Mr. Green Car: 2010 Green Car of the Year

February 10, 2010

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

As I write this, Super Bowl XLIV looms to dominate the television landscape. My wife and I are among those who don’t usually watch football, and instead watch the game to see the commercials everyone will be talking about in the coming week.

One of those advertisements we expect to see is by German automaker Audi, promoting their A3 TDI as the winner of Green Car Journal‘s “Green Car of the Year Award for 2010.”

Rockford has a connection with this ad-our own Cheap Trick has tweaked their classic hit “Dream Police” to become “Green Police”-which is the soundtrack for the commercial. I visited Cheap Trick’s link for this song, www.cheaptrick.com/greenpolice, and listened to the new version. If you don’t listen carefully, you’ll not notice the change. While done in a YouTube video format, the only visual was a cute Green Police badge. I then cheated and went to the Audi A3 TDI Web site and viewed the ad in advance of the game.

The ad is funny and done well, but not much of it is about the car. However, I’m afraid this ad will reinforce the feelings of some folks that there really is a “Green Police” out there ready to arrest them for using a Styrofoam cup these days. I suspect thismay become a new defensive catch phrase for people unwilling to do things in an environmentally-friendly fashion or who are tired of being nagged about “going green.”

But this column is about green cars, so we’ll talk about why the Audi A3 TDI won this award, and why its cousin, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, won the same award in 2009.

First, TDI stands for turbo-direct-injection. That’s basically a turbocharged diesel engine-nothing really new with that concept, and all diesel engines are “injected.” Turbochargers help pack the cylinders with air and have been used with diesels to boost power of small and large engines for a very long time. Also, the TDI is similar to a common-rail diesel (in 2009, it became a common-rail system), a fuel delivery system that is relatively new, introduced by Audi in 1989.

In a common rail diesel, the fuel pump supplies diesel to electronic fuel injectors under high pressure. Each injector is computer controlled to spray the fuel directlyinto the cylinder several times in one power stroke-that’s the direct part. This is not only more fuel-efficient, as the fuel atomizes and burns more thoroughly, but it also eliminates the knocking sound of older-style diesel engines. I’ve driven an older Jetta TDI, and it revs and sounds little different from a gasoline engine.

So, if there is nothing much new about the diesel technology, how did the Audi A3 best the likes of the other nominees: perennial star Toyota Prius, Mercury Milan Hybrid (Ford Fusion sibling), Honda Insight and another VW, the Golf TDI? It won not on pure fuel economy- 42 highway mpg-but because they have improved the systems to be very clean without the need for additional fluids (asin the Mercedes BlueTec engines). It is being judged as an overall nice car based on its entry-level luxury features, styling and handling. It is the direction all the automakers are heading; fuel efficiency in autos that still appeal to our buying habits. Diesels are a proven way to get the power and performance we’ve come to expect, while avoiding the costs and complexity of hybrid-electric power systems. Most diesel engines will yield 50 percent better fuel economy than the equivalent gasoline engine. If much of your driving is on the freeway, a diesel is a very good choice, as much of the advantage of hybrids disappears on the highway (you’ll note most hybrid ads tout CITY mileage). The new, not yet in the United States, Audi A4TDIe (a sort of serial hybrid), with a combined mileage of 51 that beats the Prius, may be a contender for the 2011 award if brought to the U.S.

In past years, Volkswagens with TDI have regularly achieved real-world fuel economies of 50, even 60 mpg. As with most new cars, the Audi A3 and Jetta TDI have gained some weight, thus detracting from their potential in sipping fuel. There are many older TDIs out on the road, but they can be hard to find and buy. Their owners rarely part with them, and when they do, a premium price is commanded. But if you’re looking for a fuel-efficient car, one of these may be the way to go.

Because of government incentives, diesels are very popular in Europe, and with the Super Bowl, Audi is rolling out a clean diesel ad campaign to overcome stigmas associated with diesel power. It is estimated that if the entire United States fleet of automobiles were diesel, we would dramatically cut our dependence on foreign oil. So, if you’re driving a new “green” Audi A3 TDI, the Green Police will let you pass.

From the Feb. 10-16, 2010 issue

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