(TDI) Challenge Accepted - Albuquerque to San Diego on One Tank of Diesel
The challenge was simple: Drive a 2015 A3 TDI sedan from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to San Diego, California, on one tank of diesel. That’s 834 miles — was it even doable? Audi tester Wayne Gerdes barely made it. He recalled his high “pucker factor” while describing the last few miles. Wayne plans driving routes for a living. He’s a master of seamlessly implementing calculated mpg-saving techniques. He had to work hard to make it to America’s Finest City. This would, indeed, be a challenge for us in this media contest, with prizes for the two top teams and a mid-1990s Ford Aspire to drive for the team that ran out of gas first.
I looked at the numbers. The A3 and its 150-horse, 236-lb-ft 2.0-liter four-cylinder with six-speed automatic carries an EPA rating of 31 mpg city and 43 mpg highway. Its tank holds 13.2 gallons of ultra low-sulfur diesel. At highway speeds, with optimal, unvaried conditions (elevation, temperatures, weather, traffic, etc.), and while achieving at least 43 mpg, the A3 would have a theoretical distance-to-empty (DTE) range of around 568 miles. Round that up to an optimistic 600, and there would still be 234 miles to go until we’d reach our king-sized beds at the Hotel Del Coronado.
Oh, and there’s no such thing as optimal, unvaried conditions. We’d encounter substantial headwinds, big temperature variations, and even larger elevation changes, not to mention stop-and-go traffic and unavoidable intersections. Wayne warned us about them. He also warned us about the 5,000-foot elevation drop over the two-day journey. That’s massive. Like a weightlifting bro at an all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue buffet, gains were essential. Except, of course, ours dealt with DTE mileage and not muscle.
At 9 a.m., Day One’s diesel sipping was in full effect. Save for putting our 175.4-inch-long compact on a flatbed, we employed just about every fuel-saving method in the book. We killed the air-conditioning. We rolled windows down just enough for some semblance of air circulation, but not enough to ruin our coefficient of drag (or so we thought). We safely trailed the countless semitrucks populating the highways. We drove slow. Really, really, slow. So slow that eighteen-wheelers flew past us — they didn’t have the time or tolerance to curb their momentum. We sweated for hours in our rolling German sauna. But our estimated DTE grew.
At our lunch stop we noticed two competitors taping makeshift cardboard spats to the rear fenders above the wheel arches. The engineering crew from Ingolstadt chuckled and commented that it wouldn’t be much of a benefit. It was, however, entertaining to see the lengths to which some competitors went for the grand prize: a day of R8 flogging at Sonoma Raceway. I felt the cardboard add-ons a bit disingenuous for the sole reason that you’re not actually testing the factory car. Then again, who freely chooses to drive 50 mph on the interstate with no air-conditioning and moist underwear?
At the conclusion of Day One, we averaged 55.6 mpg over a span of 372 miles. We were obliterating the EPA’s 36 mpg average combined rating, yet we still needed to significantly bump up our DTE — now at 315 miles — to even have a chance at making it. We knew that we could count on 30 miles or so after “0 miles” flashed on the driver’s display.
We gently rolled out of Sedona at 6 a.m. the next day. Almost immediately we found ourselves on a fantastic curvy road lined with red and white boulders and evergreens. After a steep climb, the road dropped suddenly to a desert valley. At its pinnacle, the mountain road’s view was comparable to that from a 737 window seat. The vistas were uncluttered. The pure air shocked my lungs, which were tainted by L.A.’s pollution.
Crawling up the road nixed any DTE mileage gains, but then we descended. We dropped from 6,000-plus feet to 3,000 feet with the transmission in neutral, and sometimes with my foot off the throttle altogether (engine braking!). The real-time miles-per-gallon screen flashed 250-300 mpg. Our range continued its upswing, so we slowed our clip even more.
By lunchtime on Day Two in Blythe, California, we averaged 60.1 mpg. The half-pound burger and bucket of fries probably didn’t help our fuel efficiency cause, so we slowed yet again. Our flashers stayed on permanently. Thankfully we were on desolate two-lane roads flanked by farmland. We drew a handful of puzzled stares from farmers and passersby. “The hell are those people doing?” they likely thought.
We weren’t winning, that’s what. But we still felt like we could get close to San Diego. We were stinky, sticky, and tired. We had memorized our playlists hours ago. Silence and the fragrance of manure accompanied us. All we wanted were showers. But we couldn’t stand the thought of coming in last. So we pushed.
Then the Sahara-esque dunes of Glamis came. It seemed like we found another world. Soft, white, windswept sand dunes endlessly rolled in and out of view. Our DTE dwindled to 15 miles. Designated “bailout points” appeared along the route. We trudged past one, not wanting to waste time and fuel on piffling items such as urinating, eating, and stretching. We were focused.
Forty miles later, at 3:30 p.m. exactly, we bailed out. We threw in the towel sooner than we expected, but we had to. Our DTE screen showed 5 miles, so there was a good chance we wouldn’t have made it another 35 miles to the next bailout station. We didn’t want to risk being stranded on an uphill. Still, our sweaty brows and stinky pits weren’t for nothing: We covered 714.6 miles on one tank of diesel and achieved a real-world average of 63.7 mpg. We weren’t as extreme in our use of fuel-saving procedures as some others (a few also wore running shorts to save weight and keep themselves cooler), but we were duly satisfied with our performance. In other words, we got farther than we expected and didn’t have to go full-bore hardcore.
We had 115 miles between us and our coveted showers. We jumped into a waiting refueled sedan and drove like civilized humans with the air-conditioning and music blasting. Sure, we didn’t accomplish our mission, but we almost did. In fact, only two teams crept ever so gently in front of the Hotel Del’s valet stand. As a competitive set, we undoubtedly represented the extreme of the extreme and not the normal TDI buyer.
This much was clear: Like the challenge itself, achieving amazingly high miles-per-gallon averages and single-tank ranges in an A3 TDI was simple. In real-world, everyday situations, getting above the EPA quotes wouldn’t be much of a huge surprise. Driven judiciously, the A3 TDI is a deft little long-range cruiser. And you can cruise within a cocoon of comfort and style — air-conditioning set to full blast, of course.