Running on empty: How we drove 834 (smelly) miles on an Audi's single tank

Audi A3 TDI challenge
Audi A3 TDI challenge

We drove up the mountain, very slowly. On the other side was San Diego, but it seemed far away. My driving partner, Jason Torchinsky, stared ahead, his eyes glassy and somewhat crazed, but determined. He modulated the pedal with more care than the organist at Notre Dame Cathedral. We were in a brand-new Audi A3 diesel, which, if we’d pushed it to its limits, would have had us over the mountain in 20 minutes. But on this day, we crawled, on purpose. We were in a contest to drive the Audi 834 miles, from Albuquerque to San Diego, on one tank of fuel.

Torchinsky and I had determined the ideal speed would be 38. At that point, you could jack it up to 6th gear, which would drop your RPMs to about 1,000, and keep them there if you were light on the pedal. RPMs, more than speed, were the enemy. So that’s what we were doing. On the freeway, at 38 mph.

We crawled uphill like we were on the world’s steepest rollercoaster. The indicator told us there were 15 miles left in the tank. We’d driven 743 thus far, and had nearly 100 to go. Assuming the back end of the mountain went down as steeply as the front was rising, we’d be fine.


A California Highway Patrol cruiser sped past us on the left, went ahead a few hundred feet, and parked on the shoulder. Eventually and by degrees, we limped past it.

“Come on, come on!” a trooper shouted into the bullhorn. “Pick up your speed!”

If we sped up, we’d surely run out of gas before our goal. And if we didn’t, we’d get a ticket, or maybe even go to jail. Actually, the choice wasn’t that hard. We weren’t going to tangle with the cops while doing a glorified PR stunt for Audi.

The cop followed, his brights glaring.

“Up yours, Johnny Law,” I said.

Torchinsky pushed the pedal. Our speed rose to 60. There went our precious fuel.

Audi TDI Challenge 2015
Audi TDI Challenge 2015

I got my invitation for the Audi TDI Challenge, and I was genuinely excited. When I evaluate a car, I look for fuel economy first, which is why I’ve been a Prius owner since 2006. I hate spending money on gas. My daily driving goal is to get 50-plus MPG before breakfast, and stay there. This was my idea of a good time.

At the first evening’s cocktail hour, Torchinsky appeared, stuttering with excitement. He wrote for Jalopnik, which placed him squarely in the Wacky Racers column; he had plans for this event, all kinds of ideas, and even brought along modifications for the car. His specialty, as it turns out, is babying broken-down old vehicles, getting the most he possibly can out of a dying engine. He drives a 1973 Beetle every day. “Efficiency driving,” he called it.

“You guys should partner up,” someone said.

Torchinsky and I regarded each other, two semi-slovenly artsy-fartsy middle-aged dads with active sweat glands and receding hairlines. It was apparent that he wanted to win. And, frankly, so did I. His efficiency-driving techniques, combined with my incredible cheapness, seemed like a decent formula.

We shrugged simultaneously.

“Eh,” he said.

“Why not?” I said.

Audi told us we needed to come up with a team name. We rejected several self-deprecating ideas, finally settling on “The Circumiserz,” which basically said, “We’re stingy Semites, but in an ironic way.” It was going to be fun watching a German-owned company put a PR spin on that name.

Audi sat us down in a hotel conference room and explained what we’d be doing. On Day One, we’d drive from Albuquerque to Sedona, Ariz., 300-plus miles through varied terrain. The following day, Sedona to San Diego, was much further. The total elevation drop from start to finish would be more than 5,000 feet, but that wasn’t straight down. They’d deliberately mixed it up, so there’d be almost as much uphill as downhill, and long, difficult switchbacks. In between, we had vast stretches of flat.

Winning was going to take skill, strategy, and luck. To suceed would require nearly doubling the A3 TDI's stated fuel economy rating of 38 mpg combined. You’d make it through the first day even if you drove 90 the whole way. But you wouldn’t on the second day. There were bailout points, starting around mile 650, and getting progressively closer and closer together. The last bailout point, “BP7,” was at the top of a mountain, 38 miles from our coastal endpoint. Only one person had ever succeeded on this drive.

That person, an excitable fellow named Wayne Gerdes, appeared to give us excellent hypermiling pointers. Torchinsky and I took careful notes. From my book:

“Drive at least 5 to 10 miles an hour under the speed limit. The faster the speed limit, the further under it you drive. Drive as far over to the edge of the right lane as possible, with your right blinker on, or possibly even your hazards. That will get the attention of other drivers and reduce your chance of getting rear-ended by a semi. If a car is trailing you too closely, but refuses to go around, move over to the left lane if possible, slow down, and let them speed ahead. This is known as a ‘reverse pass.’ For steep climbs, use the truck lane, and go slowly, with your hazards on. Do not go over 41 MPH and try to keep it in 6th gear. Use long glides at exit ramps. Coast down steep descents in neutral. On light descents, apply light throttle, and coast.”

And so on.

“You’re going to need everything you have,” Gerdes said. “Some of you are going to be on BINGO fuel.”

The winner of the TDI Challenge, they told us, would receive an Audi racing weekend at the track at Sonoma, valued at more than $4,000. The second-place team would get radio-controlled toy Audi R8s. The last-place team would have a punishment.

We went outside. Something was sitting under a sheet on a trailer. The Audi guy pulled off the sheet. There sat a hideous 1995 white Aspire which had a Ford nameplate but had actually been manufactured by Kia. It is widely, and rightly, considered one of the worst cars of all time. This Aspire had the word “IT” painted on it in big black letters.

The worst team, the one to run out of gas first, would have to drive this, and its four-speed transmission, the rest of the way to San Diego.

“I am not sitting in that piece of s**t for one second,” I said.

“That would actually be pretty fun to drive,” Torchinsky said.

“Not for me,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We got this.”

Audi TDI Challenge
Audi TDI Challenge

The next morning, I opened my hotel room door. Torchinsky emerged simultaneously from the adjacent room.

“There you are!” he said.

He was carrying a passel of taped-up cardboard.

“I need to find some place to stash our enhancements,” he said, with a glint in his eye.

“OK,” I said.

The enhancements, it turned out, were two cardboard half ovals. We drove out of the parking lot of the hotel, onto the next block. Torchinsky spent the next ten minutes attaching these ovals to the upper halves of the rear wheel wells, in the style of the original Honda Insight. This, he said, would reduce wind resistance. He used gaffer tape because he thought it would be easier on the paint job.

We crawled onto I-40, windows up, air-conditioning off. A hundred miles passed, by degrees. I was driving with the hazards on the whole time, enjoying myself immensely.

“Boy, this is slow,” he said.

“This is pretty close to how I drive normally,” I said.

A semi passed us, and then another. Then a truck towing a house. Then another truck towing a yacht. To add insult, there was a car towing a porta-potty. We were, by far, the slowest vehicle on the road. Let them speed ahead, I thought. I’m getting good gas mileage.

It was baking by midday. We schvitzed mightily. I grew up in Phoenix and have a lot of experience driving in sweat-soaked underwear, so I was fine. Torchinsky, though, was looking a little crazy. “I feel the road madness descending,” he said. He referred to himself as a “stewed Jew” more than once. It was like the Borscht Belt in that car. It smelled like borscht, too.

There were 700 miles to go. The readout told us we had 610 miles of fuel left. Our average MPG, which sat before me on a little digital readout behind the steering wheel, read 55.5. It had been a decent start, for sure, but we needed to do better.

When we got to lunch, a barbecue at a weird roadside attraction called the Ice Cave, we discovered that one of the fraps had blown off. Torchinsky had enough cardboard left for one substitute, so he carved one out with a steak knife. That blew off within 20 miles. Soon after, the other one flew away as well. There went our enhancements. Torchinsky blamed the cheap gaffer’s tape.

By 3:45 PM, we were 50 miles outside of Sedona. There were three-quarters of a tank left, but our fuel economy was dropping. We were averaging 56.8 MPG, but by our calculations, that number needed to be close to 63 for us to actually finish.

Torchinsky looked wilted behind the wheel.

“It’s almost physically painful,” he said. “You can feel the car’s effort. It takes all the relaxing part of driving away.”

“I am very relaxed,” I said.

We descended into Oak Creek Canyon, the beating heart of red-rock country. He threw the car into neutral, opened up the windows, and sighed with pleasure. Then the downhill ended and we limped through downtown Sedona for half an hour, getting passed by tourist buses and golf carts.

For the day, out of nine teams, we finished third. The second-place team had a six-mile advantage on us, but that was only because we’d missed a freeway exit had driven five extra miles. We could make up that difference in less than an hour.

The first place team, on the other hand, had averaged more than 61 miles an hour. They called themselves Better Than Electric, and they were far, far ahead. Beating them was going to take extraordinary effort. Jason promised additional modifications, which he would do under cover of night when the Audi engineers weren’t looking.

“If we were Lutherans before,” he said, “now we’re Calvinists. And it’s gonna suck.”

We left the next morning at 5:45, modification free other than two more fraps, which blew away long before lunch.

Audi advised us to get out as early as we could, because otherwise we’d spend the hottest part of the day driving through the California desert. Wayne Gerdes said, “don’t drive with your shoes on. Your shoes are like wearing your coat. I never wear my shoes. It’s gonna be 100 degrees in the car. Good luck.”

The first two hours, which I drove, were horrible, mostly uphill. I barely got 51 MPG. It was a disastrous start, but Torchinsky assured me that I’d done as well as anyone could have possibly done on those difficult roads.

“You kept the shul going during the worst of the Warsaw ghetto,” he said, encouragingly.

He then took the wheel and proceeded to drive, as he said, “hot and slow and cranky.” By the time we got to lunch, it became clear that the other teams were in the process of giving up, getting bored, or succumbing to road madness. Our numbers, on the other hand, were gradually improving. We had emerged as the dark-horse candidates to defeat Better Than Electric, which continued its TDI challenge with the serene confidence of Queen Elizabeth waving to an adoring crowd on her birthday. We chugged behind, saying, I think we can, I think we can.

Audi TDI Challenge
Audi TDI Challenge

Torchinsky had laid out the rules very clearly for the balance of the day: The tachometer was never to rise above 2,000 RPM. We were to keep the car in 6th gear as often as possible. But 5th was acceptable if you were only going 35. There had to be constant throttle modulation, and you could never let up. It was less like driving, and more like coding.

We watched the numbers like nervous atomic scientists. We took curves way faster than we should have. Any loss of kinetic energy would have been disastrous. If we wanted to finish, we had to hurdle perilously.

Our miles remaining had been hovering near 100 for a while, but after we cleared the Imperial Sand Dunes, it quickly dropped into double digits. When the cop started chasing us, we had 15 left, and by the time he pulled away ten minutes later, we had zero. We’d hit that number at 746.7 miles. There were 17 miles to go to the top of the mountain, and another 70-plus beyond that.

From Twitter, we were able to glean that the other teams were already out. None of them had gotten further than 758 miles. We had faith that The Circumiserz would make it to at least 763, which was the mileage for Bailout Point 6.

We reached that point. They told us that we were the second team they’d seen. The other one had sailed on ahead.

We had the option to quit. There was a nice Cabriolet available for the drive remaining. But The Circumiserz, forged in the fires of hypermiling misery, had no interest in fast convertibles.

Torchinsky drove the rest of the way. It was the right choice for the team. I was good enough, but he was a madman. He speared the A3 uphill toward a horrible, blazing sunset. The indicator held at zero. “Please refuel,” the car begged us, but no. We were going to drive until we ran out of gas.

He sweated. I tweeted, ate candy, and hummed along with the radio, having a great time.

“I am accelerating in neutral,” he said to no one in particular, like a fuel-economy Rain Man. “Going into gear to brake.”

We hurtled down a mountain at ridiculous speeds. Then came one last climb.

“All right, car,” Torchinsky muttered. “You and me. We have an agreement. This is us, car. Don’t give up.”

We reached Bailout Point 7. Torchinsky emerged from the car soaked in sweat and shoeless, looking like a Hobbit who had just spent a month getting chased across Mordor by Orcs. I didn’t look much better.

“Did we win?” he said.

“We sent another car on ahead,” said an Audi engineer.

At that moment, Twitter indicated that Better Than Electric had arrived at the Hotel Del Coronado at 6:57 PM. Dammit.

“We’re at zero,” I said. “Can we keep going?”

“How long have you been there?” asked the Audi engineer.

“For about 70 miles.”

He laughed.

“Oh, yah,” he said. “Why not? We’ll be right behind you.”

That’s what Torchinsky wanted to hear. He was quickly back in the driver’s seat. I thought about it for a long minute. I’ve finished first and I’ve finished second. While there’s no shame in losing if you try hard, winning feels a lot better.

“F**k it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

At 812.8 miles, after roaring down a mountain in neutral at 70 MPH, we ran a stoplight. It was pitch-dark out. We had reluctantly turned on the headlights.

By now, we’d been driving on empty for three hours. The last twenty miles were heavily trafficked urban highway. Torchinsky took it in the far right lane at 35 MPH, the veins in his temples pulsing with stress.

Behind us, traffic backed up for nearly a mile. We had to cross the Coronado Bridge. If we stalled out there, which was more than possible, then traffic would stop completely. We were causing a disaster.

But Torchinsky eased us across that bridge, and through the streets of Coronado, and on into the hotel entrance, where people were applauding us and taking our picture. We pulled up to the valet. I stepped out of the passenger seat. Someone handed me a glass of champagne. I downed it in one gulp. We had averaged more than 63 MPG for the day.

At dinner that night, they revealed the results. Two teams had finished, but because we’d taken a wrong turn the day before, we’d actually driven five more miles than Better Than Electric. Therefore, our collective MPG was better.

The Circumiserz had triumphed.

The victors and their tally
The victors and their tally

As someone tweeted, “the two guys that won the Audi PR stunt are also the last two guys Audi wants to show as winning their PR stunt. Bravo.”

Victory tasted as sweet as the tower of free Twinkies that they offered us every morning in a continuing industry effort to make car writers as fat as possible. Once again, Torchinsky had mastered a difficult machine. And I’d validated my slow, parsimonious style of driving. I’ve endured many a tedious slog in my life. This was nothing by comparison.

And they offered me a reward at the end, which I will refuse because, as a living paragon of journalistic ethics, I cannot legally accept prizes for my car-reporting work. Plus, I’d have to claim it on my taxes. But even if I were allowed to participate in the Audi track “experience,” which would give me the opportunity to hurtle an R8 at high speeds around the Sonoma Raceway, I’d decline it regardless.

I prefer to drive slow.