click for a gallery of shots from Day Three of the marathon

Day Four is upon us and we're on our way out of Chicago. We've got one of our longest days of the trip today, with a 550-mile run to Memphis for some BBQ. In Chicago we had our first driver crew swap. The first of four legs is over and a predominantly new group of drivers is taking over the diesel Audis as we move on to Dallas, Amarillo and Denver on Sunday. The nature of this trip is predominantly highway running punctuated by lunch and overnight stops in the various cities along the route. That means the diesels are truly in their element... and it shows. Diesels love steady state running and there is no way even the sophisticated two-mode hybrid system in the Chevy Tahoe can get anywhere near 30 mpg even on a long highway cruise. We're seeing up to 33 mpg in the Q7s and 38 in the Q5s. The A4s and A3s are topping 44 and 50 mpg respectively. Of course, around town those numbers drop off, but they still turn in very respectable mileage in the low 20s. Having said all that, read on after the jump to find out who was victorious in over the first leg and what I think about driving across America in a Q7.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

One thing becomes quickly apparent when you leave the geographical periphery: this country is huge. The vast majority of the population lives near the edges, but scattered throughout the middle are pockets of humanity separated by seemingly endless miles of emptiness. Driving across the United States is particularly entertaining if you do it one of two ways: the Brock Yates Cannonball run approach, where you run coast to coast at maximum speed just to prove you can do it.

The other, far less dangerous and legal approach is to take a leisurely route, staying off the interstates and stopping frequently to see the communities and meet the people that make up the gumbo that is America. Somewhat unfortunately, our route is the middle-ground between the two, causing us to miss the best (and worst) the other options have to offer. We have stuck mainly to interstates and gone directly from one major city to the next without stops. We stay overnight and move off again, never really getting to experience the location.

If however, you're going to do this, the Q7 is a damn fine way to travel. Anyone who has read my opinions here knows that I am by no means a fan of SUVs and this journey has not changed my thoughts of this particular genre of transport, especially if you live in an urban area like New York, Washington or Chicago. I would opt for something smaller and more manageable like an A4 or A3. But, if you have a need to regularly transport more than three friends or tow 6,600 pounds you might choose otherwise.

The Q7 provides those capabilities in combination with all the other attributes enjoyed in modern Audis. The interior materials and build quality are outstanding, with sewn leather covering the top of the instrument panel, the armrests and seats. The chairs are comfy and supportive over long journeys, but so are the sedan seats. Plus, there are plenty of power outlets to plug in your gear.

Is the Q7 the package I would opt for on a road trip if I didn't have to tow or deal with poor traction conditions? Probably not. My first choice would probably be the A4. But if I needed the extra space to stretch out my kids and carry stuff, I'd like a package more like the Ford Flex. The lower floor means more usable interior volume than a typical high riding SUV. If however, I was forced to select among available large SUVs, the combination of 30 mpg cruising capability and the performance offered by this 3.0L V6 diesel would be a no-brainer over anything else in the segment.

So how did that mileage thing work out? The team from IMSA came up with a formula that comprises a blend of speed and fuel economy. The bias was toward the latter, with the speed component largely aimed at ensuring that people don't dawdle along the freeway at 40 mph. Among the Q7 group on leg one from New York to Chicago the mileage ranged from a low of 26.4 mpg with an average speed of 53.8 mpg to 30.0 mpg at 48.8 mph. The overall winner with 488 points based on an average of 29.4 mpg and 52.4 mph was Q7 #3. That team relied mainly on cruise control and staying close to the speed limit without doing anything erratic. There were no folded mirrors or pumped up tires and no drafting behind trucks. So who was driving this vehicle? Jason Allan of Kelley Blue Book and yours truly.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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