Verdict: China Ain't Kansas

We used our horn more in one week than we had in our entire driving existence.

Audi recently had one of us over to China for a solid week of long drives in that real-world part of China we rarely get to learn about. We report on the country a lot, but save for attending the its auto shows, we've basically been blindly following word of mouth and other media reports – up until now.

Our week-long adventure was admittedly almost entirely on interstate toll roads, but we did get off beaten paths a bit, drove through several chaotic downtown areas, dealt with China's "interesting" traffic scene, paid tolls, refilled fuel tanks, used Chinese roadside restrooms – *gack!* – and used our horn more in one week than we had in our entire driving existence up until this journey.

After a brief gawk at the massive new Audi assembly factory in the more provincial and unbreathable factory-heavy Changchun in the far northeast, we hit the comparatively Vegas-like Shanghai where our drive began. From autumnal downtown Shanghai all the way south to a quite tropical Hong Kong-influenced Shenzhen, we bore witness to a good portion of the Chinese miracle.

You should at some point go yourself to experience this country if you can.

This will all be admittedly a little opinionated and you should at some point go yourself to experience this country if you can, but China – at least that "civilized" zone that hogs the eastern two-fifths of this vast nation – really is the aorta of Earth's economy as we know it today. It is absolutely not Teflon-coated, though, or without significant challenges, but the immenseness of all the activity going on is mind-numbing.

There are nearly 200 town-cities in China with populations over 1 million. Shanghai's immediate urban zone population is estimated by the authorities monitoring us on this trip at 23 million. Add the entire region that falls under Shanghai's jurisdiction eclipses 40 million. Suddenly, more than in any other place we've seen, all this recent talk of automakers' "mega-city" cars, technologies and urban strategic think tanks for the future suddenly makes perfect sense. It's nuts out here, and it wouldn't take much to have it spin out of control.

The driving in China falls somewhere between Naples, Italy, and the country of India.

The driving in China, particularly through suburbs and downtown areas, falls somewhere between Naples, Italy, and the country of India. It's nuts in Naples, too, but at a comparatively tiny scale and still with some sense of traffic laws being obeyed. And the napoletani have perfected the art of horn honking as accepted driving discipline. India, well, is just sheer insanity, and the cacophony of horn honking is unlike anywhere else.

China errs more on the Indian side, but the fact that no one wants to get suddenly stopped by the serious-faced local authorities on either their white motorcycles or in their patrol cars helps establish a certain threshold of chaos beyond which few ever tread. Despite this slow, zombie-like drive habit nationwide, the Chinese make up for things in sheer numbers.

It was clear that we were in the right-sized vehicle for nearly all Chinese scenarios.

As we reeled off the miles in our 208-horsepower Q3 2.0 TFSI quattro – with frankly killer 17-inch blackened five-spoke wheels we hadn't seen before – it was clear that we were in the right-sized vehicle for nearly all Chinese scenarios. We could zip freely through urban knots, had plenty of power and torque to do so, and Audi's sound isolation is great when there's so much sound happening outside.

The scooters and motor-cyclettes in the cities of China are almost all electric, which certainly helps the noise and potential pollution factors. But the locals also keep their lights turned off at all times in order to save battery power – even at night. This practice, however, is not confined to the two-wheelers, since the waste-no-energy habit of lights out is practiced by almost all four wheelers and large tractor trailers. Driving through all of this sooty lightlessness with Audi's optional bi-xenon adaptive lighting seemed like tech overkill, but thank goodness we had this advantage.

If you want a spectacular suspension bridge, elevated bullet-train, hydroelectric dam, perfectly bored tunnel or a major canal built quickly at low cost, call China. It's unbelievable how much cash and sweat has been spent on pumping up the infrastructure of the entire eastern half of the nation. Mountains are everywhere – more than we imagined – as are vast waterways, so almost all of this was necessary as the economic reforms of 1979 have suddenly found their ultra-sweet spot in the past ten years.

Out of city limits, traffic is shockingly sparse since the Chinese are not yet accustomed to indulging in joy-of-driving roadtrips.

The interstate toll roads are perfectly paved for thousands of miles. Locally employed workers frequently need to be avoided as they dash across all two or three lanes in order to collect trash on the median or clip the hedges, and, at least out of city limits, traffic is shockingly sparse since the Chinese are not yet accustomed to indulging in joy-of-driving roadtrips. We are also told that most still cannot afford the tolls. There is also a rigorously enforced system of alternating license plate numbers (even or odd) during each day so as to keep the potentially constant gridlock at bay. And just think, this market is still growing at a frenetic pace with no end in sight yet.

As for Audi, China this year will account for just over 300,000 sales for the brand, by far its largest market worldwide. And the Chinese get no price breaks, paying a bit more per unit than even the Europeans. The Q3 we drove is set to go on sale in China, too, albeit initially as an import at great cost. That will change in 2012 once the Q3 also becomes a locally produced unit, joining the A4L, A6L, and Q5. Driving around Changchun where Audi's joint venture factory with FAW is located, it felt exactly like Ingolstadt. Multiplied by 20.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why is this article so short? I was really enjoying it and all of sudden it ended! Awesome piece, but really surprised at the length.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Agreed. This could have easily been a multi-part feature. Still not too late. Also, I don't think there are "interstates" in China since there are no states in China.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Great write up, and nice pictures.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Great pictures. Seems like a pretty fun little journey.
      • 3 Years Ago
      lol, it looks fun. I really should plan a trip like a that, perhaps from Changchun to Tibet.
        Bruce Lee
        • 3 Years Ago
        The problem is that I don't believe that non-Chinese citizens are allowed to rent cars in China. They got to drive this Audi because Audi was lending it to them but regular schmoes like you and I can't just go and rent a random car. At least that was the case last time I checked planning a trip there. I don't know if this is just the Chinese government's attempt to stop tourists from dying in horrible car accidents dealing with Chinese traffic or what but maybe they'll change the rules soon.
        • 3 Years Ago
          • 3 Years Ago
          How long will it take to drive from Shanghai to Hong Kong? ... Is there a lot to see along the way or is it better to fly?
      Jeremy Mu
      • 3 Years Ago
      very excited to see my hometown Xiamen in these photos!!! Thank you guys for the great job!!!!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Agree, really looking forward for a follow up article, this one just seems to brush the surface.
      • 3 Years Ago
      This could have been an incredible piece, but you wrote 11 paragraphs? I mean, this could have been a great story going on more about rural China AND the Q3 but this had nearly no information in it. Come on Autoblog, why don't you put some flippin' effort into your articles????
      Abraham Zodick
      • 3 Years Ago
      Hahaha!! Did you eat any poisoned food there?
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Abraham Zodick
        Never heard that before! Let me write that one down.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I never comment but I just wanted to thank you for this writeup. Brings back fond memories of my sweet, sweet China days. I kinda miss all the hustle and bustle and even the traffic craziness. So thanks again, well done ! Just a side note, the alternating license plate number system is just for Beijing (so far).
      Carbon Fibre
      • 3 Years Ago
      Very good article, wow. China is a great and beautiful country I'd love to visit. This article has me pumped for trips across lands :)
      "interstate toll roads".... hmmm
      Hao Jiang
      • 3 Years Ago
      Great job! I am a Chinese and I am living in US. The situation of transportation is totally different for these two countries. Most Chinese ppl live in town, having very short range commute and drive less. Scooter and bikes are better (and affordable) choices. Some of the highway are very new in China, but the toll is insane, it is too costly for ppl to live in suburban area or drive for long distance. In addition, the road condition in rural area is terrible. The situation won't change if the toll stations are still standing there. Looking forward to more articles regarding your story in China!
        Bruce Lee
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Hao Jiang
        People in China buy cars even if they could commute otherwise though since it's somewhat of a status symbol but also because it's still convenient to own a car even if you don't drive it on a daily basis much like how this is true even in mega cities in the US with good public transportation.
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