Monday, August 11, 2008

Audi Driving Experience


The relatively innocuous Audi marketing flyer showed up about a month ago. Opening up the tri-fold brochure, I noted the "Two-Hour Introductory Program (Complimentary)"... interesting.

Registration revealed that Summit Point Motorsports Park in nearby Summit Point, WV was hosting Audi's program from August 7-13. Nice. Times were available in the afternoon on Friday (last Friday, to be exact). Even better!

It turns out that Summit Point Raceway now has three tracks! Although their URL shows "Raceway," their website now confirms that they're a "Motorsports Park." The Audi event was held on the Shenandoah Circuit -- a track I didn't even know existed until a day before the event. Not a huge track, but large enough to be split into two separate loops; one for the A4s and one for competitor testing.

As a BMW loyalist, it was unlikely that Audi was going to sell me a new car. But, I figured I should give them the opportunity -- and, who can pass up free track time, really!?

Arriving just before 3PM, registration went smoothly, leaving time to grab a drink (also complementary) and survey the track and the prior session's sets of drivers finishing their final runs.

One set of A4s was following the instructor in his S5. Another pack, made up of Audi TT, A4, A5, A6, A8 and Q7 following another S5. And, on a separate track in the distance, the 2009 Audi A4 went head-to-head against the 2008 BMW 328xi, 2008 Lexus IS 250 and the Mercedes-Benz C300.

Shortly after 3PM, we joined an Audi instructor for the combination driving instruction / engineering briefing / marketing pitch. Among things, we learned about Audi's new "Drive Select" which enables on-the-fly tuning of speed-sensitive steering ratio, suspension stiffness, throttle response, and transmission shift points. Interesting.

Following the "training", half of us split for the head-to-head testing, the other half (including me) headed for their A4s for the high-speed run on the larger portion of the Shenandoah Circuit.

I selected the car immediately behind the instructor, and ended up as the only driver without a passenger. Bonus! (Twice as much driving time for me!)

The first lap, we took at a relatively slow pace, to learn the track and the proper racing line.

Second and third laps progressively increased the pace. Still nowhere near the limits of the car, but lots of fun. In particular, turn three (counting clockwise from the top-middle turn on the map) was tight enough that it was easy to begin to slide the car, and exiting three and accelerating for turn-four really allowed the quattro (all-wheel drive) to shine, as the front wheels yank the car forward into the next turn.

Elevation changes on this circuit are notable. Not quite up to Laguna Seca standards (i.e., Turn 8 and 8A), but still very impressive.

Possibly most notable is turn 7 (by my count) marked by the bright white concrete curve. This turn is modeled after a famous turn from the Nurburgring in Germany; this one, I think. Banked at 20 to 30 degrees, much higher speeds should be possible for the intrepid. Coming off the bank and onto the flat at 40 to 50 mph is quite a transition.

Up the hill, accelerating to 70 mph and over the crest through turn 8, then breaking hard and heading down the hill through turns 9 and 10 past the pit area. Several more turns brings up the final straight, and a top speed of roughly 90 mph (or, 145 kph, as seen by some drivers).

I, for one, was too busy watching the road (and staying off the instructor's bumper) to bother checking the speedometer. Plus, I found that the feel of the car and the view out the windshield told me all I needed to know about speed for the few laps that I ran.

We were nowhere near the limit of the A4, as I found that I could break far after the instructor (in his S5) and could accelerate far harder than space allowed (holding to one to three car-lengths all speeds from 40 to 90 mph). Impressive!

The "Drive Select" was interesting, but I found that the "performance" setting was the only thing I wanted on the track. It would be a lot of fun to play with in real-life: Great to tune between "comfort" ride for long trips, and "performance" for fun. Or, try the "auto" setting to let the car choose for itself based on driving conditions.

And, the automatic was flawless. I had no need for the paddle-shifters, as the car seemed to know the right gear at every moment, in each part of every curve. Amazing. (Years ago, I had my automatic BMW M3 on the larger track, and was continuously harassed by its late downshifts in Turns 1, 2, and especially 10! In my 1986 RX-7 I had managed a top speed of 115 MPH on the straight. In my more powerful 1995 M3, the automatic destabalized the car so much in turn 10 that I never made it past 110 MPH before getting back on the breaks for turn 1. Sad. With a 5-speed stick-shift, 115 MPH would have been easy, and 120 MPH should have been possible. Top speed for the car, as I recall, was 133 MPH.... funny... my gixer will do that in under 10 seconds.)

Wrapping up our tour in the A4s, we headed back to the pits to transition to Part 2 of the driving experience.

Three laps in each car gave each of us a chance to compare the handling, breaking, and acceleration of each car. While many of the other 16 groups had three drivers, I had only one partner, yielding an extra turn at the wheel for each of us on alternate cars.

Mercedes C300 was first up, with OK steering, soft handling with a lot of body roll, effective but soft brakes, and barely OK acceleration.

Lexus IS 250 was next, and was a lot of fun to push hard. Steering and turn-in were good, suspension was good, brakes were good (and encouraged abuse of the ABS in the brake-test portion of the track) and acceleration was good.

BMW 328xi was third, and suffered from the same automatic shift problem I'd experienced in my 1995 M3. Suspension, brakes, and acceleration were all good, but it struggled for the correct gear on a couple of turns.

Audi A4 was the last of the bunch, and was a blast to drive hard. Of the bunch, it had the best "all wheel" drive feel, had perfect throttle control, and provided excellent feedback about the limits. Suspension, brakes, and acceleration were all excellent.

So, there it is: 4th: Mercedes, 3rd: BMW, 2nd: Lexus, and 1st... Audi.

Thanks to the folks at Audi for a great afternoon!!

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