Saturday, April 04, 2009

Audi Q5 Driving Experience

As a die-hard BMW aficionado, it might seem strange that I'm also an Audi fan. Credit that change of heart to last August's Audi Driving Experience! That said, it's fair to say that where there are a number of options, the choice I'm looking for is "All of the above!" My ideal garage contains a couple Ferraris, a Porsche or two, several BMWs (my 550i, an M5 for the track, and a 650i once a hard-top is available), a 2009 Corvette ZR1, and would still have room two or three Audis. I'd also have a bay or two for the motorcycle collection (Suzuki GSX-R1000, Ducati 1098, Yamaha R1, Honda CBR1000, BMW S1200RR).

In any case, offered the opportunity to drive someone else's car (or bike), I'm there! Especially when I don't have to worry about abusing their tires and brake pads.

If you're in the DC area and have nothing planned for tomorrow, run-don't-walk, to sign up for one of tomorrow's sessions:! Then, read on. If you're outside the DC area, check out for your options.

Complimentary, Audi hosts a fantastic well-run event, with a good balance between the marketing and sales pitch, technical briefing, and hands-on driving. Yesterday's all-day affair included continental breakfast, all the cappuccino and lattes you can stand, and was wrapped up with a very nice lunch. Again, all compliments of Audi. Classy.

An overcast drive on 495 turned to rain, which, shortly after our arrival in the Audi tent, turned to torrential downpour. OK. Good for testing stability control systems.

We arrived shortly before 10AM, so had ample time to enjoy the amenities in the first tent as we waited for the kick-off of our 10:30AM session.

The planetarium-like briefing introduced us to Audi and the Q5. Although there are many features of note, probably the most catchy was the full 3D navigation system with rendering powered by a custom NVIDIA 3-D chip. (I own NVIDIA stock, so I'm glad to see growing demand for their chips! ;-)) Also notable was the surprise announcement that we'd also be driving the supercharged V6 A6. Woohoo!

Following the briefing, the skies began to clear, and we moved to the hands-on briefing. These briefings were much more marketing-oriented for the Q5 than they had been for the A4 in August. And, we missed a few key features (turning parking break on/off, turning off rear windshield wipers) that might have been handy. But, who's complaining!

On to the first drive! We split up into three groups. Our group of three Q5s followed our Audi leader on a tour of the area around FedEx Field. It was all quite sedate. Aside from the ride height and elevated view out the windows, it's pretty much like driving a big A4 (which, by the way, is what the Q5 is at heart -- based on the A4, it has a 4" wider wheelbase to preserve the CG relative to the tires).

Back in the FedEx stadium parking lot, we split up into two groups. I was initially disappointed as we headed to the A6, figuring they would be the highlight of the experience; a great place to finish. As it turned out, they were a nice step up from the drive on street. The A6 supercharger launched nicely off the starting line, shifted cleanly into second just before the cones denoting the braking point, and then jumping on the brakes brought ABS into play for a stop well ahead of the turn. The power and braking were not substantially different than I'm used to in the BMW 550i, so it wasn't that impressive of an experience for me. But, to say that a 3 liter V6 is matching performance of a 360 HP 4.8 liter V8 is saying a lot. And, with the supercharger, there's absolutely no turbo-lag.

The more impressive experience was as the passenger. The G-forces that I usually expect from the initial launch were much more surprising when someone else is controlling the throttle, and the first two or three seconds were quite roller-coaster-like. Wheeeee!

Sadly, the shift into second made the relative lack of horsepower evident. With 360 HP, my 550i is just getting going when you shift into 2nd gear at 44 MPH; it continues to pull hard in 2nd until the next 70 MPH shift point. And, would continue to pull hard at 70 MPH in 3rd, if there was anywhere around here to do that. (It continues to pull hard in 6th once you get the car into the 90+ MPH zone. During our trip in Munich, I routinely forgot that I was in 6th rather than 5th at 100 MPH.) If anyone is seeing this as a play for Audi to get me in their S5 and their R8... they'd be right. One way or another, a trip to Sonoma and the Audi Sportscar Experience is in my future!

As we wrapped up the runs in the A6, we watched other group yank the Q5s through the road course blocked out by orange cones. Ah! Now, that's more like it as we watched full-throttle acceleration into S turns, followed by a hard left. One of the Q5s got the rear out in the hard left. Oh yeah!

We each got our own Q5. I took the lead car, and was first out on the track. After a intro run behind the Audi leader, we were each launched one by one onto the course, advised to take the first lap easy.

The first lap was indeed easy, and I was fortunate to sort my way through all the cones. (Others weren't so fortunate.)

My second lap, I pushed harder, and caught up with the car in front of me that had gone off the course. Oops...

My third lap, I pushed still harder, and found that I could break the wheels loose on the wet pavement (the sun was out, and the track was clearing under the cars -- but not yet dry). Hard acceleration in the Ss, right-left-right, then left, hard. Around to the left, then right hard. Accelerate briefly into a hard off-camber left (the parking lot slopped steeply to the car's right at that part of the "track"), and around the left into slalom cones left, right, left, right, left, then hard right and then into the "pit" chicane. Slow, and stop behind the line of traffic.

What a rush! Breath. Relax.

Repeat! Fourth and fifth laps, I accelerated the entire time except where necessary to stay within the cones. On my third or fourth lap, I just about ran over the cones on the off-camber turn, but was able to balance braking and throttle to use the front wheels to pull the Q5 through the remainder of the turn. Confidence inspiring! Even wildly abused, the Q5 maintains its composure.

The fifth lap was just silly, as I was now fully comfortable with the car, and the lay of the track. Tires complaining at every turn and then engine revving hard much of the time; where's the video recorder when I need it!

Heart rate returning to normal as we walked back to the tent for debriefing and a quick 15 question "test" / competition, lunch preparation was under way.

We took the post-event survey, giving Audi high marks, and then jumped in line for lunch.

Wrapping up close to 2PM, it was a very full day! A quick spin through the empty FedEx parking lot gave the 550i a chance to breath and wear off a little tire. OK! Time to head home before the FedEx security folks call the police.

Thanks again Audi! A fantastic experience that I'd recommend highly to any car fan!!

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