2015 Audi A3: Houston to LA: Brisket, Barflies and a Long Road Home
May 10, 2015
When we last left off, many months ago, we'd spent the day flying to Houston, retrieving our 2015 Audi A3 from the port and knocking out a photoshoot. The next day we awoke to dreary skies, intending to make Lubbock that night, and setting us up for a run through New Mexico, Tucson, and the last leg home.
A flash rain shower outside of Houston let us test the A3's wipers. They worked. Freakishly well and fast, actually, as this was a hole in the sky that slowed interstate traffic to 35 mph. Then, just as abruptly, it ended. We had smooth sailing into the town of Lockhardt, near Austin, where we stopped for a late breakfast. Black's Barbecue is legend, but we opted instead for Kreuz Market and a half-pound of brisket, sausage links, mac-n-cheese and mini pecan pies.
Via text message, Editor-in-Chief Oldham and senior photo manager Scott Jacobs question our commitment, reminding us that they came this way once before, stood in line first thing in the morning to inhale five pounds of barbecue (no sides, no sweets) at both spots, before driving off and polluting the local air quality for some time. Kurt and I quit while ahead, knowing we face a long day of sitting upright in a confined space, but plan an evening of barbecue in Lubbock as a reward.
Later I regret not trying Black's, as I learned that my grandfather was born and raised in Lockhardt (somehow I'd always assumed Dallas) and was serious with one of the Black's family daughters.
We make a brief detour to Circuit of the Americas outside of Austin, hoping for a decent photo opp. Instead we luck into a parking lot full of vintage racers. It's the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association's national championship weekend.
The A3 quietly glides along the makeshift pit areas, motor homes and trailers of the competitors, slightly invisible and out of place. It's hard for a new car, regardless of how red the paint or how many rings on the grille, to stand out here. There is some seriously lustworthy Porsche, Mustang, British, and Italian sheetmetal to compete with here.
After COTA, it's time to mash the hammer and sweep the Texas prairie. After sunny skies in Austin, the horizon darkens with cloudbanks swollen with water and electricity. We can't ask much more from the A3. It's quiet and rides superb. Neither of us is uncomfortable after several hours in these seats. The engine has plenty of sauce for overtaking and the cruise control is easy to monitor and adjust. The A3 does a fine impersonation of a full-size, cross-country sedan.
It's past dark when we reach Lubbock. We're hungry, but the few barbecue shacks we'd hoped to visit closed up hours ago. We end up at Rudy's, a regional chain that still seems pretty legit. The brisket is drier than at Kreuz's, but more flavorful.
Now searching for hotel rooms, we realize our first mistake. It's Friday night in a college town and we don't have reservations. We weren't even certain we'd make Lubbock this night, and if we did, finding rooms somewhere near Texas Tech University didn't seem unreasonable. It may not have been but for the Red Raiders hosting a home game that weekend, Homecoming weekend at that. Every room within a mile of campus was booked solid with parents and alumni.
By the time we found a place down the highway, far from the action, both of us were too tired to care. Tucson and some fantastic driving roads lay ahead tomorrow.
Day Three: Lubbock > Tucson
It's a cold morning. A construction crew is gathered outside the foyer, waiting for their lone man who hasn't woken up yet. Sucks to be that guy. We hustle some fuel and get on the highway. An hour into the drive, I'm slowing into a McDonald's parking lot with a Texas state trooper's Crown Vic behind me, blue lights blazing.
He tells me to get out of the Audi and sit shotgun in his patrol car while he runs the license. A familiar battery of questions and explanations follow: Where are you headed? Why does your car have Michigan plates? Now, tell me again: you're writing an article about this car? And you do this for a living?
The exchange goes well, however, and I feel good about my chances. The trooper is about my age, maybe a bit younger. Says he was out in southern California a few months ago and can't understand how anyone can live there. He asks about the A3, I ask about the Crown Vic. He says the Dodge Chargers in the patrol fleet are unreliable (cracked cylinder heads), but he's excited about the new Ford Explorers coming into service. More room, better seating position, easier in and out. Kevlar vests and gunbelts have gotten bulkier, he says, while the Crown Vic has remained the same.
He lets me go with a warning to mind the shifting speed limits when approaching the small burgs along Highway 60/84 into New Mexico.
We spend miles pacing a freight train running alongside 60/84 West before finally overtaking it. It's a crisp day that alternates between cloud cover and blue sky, but crossing into the Land of Enchantment adds color to the harsh glare of white-washed Texas plains. The highway leads into Fort Sumner, where outlaw Billy the Kid was brought down.
There's a Kid museum and tacky tourist traps along the main drag and I start humming themes written by Bob Dylan for the Sam Peckinpah movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, a movie and soundtrack I discovered from a great Peter Egan story.
The 60/84 finally split in Fort Sumner and we continue west on 60. It parallels Interstate 40 to the north, but the rolling two-lane is, if not more interesting, more relaxing. Kurt and I speculate about the kind of cars we'd own if we lived out here. A full-size pickup of course, but a flat-out speed shuttle is also required. A 911 Turbo or Z06 would definitely feel out of place, but there might be few better places to enjoy their triple-digit properties. It would also help to befriend local judges and contribute generously to the high schools and Little Leagues.
The 60 meets up with Highway 85/Interstate 25, which parallels the Rio Grande, and we bear south for a lunch stop in Socorro. We try to eat local and funky whenever possible, but the only place that looks suitably funky is a greasy spoon overrun with Harleys. We think better of parting the crowd with our compact red German sedan. Anyway, a buffalo burger with green chiles sounds better at what looks like a Tex-Mex joint. It turns out, in fact, to be a Tex-Mex joint, although one with white tablecloths, hefty silverware and expensive bottles of wine.
We've waited for this next leg. There's another stretch of rolling flats that cuts through the foothills of the Cibola National Forest toward the town of Dotil, where we'll pick up New Mexico State Road 12, wind our way up to about 6,000 feet through the Gila National Forest, pick up U.S. 180, then start descending into Arizona on SR 78.
This is the payoff. It's a Saturday afternoon, but traffic is light. There's rain, but not enough to dampen our fun. This is a fun, perma-grin wheel workout that finally shows us how the A3 handles itself from side-to-side. Kurt pushes it at about 7/10ths, both of us wary of an oncoming highway patrol and, not least, our unfamiliarity with the road.
We even take it on dirt near the highway summit, its maiden voyage off-road, until we happen upon some kind of cowboy compound in a grassy basin a few miles from the highway. There's a vaguely sketchy feeling to the scene, some kind of Coen Brothers setup, and when we see an F-Series dually start off in our direction, we turn the A3 back around toward the highway.
Even at 70 percent, it's easy to gather confidence in the little Quattro wheelbase. These are real driver's roads and this, with the right attitude, is a blue-collar driver's car with uptown aspirations.
SR 78 turns into U.S. Route 191 and finally brings us to the road home, Interstate 10. It's dark and again, we're tired, hungry and without hotel reservations. I'm hoping we can find a decent spot, then go see some live music. Maybe Calexico is playing somewhere.
Nope. Again, we're victims of college football and our own ill-preparation. The USC Trojans are in town to play the Arizona Wildcats. The best we're gonna do is a Best Western near the airport, miles from the town center. It's just as well. Boss Oldham suggests we find El Guero Canelo, a place that serves Sonoran-style hot dogs (bacon, tomatoes, beans, grilled onions, jalapenos). One of El Guero's three locations is near the hotel, but far enough to call for a cab.
The dogs hit the spot, served up in a fluorescent-lit, open-air kind of place, with rancheras singing out from a house next door and guys working on some kind of jalopy in the darkness a few doors down. We hope to continue our anthropological pursuit of local barfly wisdom, as we did on our road trip in the Stingray, and Kurt insists we visit The Branding Iron about a half-mile down the road. Our cabbie said it was his regular spot. A few Harleys are parked out front, AC/DC blares from the doorway, and we're glad we didn't drive the A3 to this spot.
The Branding Iron doesn't disappoint. The game is on TV, three co-eds sit at the bar in Wildcat jerseys, some guys argue at the pool table behind us, and Kurt is befriended by a man with limited English and a voracious thirst for tequila. I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting the pool game to devolve into fists and steel. The first beer goes down with a little edge, but the place settles down a bit during round two. Somehow, Jedi-like, Kurt has re-positioned himself between me and the college girls, allowing his old friend to become my new friend.
The Trojans beat the Wildcats 28-26 in a heart-breaker for the home team.
Day Four: Tucson > Los Angeles
The next morning we're up early for the home stretch. We could take I-10 the whole way home, but neither of us has taken the border route. We take I-8 instead through Yuma, with white Mexican sand dunes to the south and the green agricultural fields of Imperial County to the north. Soon we're into San Diego and, finally, home.
It's been a great road trip. The A3 certainly isn't the event that our Stingray trip was, but we didn't expect it to be. Kurt and I are a little puzzled, though. What are we going to say about this car? It was competent, comfortable, and refined, everything you expect of an Audi these days. That alone is a minor revelation, however. This kind of comfort and composure isn't a given among this new crop of compact entry-level luxury cars. We call the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 to testify on that score.
There will be (and has been) plenty of time for others to weigh in on the A3's strengths and weaknesses. We're six months into the test now. I'm still looking for a clearing in the calendar to go run those forest roads again.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor