Friday
Jun252010

The Audi Driving Experience

THE INTERNET BOARDS SERVE UP A NUGGET -

If you spend as much time on internet car bulletin boards as I do, you acquire a certain cyberspace persona. Personally, I’ve styled myself as the disinformation eliminator. As a relatively old guy in the internet’s primordial goo, I wander through bulletin boards hacking down forests of uninformed enthusiasts who stand in the way of truth and useful information. You know the folks I’m talking about, saying things like the LS series GM V-8s are lousy because they have pushrods, the Mazda RX-8 handles like crap, or that their buddy’s 911 GT2 is junk because it keeps breaking axles at the drag strip. With a nod towards education, I sugarcoat the “enlightenment” of these whippersnappers with a good dose of “I was as dumb as you once”.

Occasionally, the car boards do give something back. One day, it was a post asking if anyone had signed up for the “Audi Driving Experience”. Not me I thought, I’ve been to those kind of events and they’re only interesting once. You show up to a big parking lot and drive cars through cones for 30 seconds, only to get out and stand in line for 20 minutes to do it again. Unless the food is absolutely terrific and unlimited in quantity, I’m not interested.

The Audi Driving Experience though, is a much different animal. It includes lapping two of Audi's superstar hotrods on the NASCAR configuration of Infineon Raceway in Sonoma California. Those two just happen to be the ones any enthusiast would pick; the RS4 plus the beautiful and searingly fast Audi R8. Now they had my attention. Was it available to the general public? Yes. Did they have room for the upcoming event at Infineon? Yes. How many laps in the R8 again? 4 or so. How much money to do all this? $700 please, sir.

Sold!

I sign up and the date soon comes. I pack up my helmet and camera, and its off to Infineon to drive several cars I’ll probably never be able to afford. Xanadu.

With great anticipation, I head into the registration building, where I'm greeted by an enthusiastic staff and a nice buffet of breakfast foods. Big screen TV’s playing Audi advertisements are abundant. After a short wait, it's off to the orientation session.

A FINE START TO THE DAY -

Once in the orientation room, one of the instructors takes us through the basic characteristics of front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, and Audi’s Quattro system. He outlines what we will be doing that day. Looking around the room I glance at everyone’s shoes….you can always tell the weekend racer or autocrosser types by their specialist driving shoes. I count 6 hardcores of the 19 people in our group. After this short presentation, we are led out to the cars.

Our first exercise is what I call “The Audi TT Ballet”. We are buckled into new 3.2TT Quattros (2 people per car) and then instructed to guide the cars through a short circular course at walking speed. The exercise is intended to familiarize everyone with the 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock steering wheel hand positions, and to execute proper steering technique. In reality, it is a bunch of TTs doing slow, dreamy circles. It's mesmerizing to both perform and watch, sort of like synchronized car-swimming. Alrighty then.

Next, we move on to the panic braking exercise. A brace of A4 3.2 Quattro automatics are on hand to perform this feat. The one I drive turns out to have the S-Line performance suspension option. The purpose of this panic-braking exercise is to blast full throttle from a standstill towards a cone formation, clobber the brakes, then steer to the left through a gap in the cones. Now understand, my brain has a hard time computing instructions for planned-panic scenarios like that. It just feels so completely unnatural to hurl a car at a line of cones, then stab and steer through them while standing on the brake pedal. Nevertheless that’s what we do, and the cars perform beautifully. It's quite illuminating  actually, as the ABS systems are so good that these cars are easily manuvered while under maximum braking. Fun, if a little weird.

Next up is the the accident avoidance exercise; basically the same as above without the braking. We are told to accelerate full throttle towards a similar cone setup, but this time we are to lift off the throttle and do a quick left-right steer through a gap in the cones. Ah, this is more like it, much more natural. The cars for this exercise were A6’s; two 4.2L V-8 sedans and one 3.2L wagon. I buckled into one of the V-8 cars, but I wish I’d chosen in the wagon with its extra mass to see how it measured up.  The A6's perform really well in this transitional maneuver, with a minimum of drama. An extra treat is watching our instructor Emil perform an intentional tank-slapper spin highlighting how NOT to do things. Pretty cool…..

With the panic maneuvers under our belt, we then move to a short circular autocross course to do repeated laps in an A3, A8, and a Q7. The A3 performs as expected, going where you point it, showing good balance, etc. Its competence actually makes it a little boring, the bigger cars are more fun.
The A8 is incredibly impressive in this exercise. It’s huge let's be clear, but remarkably agile and  corners with poise and balance, I’d even describe it as tossable. It understeers at the limit of course, but if you show restraint with the throttle and anticipate the gearbox’s shift action you can really hustle this big cruiser through a tight course. I'm so impressed that I pick the A8 as the biggest revelation of the day.

Last up is the Q7 SUV, on the face of it a vehicle that couldn’t be less suited to this type of exercise. It also acquits itself surprisingly well once I adapt to its unique set of characteristics. Keep in mind this is a very heavy vehicle with a high center of gravity, but it also has big wide tires and less body roll than you would imagine. Getting it to go through the course quickly is all about throttle control. Give it just a millimeter too much gas and all that mass shoves the nose wide with enormous howls of protest from the front tires. Keep it under that limit and it wiggles through the cones very well. A very fun experiment!

Our next task is the timed autocross. This is a short 6-turn course with a hairpin at the far end. 3.2 TT Quattros are the weapons provided, all using Audi’s DSG twin-clutch automatic. We are given two practice runs, then 3 timed runs in a friendly competition. It is executed like any other autocross format, except that at the end of the run you're required to come to a complete stop in a box formed by cones. This is definitely not a natural thing compared to SCCA events where you hyperspace through the finish line as fast as possible. I keep the TT in automatic mode, choosing to concentrate on the course. I also turn off the stability control, letting the Haldex Quattro system do its thing unimpeded. The TT is great in this exercise, with sharp, precise turn-in and the Quattro system keeping the rear end in check. I think this car would do very well in stock autocross classes; the addition of some adjustable shocks would make it formidable. Another fun exercise, even if I do leave several tenths on the table by miscalculating the weird finish-box thing.

MOVING ON TO THE HEAVY MACHINERY: R8 and RS4  –

R8

Once we're done with the autocross, we move over towards pitlane on the track where the RS4’s and R8’s are parked. There is a big table with an array of silver Arai helmets on offer which everyone gets fitted for. I figure after this there would be an information session about the R8s and what the drive would be like. However, that isn't what happens. Once we all had our helmets on, it was straight to the cars, get in quickly, seatbelts on, and a quick radio check (radios were handheld units in the console cupholders, for one-way communication from the lead car). With the radio check complete, we get the “let’s go” and off our instructor goes, away from me. I do not move.

The reason for this is that my car isn't running, nor could I get it running. In our speedy move into the cars, I am not briefed by Audi Strategic Command on the procedure to start this most special R-Tronic transmission R8. Turn the key? No. Slide the lever over to the left and turn the key? No. Turn the key off, put the lever to the left, press the brake pedal, then turn the key again? No. Granted, on every turn of the key the gauge needles give me enthusiastic sweeps of encouragement, but the 4.2L FSI behind my head stays dead as a moon rock.

The instructor realizes what is happening and backs up. He then guides me through a procedure that involves pressing on the brake pedal, moving the lever to the left, pressing on the gas, pulling back on the upshift paddle, turning the key, and maybe something else. Who the hell knows what order those steps are in, I certainly don't. Suffice it to say that it’s a needlessly complicated procedure. Hope and pray you never need to make a quick getaway from a carjacking, although the thief wouldn’t get very far either.

Anyway, once its fired the engine makes the appropriately hard edged, deep rumbly V-8 sounds that you would expect. The automatic clutch take-up is very smooth, and we are off and running.

Infineon Raceway (formerly known as Sears Point) is a very fun track with big hills and undulating terrain, off-camber blind corners, a challenging S-bend section and a significant hairpin at the end of a lap. Even though I’ve never physically driven it, I know it very well from watching countless races. We ran on what is called the NASCAR configuration, which eliminates several corners in lieu of a couple short straights. For our exercise it was perfect, it gave us good full-throttle stretches and straight braking zones. Our first lap was more or less a 2/3 speed reconnaissance run, with the instructor communicating to us where to brake, when to be smooth, when to go full throttle, etc. On lap 2, we picked up the pace.

Once up to speed, our time is spent in gears 2, 3, and 4. This engine puts out an amazing amount of torque for its size, with significant shove from as little as 2500 rpm all the way up. The race car soundtrack is there throughout, it sounds fantastic. Taking it full throttle from the exit of the hairpin, it's a warp-drive blast through second, third, and fourth gear, up past the start/finish line into the first uphill left-hand sweeper. The car is totally planted through this section, with very little drama as it simply squats down and roars. It's so forgiving and adjustable, you can alter your line significantly without any complaint or strange behavior from the chassis. This is a car that despite its unfamiliarity, is very, very easy to drive fast.

On a side note, as you thunder past the start/finish line at Infineon you become quite aware of that concrete wall to your right . In the back of your head you can’t help but imagine the hit you’d take if you somehow got it wrong at 100+ mph. Gulp…

On the curvy parts, the R8 exhibits very little understeer and body roll is almost nonexistent. Awesome. Even at full throttle you can move it back and forth with corrections and it simply responds, no drama. Steering is accurate without being nervous, it is very linear and has good feel. The brakes are phenomenal, and despite our pace we really only use them to half of their capability. The combination of power and chassis balance makes the course seem small; as soon as you go through a gear or two at full chat, its back on the brakes again. Turn-in is precise and predictable, as is steady-throttle cornering poise. Again, its just amazing how easy the R8 is to drive quickly.

Some notes on the R-Tronic transmission. It is a clutchless manual, and apparently most of the R8’s sold in the US will come with one. Of course you get to play F1 driver with the paddles, and downshifts are nicely slick with the ECU providing rips of throttle to match revs. Upshifting however isn’t quite as compelling; there is a distinct delay between paddle tap and transmission reaction. When it does upshift it's with a bit of a lurch; something that can produce a disconcerting rear-end wiggle when changing gear in a corner (see comment above on start-finish line concrete wall).

Granted, this transmission behavior isn't near enough to upset the car entirely, but I imagine it would be exponentially cheek-pinching in the wet. Proceed with caution, R8 owners. I’m sure its something one would get used to over time, but its just not for me. I’d personally go for the standard manual transmission version. With a manual transmission the driver has control of the clutch; when to let it out,  give it a pause if you need to, etc. More control equals a safer drive to me.

Oddly, the R-Tronic turned out to be a bit of a distraction on the track. You would assume the opposite, what with the gear lever and clutch pedal being eliminated. However, I repeatedly had to look down at the gear indicator to see what gear I was in, because my mental bookmark of shifting into individual gears was limited to a finger tap. After 2 laps I was able to remember where and when I downshifted, and listened to the engine as well. I don’t think I even looked at the rev-counter once. There was just too much going on with the instructor car in front of me, concentrating on holding my line, making sure I got my apexes right, and keeping my inputs smooth. I ended up shifting by ear, and I figure that was somewhere around 7500 rpm.

Driving position in the R8 is outstanding, as is the interior layout. There is lots of foot well room, without the major pinch-down effect from the front left wheel well like in so many Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The seats are comfortable; the steering wheel adjustable for height and reach, and visibility is quite good. Headroom is ample as well; I may only be 5’9” but I have a torso like Shaq…..therefore my head is regularly scraping the sunroof in all types of cars. Add a helmet to that mix and there’s some vehicles I simply can’t drive (i.e. C5 Corvette and Mazda RX-8). No problem here, I had a full inch of headroom above my helmet, which to me is as good as a full cubic yard. Joy.

So there you have it. A bullet fast supercar with de-facto race engine in back, excellent steering, brilliant chassis dynamics, crushingly strong brakes, and enough grip for a neck sprain. Add to that a great interior with superior ergonomics and room, and you have a serious contender to current Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini offerings. Audi’s 5.0L V-10 and V-12 turbodiesel are now options for the R-8’s engine bay, but I don’t know why…..the V-8 car has every bit as much power as it needs and the biggest performance gain any owner would see is in his/her own driving skill.

Actually I do know why the bigger engines are offered in the R8. It's because the chassis can handle it and people will buy them. Full steam ahead Audi.

RS4
Right after we get out of the R8s, they turn us around and march us right back out onto pitlane into the RS4s. Say…this is more familiar! I’ve got a sedan seating position, sedan visibility, a regular manual transmission, and a key that actually fires the motor when turned. There was a little talk given to the group earlier in the day about being nice to the clutches, apparently a participant in another city fried an RS4 clutch in ¾ of a lap. How in creation they managed that I don’t know, but we all nodded in unison that our group would do no such thing.

Anyway, once strapped in we're straight onto the track. The RS4 carries the same engine as the R8, but that's where the similarities end. This car has the engine hung out over the front axle, it's much taller, has a narrower track, weighs 200lbs more, and of course has four doors and seating for four. It still stands up and scoots though, with significant oomph from the 4.2 FSI…albeit with a more muffled soundtrack.

After the ultra-focused R8, the RS4’s somewhat softer edges were immediately apparent. Engine up front, more vehicle weight, higher center of gravity and less tire? Ladies and gentlemen, understeer. The RS4 is a very rapid, very forgiving and easy car to drive on a track, and the eventual understeer actually proves to be pretty entertaining. That is due to steering that is so wonderfully linear and progressive, you can adjust the whole attitude of the car with millimeters of lock in either direction. This is a far cry from some other Audis, where over-assistance makes high speed maneuvers un-involving, uninspiring, and occasionally dicey.

The Audi RS4 is a car that’s very easy to carve a line with, and also one that rewards very smooth inputs. Hack at the wheel and you’ll bleed off a lot of speed with understeer. If you really wring its neck, with wild abrupt steering, throttle, and brake inputs, the RS4's Quattro system will help keep you on the road ala AWD heroes like the Mitsubishi EVO and Subaru WRX STi.

The RS4’s transitional behavior is very good, with predictable behavior in turns over 90mph. The standard A4 has boatloads of compliance built into its suspension, but the vast majority of that is tuned out of the RS4. Here you have a car with very good balance, excellent steering, strong brakes, and that awesome engine. Push it hard and it understeers, meaning it would take some seriously un-hygenic driving to get it out of shape.

The only improvements I can see for it is a more track-focused suspension and lighter flywheel if trackdays are to be its intended purpose. If it's going to be a street car then it's absolutely perfect as-is. Track junkies will need a little less body roll and a lower center of gravity, but that goes for just about any car. The manual transmission shifts well, has very well spaced ratios and a nicely progressive clutch. If I was going to track an RS4 on a regular basis though, I’d search high and low for a lightweight flywheel. When lapping Infineon, I found myself waiting for the engine to spin down during shifts to make them smooth. A lighter flywheel and short shifter would sharpen up the shifting significantly on the track, but again on the street this change really wouldn’t be needed.

After driving the RS4, and the A4 3.2’s, I found myself wondering exactly what the S4 is for. I wonder if it will end up being a vehicle that will fall into a model range black hole; too much for the 3.2 owner, not enough for the RS4 hardcore. Time will tell I guess, but make mine an RS4 please.

So there you have it. After getting out of the RS4, the experience was suddenly all over. I of course wanted more, and there is more on offer: while the Driving Experience program I took is not on tour at this time,  Audi is currently offering their Sportscar experience in two flavors. First is the S-Model program featuring the current S4, S5, S8, TTS, and R8. The other is the R8 program featuring the new R8 V-10 FSI. Both come in one or two day packages, more info can be found here:

Audi Sportscar Experience

 

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