I have been an Audi fan for as long as I can remember. Their innovations are like something out of Q-branch, from all-wheel-drive turning racing on its head, to the automated paddle-shift gearbox (yup, that was them), to a transmission that could be – and was – changed in under 5 minutes in the heat of battle at the 24 hours of Le Mans; Audi has been re-writing the rule book for decades.
And since we don’t have an Audi dealer in town, we have way more BMWs and Mercedes running around here than Audis, and I like to be a little different. Plus, we all know that the Germans make the best cars.
Without a doubt, the finest all-around car I have ever owned is my 2011 Audi S4. I will never sell it, even if I have to give up the R8 to keep it. It was a long road that led me to it, it has a lot wrapped up in it, and it has a prospective future that gives me goose bumps.
And it is very, very German.
I find it incredibly fascinating that a car can be German. Or Italian. Or Japanese. Or American. How is that even possible? It’s a machine. But the reality – like it or not, you politically-correct rule enforcers – is that different cultures have different philosophies on life, and those ideals are captured in complex things like architecture, commerce, or even the design and construction of automobiles. The products appeal to the sensibilities of the target audience: people.
I am going to stereotype now. This may piss you off. I don’t really care. You can pretend all you like that these tendencies are imaginary, but they are not. They are not ubiquitous, but on balance they are totally valid. And that’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, I absolutely love that Germans – in general – are different than Americans. And I love that it comes through in their cars. That’s precisely what makes German cars German. This is what diversity looks like, and it should be celebrated, not hidden.
Some adjectives that come to mind: precise; calculating; logical; measured; restrained; orderly; purposeful; capable. A few that would never make the list: flamboyant; fragile; flippant.
The first car I bought myself was a 2001 Audi allroad wagon (the first new car we bought was a Ford Windstar minivan, but I am not counting that for obvious reasons). That was one of my favorite cars. I have always hated SUVs – they are poor imitations of minivans designed for people who refuse to admit that they need a minivan – but I have always been a big fan of wagons. Wagons offer all of the interior capabilities of a larger hauler, but the driving dynamics of sedan. My allroad was basically an A6 in wagon form with the potent twin-turbo V6 from the S4 and a cool height adjustable air suspension that let it range from normal road-driving ride height to several inches increased ground clearance for gravel or snow, to hunkered down for blasts on the highway. And fender flares. Because the is no such thing as too much fender flare.
And a heated steering wheel. Mmmmm.
I’d probably still have the car if I had just listened to the little devil on my shoulder right from the get-go, ignored that stupid angel. “Buy an automatic. It’s more practical, and it will be easier to sell if you need to.” The devil on the other shoulder writhed at this nonsense and muttered incoherently through a clenched jaw. Which is the only excuse I have for ignoring the logic in his anger: follow your heart, fool. Get a damn manual, ya candy-ass minivan owner.
So a few years later when I came to the realization that life is short and every minute spent in a car with an automatic transmission is like a minute of joy being sucked from the universe, I saw the error of my ways. By the way, the same logic applies to cars that lack a good exhaust note: the silence you hear is the sucking sound.
I traded in that wagon on a 2004 Audi S4. Manual transmission, V8, and with what has become the signature features of the model for Audi-nuts: Nogaro blue with the blue alcantara inserts on the seats. I fell in love with the car because of the color. Ironically, the car was available because of the color.
So very NOT German, that color. German cars are black, silver, or grey. Some white. But mostly black. Black on black, actually.
Not all German cars are black. Just all of the ones that you can buy at the dealer. Dealers don’t want something flamboyant, because that’s not what the customers of German cars are looking for. Which is why the lonely Nogaro blue S4 was languishing on the lot at Duncan Audi. And why the salesman was pretty sure I was his knight in shining armor, as someone (him) was probably going to lose his head for convincing the general manager to order a car the color of sapphires with enough pearl for a Kardashian to start a new jewelry company. And that interior! How many of Elvis’s blue suede shoes died to line those buckets? Surely they are endangered now. How very gauche. How very un-German.
How very awesome!
And thus began my nose dive into mechanical depravity. I joined Audi Club, went to a track event at VIR, and the subsequent chapters include such debauchery as brake kits and coilovers, engine tunes, Ferraris, a Lotus, another Ferrari, full-one race cars… look, it’s a not a family movie. There is more automotive infidelity than a documentary about Motley Crue.
I went through a bunch of Audis (my UrQ, as they are affectionately known, is #8). But in between, there was a Mercedes. OK 2. And a BMW. And not just any BMW… THE BMW: an E46 M3.
It was actually the M3 that led me to salvation. The details behind its acquisition are just as sordid as the rest. So let’s just say the car was clean and leave it at that. (It’s still in town, so that should say something). For those in the know, the M3 is a coupe: 2 doors, 4 seats. From the outside, it looks quite small, especially by today’s standards. But once inside, it’s like one of Harry Potter’s tents, and 4 big people can actually ride in relative comfiness.
The problem was the inability for my 9 year old daughter to open the door at carpool and get into the back seat. On her own. In the rain. Requiring my less-than-amused wife to complete the motions, all the while undoubtably muttering curses that would have left the little manual-transmission devil that lives on my shoulder shuddering.
So came the order from above: “You will get a 4-door car.”
Fine. But it’s gonna be a good one.
So I ordered the S4 to spec. Blue. “Sprint blue” now, Nogaro having been cancelled as a paint color (something about it containing ground-up baby harp seals and spotted owls. So what?!? Another travesty invoked by environmentalists). And no blue-suede interior either, as that option had also been killed, no doubt in a German board-room fit of sensibility. So I had to settle for the light grey and black, now affectionately termed the “panda”. (No, they don’t kill endangered Chinese bears, it’s synthetic, so sit down and chill out).
Somewhere along the way I heard a tale of magic, something termed European delivery. What’s that you say? Euro delivery is a program so incredible that if you actually pay for a new German car and don’t take advantage of this perk, you should be relegated to some sort of slow lane for the rest of your days.
It works like this: German car manufacturers pay a metric crap ton of taxes when they export a car (it’s a metric crap ton because they use the metric system, see?) So if you buy the car in Germany, they can save on that crap, and you get to capitalize. You order the car, go to Europe, pay for it there, and they ship it home to you, just as if you bought it in the states. Except they toss you a bone for your troubles. A big juicy bone, with some pieces of meat still hanging on it.
They pass on the tax savings, so you usually can get a big discount. I got 5%, but I have heard of twice that. Audi picks you up at the airport. And not in a cab, in an A8L, with a driver whose job is to launch that car to the absolute maximum speed on the autobahn like now, whisking you to the factory, where the VIP treatment continues with a tour and food and drink. And your car. And insurance, and registration, and everything you need for driving about anywhere you like for the next two weeks.
Now, my wife is not much of a car person. Or a travel person. And she gets motion sick. So she was about as interested in going to Germany and driving about in a sports sedan as she was in standing in the rain in carpool line.
So I took my dad.
And thus came about what will go down as my favorite trip, ever. We did the A8 thing, and the factory tour, and within about 15 minutes from being released onto the German highway system we were well over 100 mph, engine break-in period be damned. From Ingolstadt to the Nurburgring, where we took a lap around the famous circuit, toured the overlooking castle, ate in Sabine Schmitz’s family restaurant, and stayed in the hotel on the front straight of the GP circuit. Then we went to the Rhine river, toured an even-more epic castle, skipping the beer and drinking wine. (You can see France from there, after all. Plus, German beer is not actually all-that, if you ask me). And then we drove twisty back roads to the autobahn, found the 155 mph speed limiter, documented that with a photo of the nav, and spent the better part of the day in what has to be the best museum for all gear-heads: the Museum of Technology in Munich. All – airfare, lodging, food – for less than the money I saved on the car.
Are you starting to see why this is a must-do?
As it turns out, it really is a great car. Comfy, fun, fast, functional, blue. Very German in all things except the color, which just makes it a smidgy more mine. I made a few modifications so my wife could also enjoy a track event at VIR with Audi Club, and she went well faster than I did my first time out. And all of this adds to the sentimentality of the car. In fact, it makes it irreplaceable. And we still aren’t done, as my daughter is learning to drive a manual in it. And if she takes to this car and driving becomes something that she loves…? What price can I put on that? Where do I go to find these things as options on a new car?
Exactly nowhere, that’s where.
So yes, the car is very German: precise; calculating; logical; measured; restrained; orderly; purposeful; capable. And fast as shit. with a manual. And it sounds bitchin’.
But that’s not why it is the best. It’s the best because of what it means to me, because of the experiences it has provided, the memories it has generated. And it’s not over yet. And that’s what is most important about a car: what you make of it. Because they are just machines, just things that get us from one place to another. It’s the experiences that we take away that give life and soul to these inanimate objects. A bunch of parts made of steel and aluminum and plastic and rubber, designed by people with intent and ideals that may not completely align with our own, fraught with imperfections and compromises and even defects.
Part of the experience is finding some common ground, some basic understanding of the mindset of the people who made it. Because it can be a bit like travelling to that land, getting to know them, if only just a little. It’s fun to see and hear and feel the German in a German car.
And yet, when we really live these cars, live in them, live through them, they take on a life or our own.
And no one can add that part but you.