x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Consuming passion

Driving economically can prove to be utterly exhausting as Michael Taylor discovered on his recent American road trip.

The Audi Q7 enroute to Dallas from Memphis on day 5 of its diesel consumption tour of USA.
The Audi Q7 enroute to Dallas from Memphis on day 5 of its diesel consumption tour of USA.

German efficiency will not be contained by borders or oceans. From the tiny provincial Italian airport in Bologna, I've tracked through Frankfurt on the tightest of connections to Newark, been driven into Manhattan and arrived at the hotel three minutes before I'm scheduled to be briefed on the Audi Mileage Marathon.

It's an easy concept. America thinks diesel engines are for big trucks. Europeans think they know better. Diesels make up more than 60 per cent of European car sales while, in America, that number is closer to zero. That's partly perception, stemming from the smoking, chugging diesel cars US automakers built in the 1980s. So, Audi figured, they needed something big to show them what modern diesels are all about.

That big thing is the Q7, Audi's large SUV. From next year, Audi will sell a new version in the United States, complete with urea-injection in the exhaust to wipe the nitrogen oxide (NOx) nasties from the back of its 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6. But to introduce it, they've assembled a combined battle fleet of Q7s, A4s, Q5s and A3s, all fitted with turbo-diesel engines, for an 8,000-kilometre, two-week extravaganza across the US. But this is no Cannonball Run. This is about fuel efficiency and, to encourage it, there'll be a competition. They've even brought in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), the American motorsport body, to oversee the balancing of average fuel consumption with average speed. Audi can call it what they like, though. Where I come from, this has but one name: Road Trip.

They've waved us off from the Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park in New York City only to drop us behind a camera car doing five kilometres an hour. So we cheat, diving out into the Manhattan traffic on our own. Miraculously, we clear the city in our Q5 3.0-litre TDI having touched the brake pedal just once. For fuel savers, the hills between New York and Washington DC are torture. It takes discipline, but we're accelerating gently up the grades, lifting off the accelerator on the way down and bouncing our attention between the trip computer's readouts for average and instant fuel consumption. If we keep the instant readout above 30mpg (7.84 litres per 100 kilometres), we'll be OK. The Audi navigation unit is confusingly poor and late, but we guess our way onto the right expressway past south Philadelphia. It might be a city famed for speeches and civil liberties, but it's no Paris. Baltimore seems even less attractive. Lots of industry, cranes and wharves and, on the horizon, the silhouette of a high-rise skyline. Washington DC is not a nice place. The route into DC (via Shell petrol stations equipped with the new, clean diesel) took us through poor, hopeless housing areas to poor, proud areas and then, suddenly, to the Capitol building.

It's true that the best thing you can do in Washington DC is leave it. Before we get a chance to, though, the morning briefing settles our minds about the first leg. We claimed both the best fuel economy (6.19 L/100km) and the fastest average speed (75.6kph). The rest are puzzled. "What tyre pressures were you running?" "No idea. Whatever it came with." "How close should we get to the trucks?" "No idea. We didn't get close to any trucks." Today, we switch into an A4 3.0- litre TDI, and the signs around here are special. Gettysburg, for example, is just over there. Richmond and Virginia are yonder. Monuments and memorials to presidents, Civil War battles and War of Independence fights are all around. So many of the significant turning points in American history are within a couple of hours' drive of here, but instead it's Cleveland that awaits us. Getting there means going through Pennsylvania, which boasts thousands of acres of trees glowing yellow, orange and red in the depths of autumn. It's astonishingly beautiful. As for Cleveland itself, well, we didn't see it. We drove past it on the motorway and we knew there was a Great Lake out there somewhere, but we didn't get to it. We did see a sign that read "Birmingham - Ethnic Neighborhood", but we had no idea what that was about.

Got them again. While our average speed yesterday was a bit down on our closest rival, our 5.35 L/100km blew them away. Still no Great Lake in sight, though the stuff falling from the sky is doing a pretty good impersonation. We keep the tyres out of the water-filled ruts for less rolling resistance. If some of the cities we've been through or around have been visually disappointing (and you can add Toledo, Ohio to that list), Chicago is the birthplace of the modern skyscraper and it doesn't disappoint, with the Sears Tower dominating the skyline. Rolling into the Shell station, we're not confident, though. Two wrong turns today have knocked us around. But when the final results tally, we've scored again, with 5.68 L/100km at 84 kph to win three days in a row.

"That's one of those new diesels, is it?," said the Chicago native, doubting the veracity of the big letters on the car confirming exactly that. "Yeah," we said, and explained the fuel economy and just how torquey the engine was. "But it'll still be noisy and I hate all that soot whenever the engine's running," he complained, with his hand next to the exhaust pipe. "It's running now," I explained. He was shocked. And I was tired. The thing with driving economically is that, if you're doing it intensely, it's just as mentally exhausting as racing. They're the opposite ends of the same world of mechanical empathy. My original team mate has gone, so I've moved back to a Q5 for the long trip from Chicago to Memphis with more than 800km of flat corn fields. To use 49 litres of diesel to get there is pretty astonishing in a family-sized SUV. We're burning diesel with the enthusiasm we have for paying tax. On this day, we touch the brakes only three times - once for lunch, once for the fuel stop and once at the hotel. Exactly to plan.

Another big day in the Q5. Yesterday, we clocked another 6.1 L/100km at an average of 95kph and the closest to us was the Swiss team with 6.7 L/100km and then 7.15 L/100km from a pair of Germans. I took the wheel driving out of Memphis. Elvis glasses, picked up for last night's dinner, completed the show as we crossed back across the Mississippi and headed to Bill Clinton's hometown for lunch. We like Little Rock, even if nobody could tell us why it was spelt Arkansas and pronounced "Arkansaw". We run the next 560km through Texarkana into Texas and we finished about the same as the day before, soaking up 49.21 litres for the trip and averaging 101kph across three states.

The cowboy hats we found were a treat in Dallas, just one night after our Elvis triumph in Memphis. Then it got out of control. Tonight in Amarillo, we visited a massive country and western outfitters for boots, shirts and belts. That impressed some others, who did the same. Not to be outdone, the Germans got into their lederhosen. It put a fun seal on an intriguing and difficult day. It looks flat on the map, but the road from Dallas to Amarillo climbs more than 900 metres. But it was on this long day that we really stamped our dominance, with 6.21 L/100km at 96kph - the next best was 6.73 L/100km and the rivals were getting frustrated. We hit long, slow climbs and gentle, soft descents almost on Dallas's outskirts and they set a theme that continued for more than 640km. It's not dull out here, though. It's beautiful country, full of rolling hills, long horizons and tough people. By day's end in Amarillo, our 6.66 L/100km at an average speed of 92kph took the Q5 class again, for the sixth consecutive day.

We were dreading this day. Denver is known as the Mile High City, because that's the altitude. It was going to hurt, but the Q5 averaged an astonishing 6.36 L/100km with a 103kph average. That was a massive surprise to us, particularly given we ran the first half on cruise control. We used that strategy because we didn't really want to think too much after a night with the friendly Amarillo locals at the Midnight Rodeo. Where else can you watch people dance to Johnny Cash, Village People and 50 Cent under the same roof? It's big, beautiful country north of Amarillo. The clouds hung low in a crisp line, deep and black and threatened to sink down to the gentle, rolling valleys and hills we were on. As Texas gave way to New Mexico, the country developed a greater grandeur and a more spiritual beauty. At least, that's what the policeman said when he pulled over five consecutive Audi drivers (though not us). He logged on to the Audi Mileage Marathon website, where they used Audi's own satellite tracking to see everybody coming, along with their speed readouts!

For the total trip, we eked 6.31 L/100km out of the Q5 3.0-litre V6 TDI - better than the manufacturer's motorway economy claim - and still averaged 96kph. Our nearest Q5 rival posted 6.74 L/100km and 93kph. The same torquey, flexible clean turbo-diesel engine sits in the A4 and the Q7. Another wave of drivers was set to take the trip to California, but the car maker had proven its point. These diesels are frugal, clean and easy to drive. Soon, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen will also bring their diesels across the Atlantic, and perhaps North Americans may finally realise what Europeans already know. Now, when will we in the UAE? Karin Haferkorn, the PR manager of Audi Middle East, says there is one thing holding the company back from releasing their diesels here. "Audi has a lot of excellent systems available? unfortunately, we are very limited in introducing them to the region due to the comparatively low petrol quality and infrastructure. We would very much welcome it if the market conditions would allow the introduction of models like this." motoring@thenational.ae