Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Audi Driving Experience 2013

Long gone are the days where every auto manufacturer hosts a free driving event every year to highlight their new lineup and give consumers a chance to drive their vehicles in a sales-free and low pressure environment. Luckily Audi has a new event called the Audi Driving Experience which lets future owners try almost the entire performance line of Audi's latest offerings on a real track, with real instructors and even manages to bring a competitive spin to this free experience.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the event at New Jersey Motorsports Park; which seems to be the venue of choice in the NYC area for manufacturers holding events such as this one.  I was initially greeted to a nice selection of unlimited "finger food" and non-alcoholic beverages while I waited for my session to begin in an Audi themed "waiting area." This was nice, but expected and could only have been made better by having a few video game simulators set up like Porsche had at their event.

The event was structed into 4 parts: Tech presentation, Real-world driving, Autocross and Track lapping. A little bit of everything to keep things interesting. First up was the presentation.

Tech Presentation
 I didn't really know what to expect for this first portion of the program but I knew it would probably take at least 20 minutes because others were still out on the autocross and track from the previous session. The presentation started with one of the Audi instructors discussing the benefits of Audi's "legendary all-wheel drive system" and highlighting all the things that make Audi stand out from the rest of the luxury performance automotive brands. It had a bit of a sales pitch vibe but it wasn't overwhelming by any means and I felt it was a fair trade-off for Audi letting us thrash their cars for the rest of our time there. The big surprise came about 10 minutes into the chat when suddenly the presenter announces they have a special guest and introduced legendary 5-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro! Even though I don't follow racing enough to remember all the winners of every major event I was quickly won over by Emanuele's passion for the brand. He continued to discuss the benefits of Audi's technology in racing but also sprinkled in personal anecdotes about his own racing experiences which felt truly special. Where else would you have a chance to hear first-hand stories from a 5-time winner of any motorsports event? But here he was a few feet away from us and you could really feel his passion for driving and the brand he represented. This was a real treat.

Real-world Driving
 The first actual driving we got to do was going to be on the street in either an S6, S7 or S8. We broke off into teams of 4 and picked a car to complete this part of the event. Unfortunately we were only able to try one of the three cars for this portion of the event but because the intent of this portion was to show us how Audi vehicles perform in everyday driving situations this was fine. We drove off in a caravan of Audis with an instructor car at the front and back of the pack. Each person in the group had a chance to try the car out for a portion of the journey and overall it was a nice way to be introduced to the luxury lineup, albeit at street legal speeds. The cars were all fully equipped so we each had time to press buttons and try different settings as drivers and passengers in various seating locations.

This is where things got interesting. As you may or may not know an autocross simply consists of a tight technical course made up of cones that you either have to drive around or between. For this portion of the event we had the opportunity to drive the Audi S4 and S5. The coolest part about the autocross was that they actually had a timing system set up to track our performance. This is unusual for a free event and in my experience the only other event I have been to which has had timed autocross laps was Mazda's Zoom Zoom event back when they had the Mazdaspeed6 in their lineup. The timers weren't just there for fun either. We were told that the 2 fastest times of our entire group would get a chance to ride shotgun with the instructors on a flying lap of the track in the new 2014 R8 V10 Plus.

So now the challenge was set and we each had a chance to tackle it with 2 laps in each car. Although the similarities between the S4 and S5 are numerous I was able to feel some minor differences during hard cornering - although it could have been attributed to the fact that people were generally driving the S5 harder for whatever reason. I was actually able to set my best lap in my final run in the S5 and it was a full second faster than anyone else in our group (or so I thought). Unfortunately I was told that I had clipped a cone on the final turn and they had to deduct 2 seconds off of my time which put me out of the running for fastest lap. I guess I got a little too confident about my lap but it was still a lot of fun.

Track Lapping
This was the final portion of the Audi driving experience and gave us a chance to get behind the wheel of a number of Audi's fastest vehicles including the RS5 and the incredible R8 V8. Honestly, I was quite surprised that we were getting the opportunity to put the R8 through it's paces on the track. Even Porsche didn't let us experience their flagship model, the 911 Turbo. Although this wasn't the new V10 it was still quite capable and truly a memorable experience to take it out on the track.

This event was structured as a lead-follow where 4-5 attendees would all follow one instructor around the track at the pace the instructor sets based on how adept he feels his group is. We would do one lap in each car and then switch to the next model so that we could try each one. As expected the laps weren't blistering in any way but you still got to experience each vehicle's dynamics in a track setting knowing that there was more performance to be had if you were to take it to the next level. Also as expected there were no manual transmission equipped vehicles but at this point it would have been out of the ordinary if there had been. The R8 was definitely the highlight and the lap went by faster than I would have liked but it was still great to have the opportunity to pilot it for the time we had.

Final Thoughts
At the end of the track lapping session we were taken inside for a final briefing and sent on our way with a bag full of Audi gear including a hat and water bottle. Emanuele Pirro actually stopped by to field questions as well so we got to hear a bit more insight into his thoughts on being a professional race car driver and philosophies he had regarding how he approached the sport - really cool stuff from an enthusiast's perspective.

Overall this was a great event with a little bit of something for everyone. It exceeded my expectations in almost every way which says a lot considering I've been to many similar types of events.Thanks to Audi for putting on this great event and really striving to set it apart from the usual "driving experience" events out there. For more information about the Audi Driving Experience see:

5 out of 5 pocket protectors!


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