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.
We used our horn more in one week than we had in our entire driving existence.
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.
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.
You should at some point go yourself to experience this country if you can.
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, 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.
The driving in China falls somewhere between Naples, Italy, and the country of India.
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.
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.
It was clear that we were in the right-sized vehicle for nearly all Chinese scenarios.
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.
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.
Out of city limits, traffic is shockingly sparse since the Chinese are not yet accustomed to indulging in joy-of-driving roadtrips.
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.