Feature: Audi Mileage Marathon Wrap-Up

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October 23, 2008

By: Jim McCraw

Well, it’s over. Audi’s audacious 4800-mile cross-country diesel mileage marathon goes into the history books as one of the most effective demonstrations of diesel torque, range and fuel economy ever done on American soil.

After 11 months of planning and preparation on both sides of the Atlantic, Audi AG and Audi of America put together a group of international journalists, a squadron of 16 Q7, Q5, A4 and not-for-sale A3 diesel vehicles, and a fleet of support vehicles, and sent them all from New York to Los Angeles on a circuitous, but very enjoyable and entertaining 4800-mile odyssey from New York to Los Angeles on four legs: New York to Chicago, Chicago to Denver, Denver to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The journey started on October 5th and finished on October 20th.

For this massive enterprise, Audi enlisted Shell as its excusive supplier of ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel, and fitted each of the 16 mileage-fleet vehicles with Michelin low-rolling-resistance “green” tires in OEM sizes. Each of the 16 vehicles was equipped with Audi navigation, Sirius satellite radio, a Nextel walkie-talkie phone for emergencies or directions, a satellite tracking system, and a Wi-Fi router connected to a separate cell phone, with the tracking system on board enabling the journalist crews to go online to audimileagemarathon.com to actually track their progress as well as send and receive emails and send Twitter messages to each other while en route.

Every journalist on the trip received an enormous amount of special Audi equipment and memorabilia, everything from a backpack to a baseball cap, a Belstaff jacket, two Audi shirts, a tiny computer with full Wi-Fi and email capabilities, a commemorative AMM book, a Michelin tire pressure gauge, a travel alarm clock, to prevent oversleeping, right on down to notebooks, pens and lapel pins.

The event was sanctioned by IMSA, the same group that sanctions the American Le Mans Series where Audi races its R10 diesel sports cars, and every vehicle was refueled and the gas flap sealed and signed by IMSA officials each day.

Everything carried the Audi Mileage Marathon logo, everything we saw and touched, from the silver-painted vehicles to the water bottles, the chocolate bars to the dinner and cocktail napkins. Really. The giant Audi staff was split between the German technicians and mechanics, the video and still photographers, and those who traveled with the caravan, and those who hopscotched each day to the next venue to set up the Audi hospitality at the next hotel. Needless to say, they were ready for anything and everything, and there was even an Audi doctor with the caravan every day, just in case.

Not to mention Audi of America boss Johan de Nysschen, who drove every mile of every leg of the event, something no company CEO we know of has ever done on one of these rallies. In between, de Nysschen did dozens of newspaper, radio and television interviews to explain what was going on, and help the media understand the importance of diesel in America’s future.

We joined the second leg of the event at the W Hotel in Chicago a few days ago, where we met up with our Q7 3.0 TDI for the next four days. Q7 #3 had won the Q7 class on the first segment from New York to Chicago in the hands of other expert drivers, and was well broken in, with more than 7000 miles on its odometer.

Other than the special equipment installed for the mileage marathon, the Q7 with quattro computer-controlled all-wheel-drive that we drove was a standard production vehicle built to U.S. specifications. The 3.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled direct-injection diesel engine is rated at 221 horsepower and 406 foot-pounds of torque, with a base curb weight of more than 5400 pounds. With a 26-gallon fuel tank and a nominal mileage of 25 miles per gallon, the Q7 has a theoretical tank range of 650 miles. It was loaded with all the usual power assists, with leather and Alcantara interior materials, heated seats, and an optional cargo management system.

Although the Q7 TDI diesel isn’t yet on sale in the U.S. market, it will be coming to Audi dealers in a couple of months, at a starting price between $46,000 and $48,000, according to Audi officials

Audi told us that the formula for winning in each of the four vehicle classes would entail maintaining both a high average road speed and a very high fuel mileage figure each day, with the best aggregate total for each vehicle class winning bragging rights and a bottle of very nice Veuve Clicquot champagne for each winning team on each leg.

Our route of travel would take us south from Chicago to Memphis, then from Memphis to Dallas, Dallas to Amarillo, and Amarillo to Denver, in successive legs of 550 miles, 450 miles, 440 miles and 360 miles. On Thursday morning, Audi R10 racing driver Emanuele Pirro flagged us off from the W Hotel, and the race was on.

While some of the other teams taped over the body seams, put cardboard behind the grille to block the air, folded in the rearview mirrors or put extra air in the tires, the AudiWorld crew decided to play it absolutely straight, using no tricks other than drafting close behind semis.
We set the Q7’s suspension to the dynamic mode, which in turn changes the engine’s mapping for best control, and we always used the 6-speed automatic transmission’s manual mode and tapped up on the steering wheel paddle shifter’s in order to get into sixth gear as quickly as possible after each traffic stop.

We set the adaptive cruise control system to maintain the shortest distance possible between the Q7 and the vehicle ahead of it in traffic, and set the speed to 72.5 mph wherever possible, to be in the engine’s sweet spot, where the torque curve is at its highest, but engine revs are lowest, between 2200 and 2500 rpm.

As you would expect, the traffic density thinned out after each morning’s start, and we drove in shifts of about 150-200 miles, using only the information provided by the Audi satellite navigation system that had every turn pre-programmed into it. No route book was provided, although Michelin provided a complete U.S. atlas to help us see where we were going from day to day.

The tracking system under the rear cargo deck would keep track of our Q7’s position from moment to moment, and would stop calculating speed whenever the Q7 was stopped. We used the driver information system screen between the tachometer and speedometer to keep a constant check on our fuel economy and average speed numbers.

From Chicago, we visited Beale Street in Memphis, the world capital of blues music, and had ribs at B.B. King’s rib joint for dinner. In Little Rock for lunch, we visited the Clinton presidential library complex. In Amarillo, we passed the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the 72-ounce steak dinner, and went to the rodeo. In Denver, we went to the opera house for a private dinner and the final awards ceremony.
In between, we saw the sights, the fall colors, and the ever-changing terrain of middle and mountain America, along with our colleagues from Germany, Australia, France, Spain, Norway, Central America, and Japan, going from slightly above sea level to more than 7800 feet in New Mexico and back down to the Mile-High City where the second leg ended. We drove through nine states, and got no tickets, thanks to our Valentine One radar detector.

After four long days of traveling the Interstates, state and local highways and town roads through the heart of America, the AudiWorld team won the Q7 class fuel economy competition, with a second-place finish among all the journalists on the long first day and three consecutive first-place finishes on the next three legs of the journey, with an overall average fuel economy of 29.6 miles per gallon and an overall average speed of 61.6 miles per hour over the 1842 miles of the second leg. Not bad for a fully laden 5400-pound SUV, and the best overall combination of mileage and speed of any Q7 team on any leg.

The media drivers on the other three waves got to see Manhattan, the Philadelphia historic district, the national Capitol, the lights of Las Vegas, the red rocks of Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, and, a special treat for the Wave Four drivers, a parade lap at the final ALMS race of the season at Laguna Seca, where the Audi R10 was once again crowned champion of P1 sports car racing and Emanuele Pirro raced the last race of his 15-year career.

The final stats: 4888 miles traveled in a total of about 93 hours on the road for an average speed of about 53 mph. The Q7 average economy was well less than ours at 27.6 mpg, with an average tank range of 729 miles. The smaller Q5 fleet averaged 31.8 mpg with a range of 631miles. Audi’s new A4 3.0 TDI sedans averaged 36.2 mpg with a tank range of 622 miles, and the little A3 topped them all with a mileage of 44.6 mpg and a tank range of 643 miles.

If they ever decide to do this again, sign us up! (and the rumor is that Audi wll be doing regional, dealer-centered diesel mileage runs like these for their diesel buyers as early as next spring).


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