They said driving the 836 miles from Albuquerque to San Diego on one 13.2 gallon tank of diesel would be challenging. They weren't kidding.
Audi supplied me with a car—the fuel-sipping 2015 A3 TDi—topped off and sealed the tank, then paired me with a fellow journalist for the adventure. The obvious warnings, ominous statements, and downright threats emanating from Audi personnel made it seem like this excursion would be more Apollo mission than scenic road trip, and I had no idea whether or not I could, or would, succeed.
This is what that drive was like.
When they mentioned satellite phones, I started to get worried.
I sat down with my driving partner for some serious planning before heading out. We obviously needed to conserve as much fuel as possible, but we also needed to avoid being murdered by irate motorists for driving 40 mph on a 75 mph interstate. Then, another thought occurred to me: Is it possible to spend 12 hours confined together, crawling across the desert sans air-conditioning, without contemplating each other's homicide?
At dawn, we eased our way up a mountain while a very long cavalcade of motorized embarrassment trudged past us. Heavily loaded vans, an RV towing an SUV, a house hauled by a semi truck dressed in madly flashing hazard lights... all easily overtaking us while we tried desperately to avoid eye contact.
As careful as we were, things still weren't looking very promising, and despite our undaunted efforts to inconvenience every motorist in the American Southwest, we arrived at our lunch stop well short of our target MPG.
Back on the road, the time had come to be utter dicks: holding up long lines of traffic was OK if it meant we'd keep our MPGs as high as possible. Still, we didn't want to get ourselves wrecked or killed, so we decided to stay sort of in the flow of traffic, and to only draft 18-wheelers at a normal distance, which is to say more than three feet.
We still had no idea if we were going to make it. Ultimately, I think that was our undoing.
At one point, we coasted seven miles down a mountainside without ever touching the accelerator. It was a noble effort and our greatest, but not nearly enough. A full 100 miles shy of our intended destination, the car's various alarms became increasingly insistent that the tank simply had nothing left.
A late lunch brought the realization that our Audi was likely to come to a stop in an area that was completely devoid of life, save for border patrol checkpoints and narco-murderers. It was time to save face and aim for one of the bailout points Audi had set up, lest we wind up in the back of an immigration bus, or worse, a shallow grave.
The decision to bail meant we could speed up, turn the air conditioning on, and blissfully drive like normal human beings for the first time in two days. Words and pictures can't quite capture the smell and the misery of the little German sweat lodge in which we sat. Failure was never so blissful as that first blast of frigid air on my sweat-soaked face.
I left my journey with the impression that hypermiling just isn’t worth it. When driving like that wasn’t slowly killing my soul, I learned it's a fascinating, albeit arduous, chess match. Constant focus on the road is required to maximize momentum and thus efficiency. Each hill and descent requires its own approach, and I found myself gauging whether or not I needed to accelerate on a downslope in order to coast to the next crest, as well as guessing just how much momentum I could carry into each corner.
After all those hours, I was thoroughly spent. Maybe that's exactly the point of the A3 TDi. You can drive yourself insane worrying about every little MPG—it does make a difference—or you can relax and still get good mileage in comfort.
What we were doing was sheer madness. When it was all said and done, I looked, felt, and smelled like a drowned rat, but hey, at least I made it out alive.