A3 New Zealand Driving Experience

 

Four Rings in New Zealand

New Zealand is known as Middle Earth in many-Oscars-Academy-Awards-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. The most captivating and magical settings for the world-class movie making are abundant here. Hobbiton, Mt. Doom, Eregion Hills and the pillars of Argonath were all filmed here. So, when I received an invitation to a wedding in Christchurch, New Zealand, I didn’t hesitate. I made the plan to attend the wedding and explore Middle Earth.

Christchurch

As soon as I cleared Custom at Christchurch International Airport, I shopped for the suitable rental car. Avis had the 2009 Audi A4 convertible in its fleet. It would have been a great choice, but the car was not available. Others offered Hyundai Accent or similar Asian cars. My eyes caught an advertisement in the Welcome to New Zealand brochure. There was a car rental company just outside the airport offering older European cars; Audi, Mercedes, and BMW. They happened to have only one European car left. It was a 2000 Audi A3. For relatively the same amount of money, I had to choose between a brand new Hyundai Accent and a 9-year old Audi A3.

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Slipping into the driver seat of this well maintained pre-sportback A3, I got a rush of De Ja Vu; the past memories of driving my 1990’s Audi 90S. The pneumatic door lock system, the large side-by-side red LED climate control displays, the Audi Symphony stereo system featuring the unique design of a single circular button in the center, and the scent of Audi interior from this generation transported me back into the 1990’s.

This 20-valve engine idled smoothly as if it were brand new, despite the fact that the odometer glowed 155,700 km red digits. Putting the gear lever into D position, stepping on the accelerator slowly, and turning the 3 spoke steering wheel, I navigated my way out of the parking lot and began my Middle Earth driving. The inner child inside me woke up jubilantly.

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Christchurch, near the center of the east coast of the South Island, east of the Canterbury Plains, was the ideal place to start my exploration, not only because of its historic importance but also because of its attractive surroundings and activities for thrill-seeking tourists. Skiing and snowboarding on steepest mountains, whale watching, rafting, rock and ice climbing, and swimming with dolphins are all within a few hours drive from this English-style garden city with its many 19th century stone buildings.

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Driving towards the city center I passed Avon River on Oxford Terrace. This river, with its urban-park-filled banks, flows through the city center. A classic Edwardian punt carried a group of tourists on a city tour. Colombo Street in downtown took me right to the heart of Christchurch; the Cathedral Square. The compact size of this 5-door A3 made the navigating through one-way streets of downtown and sharing the roads with vintage trams a breeze.

In the Cathedral Square, an outdoor market with stalls offering New Zealand wood-ware, hand knitting, jewelry, clothing, and much more was filled with locals and tourists. Straddling the square, one can make new friends during a game of chess, where the chess pieces were as tall as a 4-year old boy.

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Christchurch has a special importance to car enthusiasts. Every February, Skope Classic, the Southern Festival of Speed, is held at Ruapuna Raceway. There won’t be any new lap record set at this race. Classic Allard’s, MG’s, Jaguar’s, and other vintage cars are raced to commemorate the glorious past and provide a family pass-time.

Following a dark red vintage tram heading west on Worcester Street, I drove around the perimeter of the 159 year old Hagley Park on the way to my hotel.

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Akaroa

Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is a relatively active volcanic and seismic region. The mountains here may not be as high and colossal as the ones in the Himalayas. But the constant movement and collisions of Earth crustal plates create a very dynamic landscape. The peaks and valleys are intermingled in a fractal like formation, the bodies of water and the lands create mesmerizing collage.

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For the above reason, I woke up at dawn and set my portable GPS for Akaroa. Additionally, I changed the routing mode to avoid highways. The air was misty and the morning sun could not break through the thick gray clouds. Barely anyone could be found on the narrow curvy mountain roads this early.

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The changes in elevation were not dramatic, the twists and turns were not hair-raising. But this fit the sleepy morning ambience. The five speed Tiptronic transmission smoothly selected the appropriate gear for the different climb grade. The 1.8 engine provided more than ample thrust given that the relatively low weight of this subcompact car. It was a perfect morning drive.

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Thanks to the Earth’s past fury, the Banks Peninsula is filled with hidden coves, bays, and spectacular coastlines. At a high vista point, I could see serpentine creeks and rivers meeting at a secluded azure cove. A man in a rain poncho sat on his small boat in the middle of the cove. A group of kids were playing soccer on the beach. The gray clouds had dissipated. The morning sun rays bouncing of the sand made the beach glistening. At a distant, the undulating lands met the calm Pacific Ocean at the horizon.

It was nearing lunch time, and now I had to find the shortest route to Akaroa village. My portable GPS took me to a one lane gravel road. This gravel road would take me over the mountain pass and to the end of Highway 75, the Christchurch Akaroa Rd, just outside Akaroa. The lush vegetation on this mountain created a continuous canopy above me. I turned my headlights on as it felt like dusk. The road was mostly wet and leaves above me still shed water droplets.

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The tire noise over gravel droned the melodic 1.8 engine sound. The adjustable magnetic active suspension and the servotronic steering didn’t exist on production cars yet when this car was conceived. But yet the independent suspension and power-assisted steering of this A3 provided a relatively smooth and confident ride through the slippery twists and turns over the mountain pass. Over rough surfaces, pot holes, and big bumps, the steering and suspension systems didn’t react violently but it performed predictably and confidently.

Enough feedback was transferred to the steering wheel so I could get the sense of the road surface. The instant an understeer happened, the car somehow made me aware, and this allowed me to response quickly. An Audi Driving Experience instructor had taught me how to correct an understeer. I let off the gas and turned the wheel in the opposite direction of the turn, gently. And once the front tires got the grip back, I turned the steering wheel in the direction of the turn again. The whole sequence happened in a very brief moment, and yet all minute adjustments on the steering angle and throttle were communicated to the road and the car assuredly turned.

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After a rally-like driving experience, I arrived at the charming harbor village Akaroa. It began as a French whaling center. The pace of life was at a snail pace. The main road in the village was adorned by colorful flower beds. Boutiques, cafes, galleries, and a chocolatier provided a retail therapy for tourists who just disembarked from a tour bus. But most people who come here don’t come to shop as this is the only place on the planet where one can swimming with Hector Dolphins. Hector Dolphin is the smallest and rarest dolphin ever found characterized by a small, rounded dorsal fin and no discernible beak.

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After an hour of walking, stretching, having a sandwich, and sipping an Earl Gray tea at a road-side café facing the picturesque harbor, I sprinted back to Christchurch for the wedding rehearsal dinner.

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Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass is the highest pass over the Southern Alps. The Maori hunting parties used this route way before Arthur Dudley Dobson discovered it in 1864. In the old days, this pass was beyond treacherous. The only thing more dangerous than trying to cross this pass in the rain would be walking on a wire stretched from the top of two skyscrapers in Manhattan. Today, it is a spectacular sight of extreme civil engineering showcasing a giant viaduct, bridges, rock shelters, and man-guided waterfalls.

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Tranquil and fertile farmlands with herds of sheep grazing on the hillsides and herding dogs were the highlights of the mostly straight and lazy climb on Highway 73, West Coast Road. This road connects the two coasts of the South Island. It passes several climate regions, from lush to arid as it raises into the interior of the Southern Alps.

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I stopped at the sight of the magnificent rock formation of Castle Hill on Highway 73 towards Arthur’s Pass. This Lord-of-the-Ring landscape is the nature’s Stonehenge. Looking at how nature magically arranged the huge rocks on the hillsides in discernable patterns, one would immediately agree with the Maori that this place is sacred and mystical.

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The road beyond the entrance of Arthur’s Pass National Park climbed and wound at faster rate. This was where I unleashed the true spirit inside the 20-valve engine. How efficiently fuel could be burned in the cylinders was one of many obsessions possessed by Audi engineers.

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Audi is the first automobile manufacturer to bring the five valves per cylinder engine into the mass. With five valves, the engine can breathe better and faster resulting in an increase torque and power. Additionally, fuel consumption and exhaust emission are reduced. The ingenuity the engineers at Ingolstadt produced a remarkable cylinder head casting techniques and a very compact design of valve actuators. The performance of this smart design produced the subsequent more powerful turbo engine that earned, for the very first time in the world, the Ultra Light Emission Vehicle status (ULEV).

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When I reached the plateau, the view before me opened up. A straight stretch of road cut through the flat land. Mountain tops rising higher than this plateau towards the clear blue sky prevented me to see the horizon in all direction. I was standing at the center stage of the gigantic nature’s amphitheater. The pristine air and the panoramic view were all around. Rotating my body very slowly, I gazed each mountain top, and sensed a tingling sensation inside me.

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Beside the smooth twisty road, there were no other man-made structures as far as the eyes could see; no skyscrapers, no tall mobile phone towers, no flashy neon signs, and no giant bright LCD advertisement billboards. Today, there are only very few places like this left on earth; a place where Facebook and Twitter have not reached, just yet.

This fact reminded me that this A3 didn’t have a 9” satellite navigation screen, iPod and Bluetooth connectors, and a multi function button that could configure the car in 1001 ways. But yet, I didn’t miss any of those technological advances, at least for this moment, at this serene place. And yet this car still gave me a tingling sensation as I floored the accelerator heading towards the serpentine mountain road ahead.

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After another exciting drive, I arrived at Otira Gorge and was greeted by the breathtaking view of the tall and long viaduct that bends along the contour of the mountain slopes on its sides. Prior to this via duct, the travelers had to go through unstable, narrow, and winding road that was prone to rock falls, landslides, and winter avalanches. From the vista point on the east side of the viaduct, green lush mountains, valleys, and ravines layering over each other filled the field of vision. What a wonderful place!

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Four Rings Driving Experience

Looking outside through the window of the Air New Zealand flight heading to Melbourne, I could see the dynamic Middle Earth created by the Pacific Ring of Fire below. Remembering my Four Rings driving experience, I concluded that the place below me was definitely a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern daily chores. New Zealand, for me, was a place where the pace of life slowed down almost to a glacial pace, and yet everything felt just right. The beauties, the magic of nature, and the friendliness of the people I encountered gave me a splash of elixir of life.

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The A3 heightened my driving experience. This car was not a mega horsepower car that would require 10 computers to make it safe on the road. It was not even a flashy looker type. But yet, surprisingly, many brand new and sexy cars I had rented failed to instill the emotion and the thrill that this nine year old y Audi could. Despite the lack of mind bending specifications, this car made me aware of the family tree it came from. It gave the sense of man and machine in a perfect harmony. The engineering, the craftsmanship, and the quality control Audi had dedicated made this car a timeless driving machine that outperforms many brand new cars in its class.

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