I’ll admit I had a few brief moments of despair. One was when I realized that I was not going to find a seating position comfortable enough for me to fall asleep. One was when I realized we were barely into New Mexico and we still had more than 2000 miles to go. One was definitely when I had to listen to Prince’s “Batdance,” Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” and other Eighties, uh, classics for the second or third time (radio-station selection was the driver’s choice, and apparently Sirius XM is on a loop on the weekends).
I was participating in an ambitious cross-country trip organized by Wayne Gerdes, a hypermiling guru and the owner of CleanMPG.com. The premise was simple: Take three of Audi’s new 2014 turbodiesel-powered vehicles—an A6 TDI, an A7 TDI, and a Q5 TDI—and motor them from Los Angeles to New York City in less than 48 hours, while beating the EPA highway mpg estimates of 38 (A6 and A7) and 31 (Q5). Audi dubbed the undertaking “Truth in 48.” I figured the trip would be just the way I imagined the legendary Brock Yates “Cannonball” cross-country races of the Seventies (only without the illegal speeds or illegal stimulants), and I wasn’t far off.
Three teams of drivers (four in each vehicle, comprised of journalists, CleanMPG.com members, and Wayne himself) gathered at the Audi Pacific dealership in Torrance, CA, the morning of Saturday, September 7 to load up the vehicles with our stuff and ourselves. It was a tight fit—the trunks and cargo areas of all three Audis were packed to the limit with suitcases, backpacks, duffel bags, and coolers of food and drink. Wayne made sure we were seriously stocked with as much non-perishable sack-lunch fare as we could carry—the tight schedule meant that there would be no time for leisurely sit-down meals, even at a fast-food joint. The cargo area of the Q5 (my assigned vehicle) was crammed so full that we had to pile a lot of our stuff on the pull-back cargo cover. (Side note: An empty Coca-Cola case makes a fine container for 20 or so peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.)
After the obligatory photo ops, we caravanned to a nearby Shell station (Shell was the fuel sponsor for the trip) to top off the tanks and seal the fuel-filler doors with sticker labels to show there would be no “unofficial” fueling. After that, we hit the road in earnest around 11 am.
From there, it was go-go-go. A key feature of the Audi TDIs is outstanding cruising range… each of these vehicles can easily be driven more than 600 miles on a single tank of fuel. We only needed four carefully planned fuel stops to cross the country: in Gallup, New Mexico; El Reno, Oklahoma; Effingham, Illinois; and Columbus, Ohio.
For each refueling stop, there was at least one driver switch/bathroom break at a roadside rest area, but the protocol for all stops was the same: Hurry up! On the fuel stops, one guy started filling the vehicle with the pre-paid fuel card, one guy washed the windows, one guy emptied the trash, and the other hustled into the station to hit the john and round up some supplemental munchies posthaste. Bathroom break/driver changes were even quicker—hustle to the head, do your business, hightail it back to the vehicles, do a few quick stretches, then pile in and head out again. I saw Wayne running to and from the cars more than once… I’m pretty sure he was never at less then a jog during every stop, and he seemed perturbed that the rest of us weren’t moving at the same clip.
I was able to hang with this schedule, with one notable exception. Despite trying hard to avoid it, I had to make an unscheduled bathroom stop a short time after sun-up on Sunday morning. (Sorry, guys—my bladder felt like it was going to explode… guess I didn’t eat enough salty chips to offset the Gatorade.) Our itinerary was tight enough that this unplanned solo stop threatened to throw a wrench into the whole plan. After about an hour of hand-wringing (and slightly extralegal speeds), we caught up to the other two cars, and there was rejoicing all around.
Otherwise, the pace behind the wheel was less frantic, but still plenty intense. I was definitely the amateur of my group, but thankfully my copilots—all experienced hypermilers and members of the CleanMPG website—were patient teachers. Which was good, because getting the best possible mileage out of a vehicle requires a much higher level of driving focus and finesse than simply blasting down the highway. Using cruise control was verboten; instead, we strove to maintain a target speed within a window of 5 to 10 mph. When climbing grades, we applied a touch more throttle… enough so that we didn’t lose too much speed, but not enough to cause the transmission to downshift. When descending, we eased way off the throttle to take advantage of the “free” momentum. The idea was to keep the engine under as steady a “load” as possible.
Wayne and his CleanMPG.com members have their own jargon to refer to hypermiling techniques. They toss around terms like “ridge riding” (hugging the edge of the right lane, outside the normal “grooves” in a roadway) and “surf drafting” (driving in the airflow “wake” of an 18-wheeler for a slight reduction in aerodynamic drag) the same way drag racers talk about reaction times and ETs. There are also plenty of acronyms in the CleanMPG glossary, such as “NICE-On” (Neutral internal combustion engine on) and “DFCO” (deceleration fuel cut-off, also known simply as “fuel cut”) —both of these terms refer to downhill coasting techniques. A NICE-On is achieved by shifting the vehicle into neutral on a gradual downhill slope; temporarily disengaging the engine from the drivetrain maximizes the vehicle’s ability to coast. A fuel cut is achieved simply by lifting all the way off the throttle when descending steeper grades; this technique maintains engine braking so that the vehicle doesn’t pick up too much speed. (For more info on these and many other hypermiling terms, check out the CleanMPG.com website.)
My mood improved steadily as the trip progressed, and we got closer and closer to our goal. (The decent nap I got in the front-passenger seat of the Audi A7 when we changed up vehicles for a leg on Sunday helped also.) As Monday morning rolled around, we were well into Pennsylvania and it was becoming clear that victory would be ours.
We crossed the George Washington Bridge into New York City at about a quarter past noon Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, and rolled into the final Shell station a few minutes later. The total elapsed time for the entire trip was 46 hours and 9 minutes—comfortably within our 48-hour window. The official fuel-economy average for our Q5 was 38.62 mpg, with an average speed of 61.9 mph. Not surprisingly, that number was lower than the numbers achieved by the lighter, more-aerodynamic A6 and A7 sedans (which scored 43.56 and 42.65 mpg, respectively), but it’s worth noting that our Q5 number trumped the vehicle’s official EPA rating (31 mpg) by a significantly higher margin than the two cars. (We beat it by 24.6 percent, compared to 12.25 percent for the A7 and 14.63 percent for the A6.) That counts as kind of a win, right?
All three Audis performed flawlessly for the entire trip. The turbodiesel versions give up virtually nothing to their gasoline-engine counterparts in terms of drivability, noise levels, and all-around comfort. Sleep deprivation, muscle cramps, gas-station food, and annoying music aside, it’s an experience I’m glad to have under my belt. I have no interest in doing it again any time soon… unless it was in an Audi A8L TDI. I could stretch out and get some real sleep in the back seat of that car.
We drive the Volkswagen Beetle Convertible TDI. Click here to read more.