, with consumption rated at 6.7/4.6 L/100 km city/highway. That highway consumption translates to around 60 mpg!

With that kind of profile, the A3 TDI is very good value for the money.

Pricing: 2010 Audi A3 TDI
Base price: $35,300
Options: $8,850 (Premium trim, $2,700; Audio Package, $1,700; S-line Sport Package, $2,900; Metallic/Pearl Effect Paint, $650; Bi-Xenon headlights, $900)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $800
Price as tested: $44,400
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