We last left proceedings at a Chevron pump beside the West Florida Turnpike, somewhere around midnight in the humid wilds, having done 660 miles and spent $89.40 to put 20.992 gallons in the great white whale. We had done average speed of 31 miles per hour at an average rate of 27.5 miles per gallon. Those kinds of numbers, as we demonstrated, are good enough to put you in the fuel economy orbit of the Toyota Corolla – to be precise, it only cost $6.40 more to cover that 660 miles in the A8 TDI than it would in the Japanese compact. That led us to conclude that there were just a couple of Starbucks Venti lattes between the A8 and the Corolla, assuming we conveniently ignore the two cars' purchase prices. Turns out we were wrong: it didn't take long for a commenter named "mike" to set us straight when he wrote, "It's clear you weren't lying about not frequenting Starbucks...no way could you get two venti lattes for $6.40." Mike, we salute you – our ignorance of terrible coffee has served the higher purpose of emphasizing the strong case made by the diesel Audi.
But that A8... well, the wheels were still on the damn thing and we had to drive them off. That meant five more days of pilot duty to get us from wherever the hell we were to Wildwood and Daytona Beach, FL, then Brunswick, Macon and Atlanta, GA, then Birmingham, AL, and back to Atlanta.
And Krispy Kreme.
Central Florida: Highways, Horses, Screaming Chickens And That @#$&^! Radar
The next leg of the trip turned into an unintentional exploration of the A8's technology. When it is your job to drive the newest examples of modern technology, and when you happen to spend most of that time in the newest and most luxurious examples of said tech, there are two things that happen. The first is that you forget that your habits aren't the habits of most people. Step out of a 2014 A8 or a Bentley Mulsanne into a car that requires you to use a key to open the door, or that doesn't have a button to close the trunk, and for about 17 seconds you literally can't comprehend how the world could be like this. You just shake your head and wonder, "Are we savages?"
This is not a plea for compassion. Please, don't feel sorry for us.
The second thing that happens is that you learn what automakers think you want your car to do for you. You learn this as the technologies are just beginning to spread their wet, fragile wings, then you get to experience how the tech develops as it finds its way into more buyers' hands and evolves each year. The first radar-based cruise control systems would leave a Jules-Verne-like gap of 20,000 leagues to the car in front because that was the buffer the technology needed to be safe in any situation. They've evolved to the point where now you could only fit a small battleship between your car and the one ahead – a much more respectable measure – and they are learning to be semi-autonomous. Yet at some point your car will start doing things for you that you might not want it to do, and you won't be able to stop it.
Let's get to the point. We worked the froth off that fresh tank of Chevron diesel by driving to Wildwood for gourmet fixin's at IHOP. That meant 269 highway miles, and long highway stints mean routine that goes beyond the driver's seat – there's that one drink you like to have while you're driving, that one snack you like to eat and that one chain you like to use for gas.
Cruise control is one of our routines, and we wish we didn't have to use a radar-based unit.
Cruise control is one of our routines, and we wish we didn't have to use a radar-based unit – and we mean any radar-based unit in any car, not just the A8. We still find the gaps too large to keep traffic from creeping in ahead and driving us backward as the car restores the safety zone. Admittedly this wasn't so bad at zero dark hour when there was hardly any traffic on the turnpike. But since you can't ever turn it off – that radar is the heart of other safety systems – we only ever used it if we happened to be on the highway while the roosters slept, or the route was lightly trafficked.
The second reason it disturbed our routine is specific to the A8: cruising speed increments are limited to every 2.5 miles per hour. You can go 60 or 62.5 mph, but not 61 or 63 mph. No, it didn't make us want to pull over and shoot the car, and perhaps it's true that that we didn't realize we had any interest in going a steady-state 64 mph until we couldn't cruise at 64 mph. But yes, it did keep us wondering, every time we set the cruise, why Audi wouldn't program the code to let us go any speed we wished.
During a discussion with colleagues about automatic cruise control the case was made that it can be an additional safeguard for a parent with kids in the car – a guardian angel that will never be distracted from the prime directive. That's fine. But as cars start making more built-in decisions about what they will and won't do, we hope they'll contain more "Off" switches. At least until we have kids. Else we're talking about having more possibilities but less control.
If you do like ACC, there's nothing not to like about the Audi's; it keeps a reasonable gap, it works in stop-and-go traffic and when it slows down because of a car in front the A8 will accelerate as soon as you hit the turn signal. There's also nothing not to like about trundling along at speed. In case we haven't made it clear, the A8 is huge, comfy, finished inside splendidly and it's got more massage programs than we have muscles.
So we got over it and we charged on to Wildwood. At exactly 72.5 mph.
That wasn't nearly as disturbing to our routine as not being able to find our favorite snack at any roadside joint. Oh no, we were regularly greeted with a warlock's feast near the coffee pots – things like boiled peanuts (props from Evil Dead, apparently), pickled eggs and pigs' feet, and in one station, a jar of something that appeared to have been removed from an animal only recently.
Nevertheless, we made it to IHOP. After feasting on the bread of the gods, we headed east across State Road 44 to Daytona. A wealthier stretch of country here, the ubiquitous billboards for personal injury attorneys were replaced by horse farms and signs on truck trailers for places like the Paquette Tractor Museum. It also seems that one condition for home ownership is putting a Trans-Am or a Firebird for sale in the driveway.
We wanted to go to Daytona for two reasons: drive on the beach and work on the beach. One tech feature of the A8 (and other Audis) we love is that it can be a wi-fi hot spot. Just as we were intrigued by the lack of freedom in our cruise control options, we welcome the possibilities of having our car be a hot spot and are intrigued by the reasons other carmakers give for not doing so. On a recent press trip with a rival luxury manufacturer, we were told "Our customers aren't really looking for that functionality." I speak for myself when I say I think that's amazing, and I'm always disappointed when I get in a high-zoot, teched-out luxo-brougham that doesn't have it. The ability for anyone in or near the car to use any paired, wi-fi enabled device, like a computer or an iPad that has a large screen but not a 3G connection, is outstanding. Again, I speak for myself with this one, but I've never been in an Audi and not hopped in the back seat with my laptop to get some work done, and when you can do that in a parking lot at Sebring Raceway, or in an impossibly beautiful pull-out just south of Big Sur, or parked on the sand at Daytona Beach, well, why would you say no to that for an additional $40 per month? Another bonus was that the A8 often got better reception than my phone, which, admittedly, is the fault of my carrier and myself for staying with my carrier. Still, the additional SIM card can't be considered a hassle for someone paying $85K or more for a car; that buyer has Norwegian personal assistants who handle the bills anyway (or some other, not-quite-as-blonde, admin-handling process). Forget the radar cruise control – this is the kid-centric killer app. Says the guy who has no kids...
We wanted to go to Daytona for two reasons: drive on the beach and work on the beach.
So we drove onto Daytona Beach on a glorious Thursday afternoon and we sat on the sand in the sun, caught up on what the world was doing, ignored all of the e-mails we downloaded and watched a movie. When we'd had enough, we pointed that big hexagonal grille north to Georgia where we'd hook a left and head for the home of the Bulldogs, Waffle House and Varsity.
We got to Atlanta and discovered that hipsters had invaded The Big Peach with their delicious food and indifferent service.
We got to Atlanta and hung out for a night, discovering that hipsters had invaded The Big Peach with their delicious food and indifferent service.
Still itching to see how many more miles we could put on the Audi, we decided to hit the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside of Birmingham, AL. It was raining hard when we took off, and there are few things like a big ol' German sedan in inclement weather – it's like they don't take notice of anything that doesn't have a National Weather Service classification. In our review of the GT3 we mentioned doing a stint on the Autobahn through an inland typhoon trailing an Audi A7 at Warp Factor 8. This time we were the lead man, and the A8 would not be unsettled by mere sheets of water flying sideways.
And after having done more than a thousand miles, the hop over the Birmingham felt like it would take just enough time to sing a song. Our next oil-burning zinger came at a set of pumps set aside for The Other Half, placed in a weary corner of a station away from the gas bowsers. By "other half" we mean truckers, who wondered if we were lost when we pulled up amidships. Then, as we took pictures of the event, one of them asked, "You not takin' pictures of my truck, are you?" We were tempted to say yes, but it seemed unwise to spook one of the natives while we were swiping diesel among the thick of his tribe. So we told the truth. "Oh," he said, "my ex-wife's looking for me." We nodded, friendly like.
We spent $84.85 for the compression-ignition liquid, which equated to 21.987 gallons at $3.859 per gallon. We had done 765 miles – and the gauge cluster told us we had 35 miles remaining – for a trip total of 1,425 miles at an average speed of 42 mph and an average economy of 30.1 mpg. Going back to our benchmark Toyota for just this tank of gas, though: taking the 30.5 combined mpg that Corolla drivers have registered on the FuelEconomy.gov site, it would take 25.08 gallons to cover 765 miles. The price of regular gas at the station was $3.48, which means it would have cost $87.28 to go that distance in the compact car. That's a $2.43 penalty to drive the Corolla – assuming we conveniently leave aside the purchase prices of the two vehicles – even though that difference pays for tons more room and other delightful tech like 406 pound-feet of torque, power-assisted closure for the doors and trunk, the 360-degree overhead-view camera and a 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system in the A8.
So we ask you Commenter "mike," with a credit for $2.43 can we get a muffin at Starbucks? One of those graham cracker things maybe?
The Alabama El Dorado: Two-Wheeled Gold In Them Thar Hills
The same way an R8 owner feels obliged to keep working the right-hand pedal, the only reason we went to the Barber Motorsports Museum was because we felt obliged to keep working out the diesel in the A8 L TDI and the museum appeared to be the most interesting car-related thing around that wasn't in another time zone. We had no expectations and otherwise no interest in attending – we planned on taking a quick drive, a quick stroll, then another quick drive back and calling it quits.
We had no idea.
The museum doesn't talk itself up – there are only five pictures of the facility on its web site, two of those are of the exterior – so we were astonished to find, tucked in the Alabama countryside a few exits away from Talladega Raceway, the Aztec Empire of motorcycle collections overflowing with two-wheeled gold.
Birmingham native, dairy industrialist and amateur racer George Barber started collecting motorcycles in 1989. It wasn't long before he decided to assemble the world's best collection of bikes, which were raced – and won national championships – in the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association. They don't race around the nation anymore, but the museum says that 99 percent of all the bikes it has can be in running condition in no more than 60 minutes and it's known to put them to use on the Motorsports Park's 2.3-mile circuit that's certified by both the FIA and the FIM and home to Porsche North America's official Sport Driving School.
Barber first kept the steeds in a converted warehouse that had been used to refurbish the dairy trucks, with the current location opened in 2003. There are over 1,200 motorcycles in the collection, 600 or so on display at any one time on five floors with 144,000 square feet of display space, and it lends to exhibits in other states and countries. There are examples of bikes going back to the late 18 TH century from 200 manufacturers in 20 countries, and the museum focuses on samples that are in mostly-original condition. There are a couple of vintage Maserati motorcycles, school projects, one-offs and experimental bikes, the chopper from Easy Rider, a whole corner for John Surtees, and check out the Maybach bike before Wilhelm Maybach became, you know, Maybach.
Barber designed the building, and the layout puts you among the collection instead of making you a distanced viewer. Other than being on your bike, there might be few better places in the world to enjoy motorcycles. If you need two more wheels, the museum also has the largest known collection of Lotus race cars, going back to the 1952 Lotus Mark VI Sports Racer, Colin Chapman's first production car, and there's a replica of a 1948 Lotus. Oh, and resting atop the elevator is an Arrows Formula One car from 2002.
We spent hours there. Hours upon hours, actually. The $15 entry fee might have been the best money we spent during the entire trip that didn't involve refueling the A8. You don't even have to love motorcycles to enjoy the place; if you just respect motorized things, this should get on your list of places to visit. Until then there's a high-res gallery below with more than 100 captioned images from our visit. You're welcome.
Eventually we had to return to Atlanta and pull in for The End. The rain was no more and the drive back to the metropolis was quiet and overcast. We spent a few days in the city, roaming a million streets with names containing some variation on the word "peach" and feasting on tarted-up southern specialties. And Krispy Kreme.
We had started off with a full tank, put another $174.25 in it, and ended up with a final tally of 1,682.6 at a 41-mph average speed and a 30.2-mpg average fuel economy, utilizing about 55.7 gallons of diesel for the purpose – and there remained plenty of diesel in the tank when we hitched the A8 up to a post at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to await its next rider.
Shall we play The Corolla Game again? Multiplying that 55.7 gallons by the average price of the diesel we purchased means we spent roughly $226.11 on the trip (the two full tanks plus a little more). Doing the same for the Toyota means we'd have spent $210.59 to go the same distance at the Corolla's average 30.5 mpg. There's definitely a couple of Venti lattes in there, and you'd have time to buy them since the Corolla would require five trips to the pump to the Audi's two. And did we mention that the A8 has radar-based cruise control?
So that, friends, is the full story of how a lark turned into an unintentionally epic road trip.
So that, friends, is the full story of how a lark turned into an unintentionally epic road trip. It should come as no surprise that on the bus to the Delta terminal we swore we'd never do it again –
Until we found ourselves in the Munich airport with the keys to an Audi R8 and ten days to kill on unrestricted Autobahn and German B-roads before needing to be in Le Mans for that little French race they put on.
But we'll save that tale for next time...