First drive: 2015 Audi A3 TDI

 

On paper the A3 TDI is capable of going toe-to-toe with most hybrids, but in practice is capable of much, much more. In the hands of a committed hypermiler, it eats Prii for breakfast.

I wasn’t worried about the journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to San Diego, California until the Audi representative mentioned satellite phones. I had assumed that the trek would be a dull if scenic vacation. Audi apparently had other ideas. To show off the efficiency and comfort of its new A3 TDI, Audi forced us journalists to drive the 834 miles on a single 13.2-gallon tank of diesel.

Audi included satellite phones in the cars not so we could call our relatives living overseas but rather in order to summon help incase our diesel tanks went dry in the middle of the desert or areas near the Mexican border better known for frequent drug murders.

Related: First drive: 2015 Audi A3

Yet, as the Audi reps revealed in the briefing, the help we would summon on the satellite phones might not be help we’d actually want. The first journalist to run out of diesel would be completing the journey in a decrepit Ford Aspire, which, despite its maker’s aspirations, was no closer to being a car than it had been when it rolled off the assembly line.

The car

With those stakes in mind, I decided I was going to have to take this seriously. Fortunately the A3, being a product of Germany, had no lack of seriousness. Even so, the chances of making the entire trek on a single tank seemed a little bleak. The EPA rates the Audi A3 TDI at 43 mpg – an impressive figure to be sure. The problem is that to successfully complete the 836-mile odyssey, my driving partner and I would need to average 63 mpg over two days. Which, just in case you’re horrid with numbers, is 20 mpg more than the government rating.

2015 Audi A3 TDI

I was only slightly comforted by the fact that the A3 TDI features a truly great power plant: a direct-injected 2.0-liter turbo diesel four-cylinder that churns out 150 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque. Those are impressive figures. However, to get the most out of the engine, I would need to use no more than 50 of those torques as I crawled across the highways of New Mexico, Arizona, and California at 45 mph.

On the upside, the A3 TDI proved a very comfortable place to spend the two days of agonizing climbs and thrilling descents that lay ahead. Audi may have stripped down its normally luxurious interior for its entry-level model, but what is there shows that companies normal attention to detail and flair. The seats in particular stand out as being of a very high quality. Over two twelve-hour days, I came away without a single ache or strain.

The journey

Given the size of the task, my driving partner and I knew we would need a plan. Over an unspecified number of drinks the night before our departure, we decided that we were willing to do our damnedest to make the entire journey on one tank. Though, we were not quite willing to comprise our safety. This meant no suicidal semi-truck drafting, nor did it mean that we’d crawl along too far below the natural flow of traffic. In the end, it was this last bit that proved our undoing.

Like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, our trip from Albuquerque to San Diego would involve a great deal of slogging through mountains. Instead of Orc attacks to enliven things, however, we would have to make do with an un-air-conditioned journey through the desert.

Soon after leaving Albuquerque, we began our first climb into the mountains. Immediately two things became clear: absolutely everything would be passing us along the way and hills are absolute mileage killers.

As we struggled up the hills in the lowest speed that the transmission would stay in without downshifting, we were forced to put our hazards on and watch as traffic moved by. In the first two hours alone, everything from an RV towing a Ford Explorer to an actual stately home being towed behind a truck passed us up.

Despite our heroic slowness, 63 mpg was nowhere in sight for most of the first day. My driving partner battled hills and curves until lunch when it was my turn, our average of 54 mpg hanging heavily on my head. Not only would we know our failure, but also to the Twitter-verse, as legions of Audi fans followed our every move.

2015 Audi A3 TDI

Behind the wheel, I quickly learned that hypermiling – when not slowly eroding my will to live – can be a challenging chess game.

After lunch, the next step in our course was a curvy two-lane strip of pavement running through hill country. The turns, descents, and rises called for extremely close attention, as I tried to maximize the A3’s momentum. Each downhill was a race to build up as much speed as possible, while burning as little fuel as possible. Then on the short rises I had to time getting off the throttle perfectly so that I would coast to the top at no less than 40 mph, the speed at which the transmission downshifted into fifth.

If I guessed wrong, or the crest continued past the point visible to me, it would mean burning precious diesel to build up momentum. All the while being subjected to the glares and flashing lights of whatever poor soul happened to be trapped behind me. One trick that soon became apparent was to use the Google Earth image displayed on the Audi’s MMI infotainment screen to try and read the terrain ahead.

The first hour of this battle left me tired. The following six hours, however, left me feeling as if I had just gone six rounds with mighty Thor.

Despite all my work, and more favorable terrain than we had faced in the morning, we were averaging only 57.1 mpg by the time we reached our overnight spot in Sedona. The next day would be worse; not only did we have to cover more distance, but also we had to do it through the desert, A/C off and windows up.

I could rhapsodize about the sheer funkiness of our little Teutonic sweat lodge. But I don’t know that the English language has the vocabulary to describe the smell, or the misery of knowing salvation and doom was a mere button push away. In the end, though, what truly brought about our mileage doom was the fact that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to drive slowly enough.

2015 Audi A3 TDI

When my co-pilot and I hit the final and excruciatingly long final hill climb, we were faced with a few options. We could either A.) Continue up the 75-mph hill at 45 and hope we didn’t run out of diesel by a Mexican boarder fence where we’d be immediately murdered by either zealous Border Patrol agents or by drug cartel henchmen. Or B.) Simply pull over and throw in the towel at one of Audi’s designated bailout points. We chose the latter.

The takeaway

Having made our fateful choice, as the car began to display increasingly panicked warnings about the seriously low fuel level, we sped up and turned on the air conditioning. I can’t quite describe to you how blissful it felt to drive like a normal human being for the first time in two days, with the A/C blasting our sweaty faces. Pulling into the final turnout, our trip odometer read 736 miles with 0 remaining on the original tank.

Fortunately for us, we were not the first to run out of diesel. Instead, we did better on range than all but four teams. Given how hard we worked for this modest achievement, I was left with one conclusion as we completed the journey into San Diego in a brand-new Audi A3 Cabriolet: Hypermiling like this just isn’t worth it.

We could have achieved a substantial improvement on the EPA estimate by taking simple steps like reducing overall speed and taking full advantage of our momentum wherever possible.

In the A3 TDI this would have been easy; it really is an efficient car. Yet, those final five or so MPG are costly and miserable ones to achieve. This, I suspect, is a conclusion the winners of the challenge would attest to as they arrived at the Pacific Ocean long after the sun had set, some 16 hours after they had set out that morning.

Highs

  • Amazing fuel economy
  • Comfortable seats
  • Refined ride and handling

Lows

  • High price
  • Undistinguished styling