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Dollars for diesels: 2011 Audi A3 TDI

A gas station is nobody’s idea of a nice place to visit, which is one of the reasons why German cars, with their commodious gas tanks, are so appealing.

So the news that the Audi A3 TDI, the pint-sized member of the Audi lineup, could motor for close to 600 miles before it drained its 14.6 gallon tank, made it immediately appealing.

Another appealing feature of German cars is the availability of diesel engines, which other manufacturers have been slow to embrace, due to the supposed indifference or outright animosity of American car buyers.

Audi and its sister brand Volkswagen have been stuffing modern “clean” diesels into models up and down their lineup, which amplifies their camel-like ability to travel long distances between fill-ups.

But there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Audi’s diesel-powered extended range comes at a not-inconsiderable price, as we will discuss shortly.

The A3 TDI is a proper Audi in most respects: vault-solid, nicely-appointed, and driver-oriented. The five-door body style, though not popular in the U.S., looks smart and is eminently practical.

The diesel model, however, lacks two traditional Audi features that are potential deal-breakers for some: no manual transmission and no all-wheel drive.

With 3,423 pounds being pulled by a 2.0-liter engine, the A3 doesn’t top any fun-to-drive lists, either. 60 miles an hour from a standing start takes a relatively pokey 8.5 seconds to arrive. The steering is precise, though, and the brakes have a reassuringly solid and direct feel.

But it is the fuel economy that is the big selling point here. EPA rates the A3 TDI at 30 miles per gallon city/42 mpg highway.

Those are attractive numbers indeed and they bestow a credibility on this car that other five-door compacts will find hard to match.

But most arguments for the A3 TDI wilt in the face of the price: $30,775 for the base car and $37,425 as tested with the $500 cold weather package, $4,100 premium trim and sunroof, and $2,050 for the Audi navigation system (an argument for less-expensive aftermarket devices).

One of the great features of the U.S. car market is that it that there is room for idiosyncratic cars like the A3 TDI. Too bad that its appeal will be limited to those willing to pay a high premium for the ability to limit their fill-ups.