A Clean Break From Gasoline

The Audi A5 TDI shows why Americans need more diesel options.

Play a quick game of word association with most North Americans, and here’s what you’d get for diesel: Truck, dirty, loud, chuggy, smelly. Clean and sporty? I’ll bet you a tank of gasoline that you never thought of that description. Indeed, many people were surprised when the Volkswagen Jetta TDI was named the “Green Car of the Year” for 2009.

And I would have lost that bet, too, had I not moved to Germany and taken a chance on owning a diesel for the first time. Not just any diesel, mind you. Audi’s new A5 3.0-liter TDI cleandiesel. I am in love with the car. It is sporty. And it is a diesel. Before you consider me crazy, consider the A5, and forget what you thought you knew about how to have fun in a coupe that runs on that allegedly stinky, dirty fuel.

First off, bringing back the coupe is enough to illicit a few eye-rolls. Coupes are crowded. Coupes are cramped. Coupes are straight out of the ‘70s. Throw into the mix the fact it’s a diesel, and you might think I have stepped into another dimension. In a way, I have. And I doubt I will return to the world of gasoline should I return to America one day.

Warning: Before you fall in love with the car, I should say that Audi has no plans to bring a diesel version of the A5 to America. Audi will put the engine into its Q7 sport utility vehicle and a few others. But not the A5. Not yet, anyway. And that’s a shame. Diesels make up less than 5 percent of the cars sold in North America but comprise half of all vehicle purchases in Europe, where fuel costs are significantly higher (up to $8 a gallon). That should change. The diesel share of U.S. light-vehicle sales is expected to increase from 3.2 percent in 2005 to more than 10 percent by the middle of the next decade, predicts industry analyst J.D. Power Automotive Forecasting.

But right now, in North America, diesels are relegated to strongman work, deemed too uncouth for anything else. Europeans care a great deal about lowering CO2 levels but less about nitrogen oxide, which contributes to urban smog and is viewed as a major drawback of diesels. As a result, emission regulations aren’t as tough as in North America.

These diesels use new technology that meets the strictest emissions standards in the world—BIN5/LEV II—which are enforced by five U.S. states: California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Vermont. BIN5/LEV II standards severely cap nitrogen oxide emissions. This Audi uses cleaner fuel while filtering out all the grime that used to haunt diesels. You still hear a slight tick-tick-tick while idling (like a cat purring), and there is a hint of the smell that only diesel can provide, but it’s nothing offensive. Especially considering all the positives.

One day this summer, I asked my A5 to take a very steep incline somewhere just off Germany’s famous Romantic Road. Up went the road. And up went the A5, full of authority, power, and grace, and all in third gear at about 60 mph. My first gasoline Volkswagen (a spirited little GTI) would have needed first gear, would have gone about 40 mph slower, and would have complained the whole way. This diesel proved what engineer friends told me long ago: Buy a diesel; they are just plain fun.

They pack more power than their gasoline counterparts. Small cars are zippy, and the great North American race—from stoplight to stoplight—is far more interesting with all of that power; the A5 has torque in spades. Diesels are also great long-term vehicles. It is not unusual to see a diesel last for 400,000 miles or more. You also won’t have to worry about maintaining an electrical starter system, and diesel gas is less corrosive, so your exhaust system will last longer.

But, back to the car: Engineered on an all-new platform, it is about the size of an Audi A6 inside. That means suitcases-full of cargo room and room for my two under-10 kids or two medium-sized adults. Not everyone will fit under the sloped rear roof, but it’s not a coupe in the traditional sense of being sandwiched into the back hatch.

The exterior is simply stunning. Volkswagen Group design chief Walter de’ Silva said he cried when he first saw it in the flesh while still the lead designer at VW subsidiary Audi. From its LED lights that line the bottom of each headlight like neon eyeliner to the swooping rear haunches that articulate aggression, the A5 is a visual pistol-whip to the senses. With a six-speed manual transmission and 19-inch wheels, there isn’t much that is subtle about the car. On the road, it’s what every American would love: At low speeds, it maneuvers with lightning quickness; and at 55 mph, in sixth gear, it gets better fuel mileage than a Toyota Prius. (It also gets 40 miles per gallon in the city. Take that, Exxon.) High performance and stellar fuel economy? What’s not to love?

A few things. There is a small hint of turbo lag—the time it takes for the turbocharger to build boost pressure and thus power—then an exhilarating rush of torque has you cruising. But then immediately shifting.

You will have to change your driving style, especially in this sports car. Short-shifting the diesel is a lesson in itself. That means shifting sooner than you are used to (about 4,500 RPM—or 4,000 less than the Audi R8). You spend more time shifting up and down when you drive a diesel because the time spent in any gear is minimized by the narrow power band. Still, who is going to argue with a sports car that pushes you to the edge but then saves you at the pump? Not me.