Audi Mileage Marathon Prologue: Dieselmania Running Wild
Much like a rocker whose star had faded that's found a new muse, diesel passenger cars are seemingly on the comeback in oil-burning-phobic America -- at least that's what automakers like Audi are hoping. The last time the climate was ripe for diesels to take over, Jimmy Carter was president, the Corvette had less than 200 hp, and the minivan wasn't anywhere on Lee Iacocca's radar. Famously, or perhaps infamously, the first diesel experiment ended poorly, with customers balking at the engine clatter, the pollution, and in some cases, serious mechanical issues.
Version 2.0 suffers from none of these indignities. The clatter has been virtually eliminated -- oh, sure, it's still there, but no more so than the telltale rumble of a V-8 under the hood of a Mustang GT -- the pollution has been eliminated with trick technology designed to meet California's stringent emissions regulations (unlike Europe, the U.S. has one single standard for diesel and gasoline engines), and the mechanical problems look to be a ghost of the past.
We've already sampled offerings from three of the four major European players in the diesel game -- Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen. Last month, we took a brand new Mercedes-Benz ML320 BlueTEC on a cross-country voyage from Los Angeles to New York with an old 190D playing Robin to the M-Class' Batman. El Jefe MacKenzie just finished putting major miles on a brand-new 2009 BMW 335d in Europe that will eventually be spending a year in our garage, joining the recently arrived 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Now its Audi's turn.
Auto Union will enter the fray next year with a 3.0L turbodiesel V-6 under the hood of its Q7 SUV. The engine makes 225 hp and over 400 lb-ft of torque and can hit as high as 25 mpg. To prove that the latter figure isn't just an empty boast, Audi is putting on the Audi Mileage Marathon, a 13-day, four-leg adventure taking journalists from New York to Los Angeles, but in a manner about as direct as our Mercedes adventure. Yours truly is on Leg 2, which runs from Chicago to Denver -- by way of Memphis, Dallas, and Amarillo. As the name implies, fuel mileage will be paramount, but there won't be any silly hypermiling tricks involved and no semis will be drafted since speed counts as well. The winner becomes the person that achieves the highest average fuel economy with the highest average speed.
To ensure there's no shenanigans, Audi brought IMSA along to monitor the action. For the uninitiated, IMSA -- the International Motor Sports Association -- is the sanctioning body for the American Le Mans Series among others. The ALMS is the most relevant since Audi's R10 has been dominating the LMP1 class there for several years. At the start of each day, the cars are given to us journalists with fully filled and sealed tanks and there are instruments on board that monitor speed and fuel consumption. Topping off at the nearest Chevron is not an option. Besides the Q7, Audi also has A4s and Q5s on hand that feature the same 3.0L V-6, as well as a pair of A3s with a 2.0L I-4, though only the Q7 is a concrete part of Audi's North American product plan at this point.
The folks at Audi were cagey about what fuel economy the first wave was able to achieve, merely saying that it was "remarkable," but the aforementioned 25 mpg figure doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility. Tomorrow's leg to Memphis is the longest of the entire escapade, with around nine hours of travel time scheduled. Is 25 mpg a reality in a full-size luxury SUV weighing north of two and a half tons? We shall see.