There is no wrong way to cross the continental US. Many people fly, countless drive. The hardcore walk or bike. Horses, motorcycles and hot air balloons? Do what you've got to do.
But what if you don't really have to cross? What if you just want to? And you want to do it while proving a point? It's actually not that hard to drive from LA to NYC in two days, given the right mindset. In most cars, it's also not all that difficult to do it while beating the EPA fuel economy numbers. The challenge is to do both at once, and if that's your target, then you could do a lot worse than joining hypermiler Wayne Gerdes and the CleanMPG crew in three 2014 Audi TDI diesel-equipped vehicles – a Q5, an A7 and an A6 - in a record-setting 48-hour drive. We called it Truth in 48, but it turns out we didn't even need that much time.
You know how the route from work to home or school to home gets redundant after a while, how you can sort of see a particular business before you turn the corner? How you know exactly where the potholes and the streetlights are? I'm pretty sure that the entire US Interstate highway system is that familiar to Gerdes, who regularly does one of these stunt drives in a never-ending effort to bring attention to the simple fact that you can save a whole bunch of fuel simply by changing the way you drive. He owns multiple Guinness World Records. His online forum, CleanMPG, is a clearinghouse for greener driving tips and is a gathering place for people who like to squeeze every last yard out of a tank of fuel. They're also pretty fun people, which is important when you're cheek-by-jowl in a moving car with them for two days straight.
Being stuffed in a car on a 2,850-mile, non-stop road trip may sound terrible to anyone who likes stretching or that little thing known as "privacy," but at least when I signed up, I knew I was going to get to experience some driving. As the trip was being planned, there was talk of taking a Guinness representative along on our diesel-powered cannonball run to officially get us all into the World Record Book. Had he come with us, he would have had to just sit there the whole time, watching. He didn't, in the end, so our world record for the fastest Los Angeles-to-New York drive while beating the official EPA fuel economy by the widest margin may be technically unofficial, but we think it's going to be hard to beat. We'd also love to hear suggestions for which cars might be capable of doing so.
Our total time, city-to-city and including pit stops, was 46 hours and 9 minutes for the 2,850-plus mile trip. Even going that fast, spoiler alert, we clobbered the TDI's official highway fuel economy numbers. The EPA says the 2014 Q5 gets 31 miles per gallon, while the 2014 A7 and the 2014 A6 both get 38. We pushed the Q5 to 38.623 mpg overall while going an average of 64.9 mph, the A7 to 42.653 mpg at 65.1 mph and the A6 to an impressive 43.561 mpg at 65.4 mph. Just so we're clear, these are not the numbers pulled from our vehicles' dashboard displays – they were carefully calculated after the drive to be completely accurate. If there's one thing that Gerdes knows, it's that the numbers your car's readout tells you are ballpark figures at best. Our results were calculated by both correcting for the distance offset (the amount by which the car's odometer is out of sync with actual road miles) and by accurately measuring the amount of fuel used. That means that the cars were filled up in both LA and NYC until you could see the liquid coming up from the fuel tank.
I was assigned to the A7 along with three CleanMPG members, two of whom I met a few years ago while on my first Gerdes adventure, taking a Ford F-150 coast-to-coast while getting 30+ mpg. I can be a careful and efficient driver, but having these ringers along meant that any slacking on my part could be countered by their experience. It also meant that I was not going to be the one tackling the difficult mountain climb on the way out of Los Angeles and into Arizona, or the hills of Pennsylvania.
In an ideal world, a drive like this would be nothing but gentle downhills and clear roads. But America is vast and complicated, and we had to deal not only with the mountain ranges near the coasts but also traffic and construction that are part and parcel of highway driving. Granted, Gerdes tasked his team to look at traffic reports and plan a route away from any major roadwork, but you simply can't avoid all of it. Point being, this was a real-world trip through Texas and Indiana and Pennsylvania with loaded cars. Admittedly, each one would carry a full-size spare tire pumped to 51 PSI, and our on-car rollers were filled well beyond their recommended levels to 54 PSI, but we were only driving at or slightly above the speed limit most of the time. And we were still able to crush the EPA's fuel economy numbers, thanks in part to the hypermiling techniques Gerdes taught us in LA the night before we left.
This was a real-world trip with loaded cars, each one carrying a full-size spare tire - that were driving at or above the speed limit.
The most important trick was the NICE-on (which stands for "Neutral, Internal Combustion Engine On") and means, basically, to coast with the car in neutral. It's a somewhat thrilling way to drive, where you're not trying to thrash your way through corners, but instead coast as far as you can without slowing down too much. To keep the TDIs in high gear, Gerdes discovered we needed to go no slower than 52 mph on the uphills, but once you crested the top, you could quickly shift to N and get some gravitational payback.
We also learned about surf drafting, which is a more-efficient way to pass a truck. The idea is to move to the left of the lane as you're breaking through the truck's wind wake and then move back to the center of the lane after you get around him in order to spend the least amount of time in the turbulent windstream. Doing this gives you only a small mpg boost, but little things like this add up over two days. Plus, if you want to be able to use the air conditioner, like we did, you need to offset the 0.4-0.6 mpg increase running the AC adds. We figured it was better to keep the car at a comfortable temperature than to save that little bit of fuel. For anyone who wants to challenge our record in the future, that's one way you might be able to beat us.
Using these hypermiling tips made beating the official mpg numbers almost easy. The A7 (and A6) use Audi's new second-generation 3.0-liter, six-cylinder turbodiesel engine that puts out 240 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. That's powerful enough for a 5.5-second 0-60 run, but for our purposes, the more impressive part was how comfortable the engine was at 70 mph, spinning at just 1,400-1,500 rpm. The A7 likes to rev high in first and second gear, and Gerdes told us to use the paddle shifters to get it into a higher gear as soon as possible, because that's where the efficiency is. Once we were at highway speeds on flat surfaces (never, ever touching cruise control), we had tons of torque at our disposal and almost had to work hard to get it over 2,000 rpm. Like, for example, the time we left a rest area maybe three minutes behind the other vehicles and had to speed a bit to catch them. The dark desert highway seems to stretch on well beyond forever when you're trying to catch the leader while keeping your fuel economy in check. Maybe an hour later, we spotted the taillights of the Q5, and discovered they kind of look like angry eyebrows on a lonely road, late at night.
The dark desert highway seems to stretch on well beyond forever when you're trying to catch the leader while keeping your fuel economy in check.
Despite all of our hypermiling techniques, I still don't know if our EPA-beating mileage results were due to the fact that Audi engineers know how to make an efficient diesel engine (and they should, after all these decades) or if the EPA simply hasn't figured out how to accurately test them. In either case, any mpg window sticker you see on a diesel car should certainly be taken with a grain of salt (a brief look at modern diesel cars tracked over at Fuelly confirms this). There's more to the diesel legislation picture in the US, and Audi has recently spent extra time in Washington lobbying for a more level regulatory playing field for the fuel in light of the electric vehicle revolution.
Let's talk about those rest stops for a minute. In Gerdes' original plan, we had 12 minutes set aside at each of the three fill-ups during the drive – always at Shell stations, the trip's fuel sponsor – and eight-minute bathroom breaks roughly every three hours. This was generally enough to run in, use the facilities and get out, especially with Gerdes' instructions for the driver to instantly start filling up the car while the passenger cleaned the windshield and the backseat riders went in to do their business, taking over the fueling/cleaning duties when they returned. Each of the three vehicles had four passengers, so it was important to shake some life into our cramped limbs, too. There was never enough time to actually rest at one of these stops, but this was not a trip designed for maximum comfort. Granted, the A7 is a luxury vehicle (ours was outfitted with a $5,900 Bang & Olufsen speaker system, for example, and came to over $81,000, all told), but even that space feels cramped after 46 hours. And the car isn't perfect by any means. The navigation system, for example, can display three boxes of information on the left side of the screen to alert you to things like traffic conditions and upcoming turns. What's mindbendingly irritating is that they are listed with the nearest item on the bottom, exactly the opposite of where we all expected to see it. At least satellite radio worked well, so I was able to introduce my co-pilots to hours upon hours of Pearl Jam somewhere in New Mexico.
When it comes right down to it, we could have flown, we could have driven like normal people, we could have not undertaken the trip at all, but then, where's the story? Where's the hook that, even if it doesn't inspire you to try and beat our continental crossing, does perhaps challenge you to drive differently on the way to work, to see if you can't push yourself to drive a little more efficiently, at least some of the time? How you handle bathroom breaks is up to you.
- Eight drivers complete 'Truth in 48' coast-to-coast challenge in 46 hours, 9 minutes, demonstrating clean diesel capabilities
- Audi A6 TDI achieves 43.561 mpg, or 50% better than EPA combined fuel economy rating; Audi A7 TDI achieves 42.653 mpg, or 47% more than EPA combined rating
- Journey covers more than 2,850 miles on just four fueling stops
The challenge taken on by eight drivers over the weekend involved a non-stop drive from Audi Pacific in Torrance, Calif. to Audi Manhattan in New York City. From beginning to end, the drivers could stop no more than four times to fill up with clean diesel fuel provided by Shell Oil Co. They had to reach their destination within 48 hours, traveling at normal highway speeds in the newest Audi TDI models -- the 2014 Audi A6 TDI, 2014 Audi A7 TDI and 2014 Audi Q5 TDI.
The challenge and the results
"Crossing the United States in fewer than 48 hours is a hurdle few have ever contemplated let alone completed," said Wayne Gerdes, one of the nation's leading high-mileage driving experts and owner of CleanMPG.com. "To complete that journey while also beating an automobile's EPA highway fuel economy rating seemed even more impossible."
The driving teams made up of other hypermilers and journalists split into a team driving the Audi A6 TDI and a team for the Audi A7 TDI. The Audi Q5 TDI served as a support vehicle carrying spare tires, supplies and luggage.
A6 TDI: 43.561 mpg at an average speed of 62.44 mph. That's 15% better than the EPA highway mileage and 50% better than the EPA combined rating. The EPA rates the A6 TDI at 24 mpg city / 38 mpg highway / 29 mpg combined driving).
A7 TDI: 42.653 mpg at an average speed of 62.17 mph. That's 12% better than the EPA highway mileage and a whopping 47% better than the EPA combined rating. (The EPA rates the A7 TDI at 24 mpg city / 38 mpg highway / 29 mpg combined driving).
Q5 TDI: 38.623 mpg at an average speed of 61.90 mph. That's 24.5% better than the EPA highway mileage and 43% better than the EPA combined (The EPA rated the Q5 TDI at 24 mpg city / 31 mpg highway / 27 mpg combined driving).
Overall the leading A6 TDI consumed just 66.08 gallons of clean diesel fuel driving from coast to coast.
Impressions from drivers
Wayne Gerdes (#Truthin48 organizer and owner of CleanMPG.com): "The A6 TDI, A7 TDI, and Q5 TDI don't just represent the epitome of luxury and performance, they now represent class leading fuel efficiency."
Sebastian Blanco (Editor, Autoblog Green): "Spending 48 hours -- actually 46 -- in the A7 TDI going from LA to NYC proves that the official fuel economy rating is less than accurate. Either the EPA doesn't know how to test diesels or Audi know how to build them well. Or maybe both."
Jill Ciminillo (Writer for Chicago Now, other outlets): "I was a bit skeptical that we could drive through mountains and still reach EPA estimates -- while going the speed limit. But we did it! And in less than 48 hours. It just really goes to show how impressive the TDI engines are in the 2014 Audis. I tend to be a bit of a speed demon, and I was amazed that I didn't have to drive slowly to achieve the fuel economy numbers. It's the best of both worlds -- driving at speed and being fuel efficient. Kind of makes spending 46 hours straight in a car with 3 other unshowered people worth it."
Christian Moe (Contributor Road & Track Online): It takes an immensely impressive powertrain to deliver these economy numbers at the speeds we were traveling, but the most amazing part is just how easy it was. I just pointed the A6 and went. It did all the hard work. Phenomenal."
Multimedia content from 'Truth in 48'
Photos of the "Truth in 48" Audi TDI cross-country efficiency challenge can we found here. Video of a high-intensity refueling stop can be found here. Video of the drivers at the end of the journey can be found here. Running footage of the Audi TDI clean diesel models that participated in this event can be found here.
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