NEW YORK — It's cleaner these days, the engine purrs instead of growls, whispers instead of belches, does not emit a black cloud from its exhaust.
Most of the world has it in just about any model they want, so why the hell is diesel such a hard sell in America?
I took a road trip to ponder that question: East Coast to West Coast, 13 days, more than 4,800 miles, driving nothing but four beautiful diesel models of Audi.
I was accompanied by 183 other journalists from such far flung ports as Japan, Colombia, Germany, France, Australia (crazy bastards those Australians, donning Elvis outfits in Memphis, cowboy duds in Texas) and beyond. Audi provided the cars and the accommodations along the way. Four waves across America, different routes. We did them all. GlobalPost does not go anywhere to lay up.
We quickly put the canyons of Manhattan behind us, the financially darkened towers of Wall Street a glimpse in the rearview mirror, headed first to the white marble magnificence of Washington, where a new President, offering hope, has already said the auto industry needs to clean up its act.
The Audi Mileage Marathon made stops in such places as Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, Amarillo, Denver, Durango, Sedona, Las Vegas, Mammoth Lake, Monterey, and finally Santa Monica.
The mission was two-fold, Audi saying to the foreigners, many from countries where diesel is dominant: Here's America. Why isn't diesel popular here?
And to America: Here's clean diesel. Shouldn't this be popular here?
It was an introduction to the enduring global romance of American exploration to this group of foreign journalists, a first viewing of the vastness of America.
They got to see the kaleidoscopic way in which America changes from the urban and industrial east — ugliness of the upper New Jersey Turnpike, and on to maligned Cleveland, keeping the rusting steel cities of Pittsburg and Detroit to our north, the Big Shouldered city of Chicago, and edging on toward the Mississippi River, Beale Street and the Blues heart that will beat forever in Memphis. And after that, the vast sprawl and rocky promontories of the American West.
The Audi plan was to show Americans that diesel passenger cars can be quiet, clean, and incredibly fuel efficient — a big step from the early '80s when diesel cars from Oldsmobile and Cadillac rumbled down the streets and their black and noxious emissions choked off any hope of their own survival.
Audi, will gradually move its models, as they comply with standards, into the U.S., beginning this year with the Q7 SUV. It calls its engineering TDI (Turbocharged Direct Injection).
BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz, all of whom shared development with Audi, call theirs, respectively: BluePerformance, TDI, and BlueTec.
At our New York launch, Johan de Nysschen, Audi executive vice president for America, asked drivers and gawkers who had gathered in Central Park, "What better way than to introduce, at the grassroots level, the great benefits of this technology — phenomenal fuel consumption and minimal impact on the environment?"
Indeed, any time we stopped in some small town, or we departed big city or resort hotels in the morning or arrived at them in the evening, the curious were drawn to the cars, especially after a few days on the road and gas mileage figures — lowest around 30 mpg, highest topping 50 mpg — were plastered to our rear windows.
I was driving the big SUV Q7 on the first leg. Using no tricks (yet) from the world of "hyper-miling" — a sometimes compulsive, sometimes dangerous effort to save fuel — I managed more than 30 miles per gallon between New York and Washington, and that was leaving New York in morning traffic, enduring a one-hour wait at a crash scene outside D.C., and entering the city in the clotted flow of evening rush hour.
And later, the 44.8 miles per gallon record figure affixed to the back of the Audi A4 3.0 TDI would be posted by Team GlobalPost (after we'd resorted to a few safe tricks).
We'll recount the journey in two parts, adding a bit more technical data on diesel toward the end of the trip.
But for now, let's ask, "What's so special about these new diesels?"
First, they are the first that eventually will be sold in all 50 states — meeting even the stringent standards of states such as California, Massachusetts and New York, where diesel cars had previously been banned.
Second, these are ultra-low emissions vehicles. meaning they emit 50 percent less polluting emissions than the average for all cars sold here in any year.
And third, let's talk range. Rolling distances of 500 miles where barely half a tank of fuel is burned. On many city-to-city hauls on this trip we did well over 400 miles and didn't even reach the halfway mark. This was all done in truly mixed driving: rush hour traffic many mornings and evenings, traffic tie-ups on interstates, roaming through small towns on the veins and capillaries that sprout from the arteries of the Interstates. Not all roads were paved, we'd hit blinding rain on some days, be delayed by icy roads in the Rockies, bake in the sun of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert.
Which brings me back to Memphis, hard on the banks of the Mississippi, where I picked up a driving partner perfectly suited to join me in setting the A4 record. Hey, there's nothing wrong with having an Audi engineer as your co-driver. Meet Thomas Kamla, who taught me a few tricks about the car (a few extra pounds of tire pressure, shutting down the engine at stop lights, aerodynamics) and I pointed him to a few as well: no air-conditioning, coasting down long hills, "drafting" big trailer trucks on the open highway. And no, not drafting as in racing, where you go bumper to bumper to get into the "clean" air close behind the car in front of you.
Our technique was simple and safe, since the clean air (you avoid aerodynamic drag because the truck is breaking trail for you) behind a truck is found well back. All we had to do was find a fast-moving truck, set our automatic cruise control to stay a fixed distance behind him, and watch the information screen to see our second-to-second mileage recordings climb by double digits.
So from Memphis, it was on to the rolling land leading to Texas, then up through the flat Panhandle, biting of a chunk of Oklahoma, and finally the flat giving way to the promise of the looming Rockies.
And, even though I was in a hi-tech Audi, I still felt a bit like a cowboy in the saddle as Denver sparkled ahead and the lines from a Willie Nelson song from the album Redheaded Stranger came to mind:
"The bright lights of Denver
"Were shinin' like diamonds,
"Like ten thousand jewels in the sky ... "
But then it would be up and over the Rockies, where the climb would hurt our fuel consumption, but the run down the other side would be a tremendous, long coast.
We had set the one-day record on this trip, and won the overall A4 competition with a Memphis-to-Denver average of 42.6 miles per gallon. The prize was bragging rights and a bottle of champagne. I took the bragging rights West.
I gave the champagne to a guy living in a big cardboard box on a sidewalk in Denver.
(This is the first of a two-part series: Tomorrow, drive with Royal Ford over the Rockies and on to the vast flats leading to the Pacific coast. And explore more questions about diesel — its cost, its viability, its potential promise.)