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Last week, I wrote about the fun and education offered by the Midwest Auto Media Association’s annual rite of spring — the MAMA Spring Rally — where about a hundred new vehicles are brought to Elkhart Lake, Wis., to be driven by 80-100 auto journalists, who learn how the cars drive and handle while also experiencing the sheer joy of driving on the best road-racing course in the country.
But I put off describing how getting there was half the fun. My older son, Jack, who assists me with testing and photos, drove up from the Twin Cities so we could leave early on a Tuesday morning for the six-plus-hour drive diagonally from northwestern Wisconsin to Elkhart Lake, in the southeast region just north of Milwaukee.
We drove down there and back in an Audi Q8, which requires explanation. In Audi’s lexicon, the cars are designated by “A” and the SUVs bh “Q” with the smallest crossover being the Q3, then the Q5 as midsize and the Q7 as the largest. With the cars, the largest is the A8, so when Audi announced it was bringing out the Q8, I assumed it would be huge, by comparison.
To my pleasant surprise, the Q8 is not only less than huge, it is lower and shorter than the Q7. It shares the design cues, although its familiar grille has been altered to contain much wider gaps in its cross-hatch design. So large, in fact, that I suggested it could let a lot of air in, but could also let in insects as large as sparrows, which could clutter up your radiator.
Coming next from Audi is the e-tron, a pure-electric SUV with quattro and all, and we await a chance to test its driving range. For now, the Q8 is plenty high-tech. It comes in hybrid fashion, which Motor Trend claimed is the only available engine, but out test vehicle came with only a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6. It had plenty of power through its 8-speed Tiptronic automatic, and was packed with Audi devices.
I was surprised that the Q8 was not included in the Rally, but apparently Audi was not invited. We vote on the Family Car of the Year at the Rally, and now we vote on the Luxury Car of the Year as well, and the Q8 would have been a definite candidate for that one. But no matter. I got to experience it in real-world conditions and it came through regally.
Listed at a moderate $67,400, the test Q8 totaled $79,340 once you added on the Premium Plus package, the Driver Assistance Package, the Year One package and the Towing package. That meant the jump up to 22-inch alloy wheels and virtually every driver-assist item you’ve ever heard of to protect drivers from obstacles moving or stationary, ahead, behind or on either side. It will stop short of an obstruction or slow-moving vehicle, and its superb handling augments its great power — 354 horsepower without the electric hybrid boost.
The test Q8, in its optional Daytona Gray Pearl Effect paint, justifies its luxury price with considerable luxury interior additions, such as fine-grain ash inlays on the dashboard, tastefully blended in with aluminum and leather to engulf you in plush comfort, but always with solid support.
It also has Audi’s newest navigation system, and we found it to be fantastic, taking us on all sorts of back roads, but always excellent highways. The simplest way might be to go straight south on Hwy. 53, then straight east on the best state roads, but the quickest way was exactly the way the Audi nav lady directed us, from Duluth, Mn., into the north end of Elkhart Lake. We made it all 350 miles on one tankful, getting about 24 miles per gallon, off an EPA maximum estimate of 22.
It was less perfect when we made our return trip on a Thursday afternoon, and we wasted an hour trying to figure out how to get back on our preferred route to retrace our steps coming down. The nav lady insisted we should go south, to Interstate 94, which might be smoother, but it is significantly longer, and we wanted short. After four or five resets, we drove northward and finally coaxed the nav system into taking us the way we wanted.
We can only envision what the MAMA Rally will be like when everything is electric, such as the Audi e-tron. But performance will only get better, and we can get used to the lack of the wonderful engine roar and the inevitable pollution of the burning of fossil fuel.
Highlights of driving around the 4-mile Road America track will not go diminish with more electrification. With experience, I have reached the point where I do emphasize learning about as many of the cars’ high-tech drivability features. In the companion autocross exercise, for example, there were more than a dozen vehicles we could hurl around one lap of the tight little paved go-kart track inside the big circuit.
We lined up like grade-school kids fighting for position at an ice cream parlor, and when you got to first in line, you could defer if you were waiting for a certain car. I did that a couple times, because I wanted to experience the comparatively large Maserati Lamonte Trofeo SUV with its surprisingly solid suspension and Ferrari-built powertrain.
I finally got to all of the autocross cars except a dark red BMW M2 coupe. I did get to drive a Miata, a Nissan 370Z, and about 50 others either on the autocross, the main track, or on surrounding roads through the twisting, winding hills. On the autocross, they kept times electronically and awarded prizes for the quickest laps.
Some guys picked out what they thought would be the quickest and drove it repeatedly. The guy who won actually won first, second and third — all in that same M2. Everyone thought that was a novelty; I thought he missed a lot of other neat cars, and no wonder I couldn’t get even one lap in the M2! Play-time trumps learning about the cars, for a lot of closet hot-rodding media types.
The auto industry is hurtling on into the future, which assuredly will see us all driving electrified vehicles before another decade passes. Maybe it will be pure electric, or maybe some form of plug-in hybrid or straight hybrid, but the free efficiency of electric power that can be self-generated by an engine and offers lightning-quick performance is advancing rapidly.
Last week I named the Acura NSX as the unequivocal best in my experience. Perhaps I didn’t dwell enough on the technology in that low-slung sports car, but it has three electric motors that work seamlessly with a specially-built 3.5-liter V6, located behind the two seats and ahead of the rear axle.
The V6 powers the rear tires, which supply the main thrust in forward acceleration, because of the natural shift in center of gravity from front to rear during hard acceleration. But while one of the electric motors coordinates everything, the other two each operate one front wheel. You would never know it, because operation is so smooth, but the combined horsepower is 573 from the gas-electric combination.
Our return trip home was interrupted by the nagging nav lady’s voice. We put in Jack’s address, because I was going to drop him off there, north of the Twin Cities, so I waited until we went a ways west, then turned north to go toward our route before I programmed the nav. We followed it, until I realized we were driving south for a half hour. We pulled off the freeway and I tried to reprogram it, but once we got going north to make up for wasted time, the nav voice kept insisting we should make a u-turn to get on her course, and we had more trouble getting rid of that plan that anything else on the drive, either way.
Navigation systems are pretty fool-proof, and the one on my iPhone works better than most. But it was good to find something to complain about with the Q8, because it was, all in all, a near-perfect vehicle.
Lots of power, good fuel economy, comfortable ride, luxurious interior, and, from the outside, a low-slung, attractive SUV that belies its high numerical designation and, hopefully, will be Audi’s guide to a sporty crossover future.