2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro S Tronic: Houston to L.A., Day One
November 11, 2014
Texas. The unending plains state. Vast. Huge. Maybe the only state in the nation more self-absorbed than California. It's ironic that we're here to pick up one of Audi's most diminutive models in America.
We had two options: Wait several weeks for a truck to haul our new 2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro S Tronic long-termer back from Texas, or fly to Houston and ride it across the plains and southwest ourselves in a weekend. Around this office you only need the flimsiest of excuses for a road trip. Kurt Niebuhr and I raised our hands.
My visit to the Lone Star State gets off to an appropriate start at the airport when I recognize a man with a familiar hairstyle carrying a guitar case. It's singer/songwriter and Houston native Lyle Lovett and he's cool enough to chat guitars on the way down the escalator (he plays a Collings acoustic, made by a boutique luthier in Austin). I consider asking him for Julia Roberts's number, but instead mumble that I like his "Road to Ensenada" album. I'm a little bummed he doesn't ask me to join his band.
Kurt and I get a shuttle to pick up the A3 directly from Volkswagen's port office. After a few minutes of Texas pleasantries with the staff, we have the keys and documents in hand. We need to push to get back into town before rush hour begins and knock out the photo shoot (we get caught in rush hour anyway).
We drive around photogenic industrial neighborhoods around the southern end of Houston's downtown, near the Astros ballpark and remnants of the city's old Chinatown.
The A3 is instantly familiar. The seats, instrument panel and controls are all minor variations on the excellent interfaces in the A4 and A8. It feels more minimal than the A4 and that's fair enough given the entry price point. But nothing feels lacking, except for a rearview camera. Our A3 isn't so entry at $40,000, and it's hard to understand why this kind of money doesn't buy you a $45 fisheye lens and the wire to connect it to the front display (this from a NHTSA cost estimate). It won't matter much longer. Rearview cams will come standard on every new car in the States by mid-2018.
We wrap up the shoot and double-back to a craft brewery we saw earlier. There are guys on skateboards inside what looks like a combination loading area/tasting room, trying to land kickflips. We telegraph our wish to try some Houston homebrew, but they ignore us. A girl lounging on a sofa tells us yoga hour is about to begin. The skate rats are understandably nervous about two handsome California guys emerging from a new German sedan when the ladies are about to start their sun salutations. The guys don't even try to take our money.
It's just as well. We're hungry, the light is fading and we need to find our hotel in time to meet our guide, a big Houston native once known by his local radio DJ handle, "Stan Scam, the Texas Homewrecker and Heartbreaker." Stan pronounces the name of his hometown with a silent "H," but the only heart he's breaking these days is his own as he cheers on the city's middling NFL team at a noisy, low-lit Tex-Mex joint, a place you'd only know about if you lived here.
A couple dozen seniors in an impressive spectrum of square dance attire come in to relax, celebrate a birthday and yell at the TV. Football is religion in Texas of course, but the room is deflated as the Texans lose to the Colts in a close game.
The A3 is mostly invisible. So far only the hotel valet has registered it, but even that just seemed a vague understanding that this was a smaller Audi than those he usually sees. No one bothered to talk with us while we took photos. No thumbs-up from passing motorists. It's possible that the brewery skate rats knew what the A3 is, but more likely they just saw two kooks from out of town unworthy of their awesome beer.
The A3 is an important car for Audi, a gateway drug for young money into Ingolstadt's larger sedans and crossovers. But clearly it's not shaping up to be the event that Kurt and I experienced last year when driving the new seventh-generation Corvette across the country. How could it be?
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor