Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI Andalusian Driving Experience
Traveling for extended period of time, I yearn for some comforts of routines at home; getting take-outs from Tasty Curry, King of Thai, and Pasta Pomodoro, meeting friends and co-workers for lunches or dinners, going to Salsa parties, and many others. While I can easily deal with or find substitutes for the cravings above, I have one strong longing that could not be substituted; driving my Audi. I am suffering because of my strong attachment to the joy of driving, especially since most of my modes of transportation in the last two months are planes, buses, and trains.
Buddhist philosophers say that I should be aware of my attachments and detach the self from the the objects of desires to avoid suffering. For this time, I go against their suggestion. I buckled and accepted my weakness. I searched and rented an Audi to end my suffering. And, I picked the right place to drive this car; the Andalusian region of Spain. It has the complete package of up and down panoramic mountain and winding scenic coastal roads. To top this, Europcar rental company in Sevilla has the 5 month young, recently added to the fleet Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI with sport seats and Michellin 225/45 17 tires! I am all sorted!
Serrania de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema
I am driving on route A-376 leaving Sevilla, aiming towards Ronda in the Serrania de Ronda region. The road is twisty 2-lane 2-way undivided highway with ample emergency lanes on both sides. The mountain tops in this region reach around 1500 meter. When the climb is long, the climbing side has an additional 2 to 5 km, that would be my guess, passing lane, plenty of road to pass many turtles I come across. I am soaking in the mesmerizing panoramic view of the mountains and valleys before me.
I finally find the right pattern to shift the six speed manual transmission. Before I left the Sevilla Estacion Santa Justa, I had examined the car's manual to learn about the characteristics of the diesel engine. The torque peak plateaus at 258 lbs ft or 350 Nm between 1750 to 2500 rpm. The horsepower peak at 168 hp or 125kW at 4200 rpm. I must shift a lot earlier than I would on a petrol engine to get the best acceleration.
I am getting the rhythm of easing the accelerator, and occasional gentle braking, before the apex to make sure I have the proper speed - not too fast but not too slow - then accelerates smoothly as soon as I clear the apex. Since this is not a race track, my apexes on the left hand side are on the dividing line. My apexes on the right hand side are on the outer edge of the emergency lane.
As I am settling into this hypnotic rhythm of accelerating and decelerating to get the best line, a swarm of Ducatis blasting by me. Once every rider is in front of me, all 9 of them, I tail them closely. The view from my seat is rather funny. In unison, they shift, and lean their bodies towards the direction of the turn with their knees almost grazing the asphalt. The road gets twisty as the elevation gets higher. One thing I miss in the Garmin Nuvi GPS is the elevation information. Earlier, I searched every menu and I sifted and combed every single screen but found nothing about elevation information.
I assume these riders are local residents of this region. They are confidently exceeding the recommended speed for the turns and bends. I don't feel too guilty doing the same with their company. This A3, even though a Front-Trek version, feels very confident and solid on fast turns! There is no hairpins on this highway, but it has large radius turns where I can hold the steering radius at a constant and steer the car with the accelerator and push the car till it reaches the edge of its limit; which is along while for this agile and precise A3. The last rider gives me a thumb up when we are on a straight stretch as I have been able to tail them at constant safe distance even though they are doing the turns at hair-raising, giving-grandma-a-heart-attack speed.
As it gets higher, wherever I look, the skyline of mountains and valleys fold behind more of mountains and valleys with undulating lands of harvest, criss-crossed vineyard, and olive trees. I can see the Pueblos Blancos (white houses) of Ronda. It looks like a salt mine from the distance. The city perch on an abysmal cliff on the flank of one of the majestic mountains.
The Ducati gang is pulling into a rest area with a restaurant. I follow them. The last two riders approach me; a male and female, a couple I assume as they show affection towards each other. The male looks like Mickey Rourke, and the female looks like a combination of Jeniffer Aniston's beauty and Linda Hamilton's prowess. They high five me and at the same time ask whether I have modified the engine or the suspension of this car. I show them the Europcar key chain. The woman says to man, "I guess we did slower than usual today." Monica is thinking of buying a compact sport car. Javier tells her to look into this car as they are already impressed by its ability to keep up with them through the mountains. Without realizing it, I become an Audi sales man for a brief moment.
We share some traveling, driving, and riding stories across Europe over Coca-cola, 7-up, carbonated water, Twix, and Snickers. Javier tells me to back track a bit to experience A-372. This road would take me in the other direction from my final destination of the day, Marbella. But he insists that it is worth the detour and it will make my day. After several more rounds of sodas and water, we say good by to each other. For a brief moment, we bond over our passion for the need for speed. I turn left to back track, while the Ducati gang continues towards Ronda.
A-372 passes the breathtaking and picturesque Sierra de Grazalema region; more so than the views I soaked this morning before the rest stop. It is 2-way 2-lane road but it has the total width that is half the width of the A-376. And there is no dividing line. Fortunately, there is a lot less traffic on this road. Practically no one is here. On the way up, I can see the road serpenting the contour of the rolling mountains. This road is full of hairpins, zig zag, switchbacks, and elevation changes. As the elevation gets higher, the views on my left and beyond blind turns are rather scary. An Empire State building would fit nicely in this abysmal cliff. On the right side is the mountain wall. No guard rail on the cliff side. They use blocks of concrete spaced evenly painted in white giving the look of the zipper teeth.
When I can see no traffic for 1 or 2 km ahead and the road zig zags upward or downward, I get into my rhythm of decelerating and accelerating, shifting from 4th to 3rd, then 3rd to 4th, hitting the apexes on both sides. I navigate the A3 effortlessly up and down the Sierra de Grazalema. I have a big grin on my face that only a few old men sitting by the Grazalema village center witness. They look at me wondering what is this guy smiling so widely about. Here, the scenery is the only thing that changes swiftly. The pace of life is a slow as draining sap from a tree. I make a u-turn at a roundabout and head back to A-372 once more going the other direction.
Marbella has the remains of the old Muslim walls, Marbella's casco antiguo. The old town has a maze of picturesque winding streets and charming little plazas, with plenty of outdoor bars where you can sample typical Andalusian cuisine. At the center of this intricate pattern of alleyways is Plaza de los Naranjos, with the 3 to 4 century old town hall and fountain. Getting lost in this maze is the best way to experience this historic town.
Marbella also has the modern and opulent section called Puerto Banus, where all kinds of multi-million dollar yachts are docked along with the accompanying rows of parked Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Porsches, and Aston Martins. Elegance and glamor are everywhere in this section. The coast from Puerto Banus to Malaga is gorgous, filled with rolling hills and the long stretches of Mediterranean sandy beaches with the cobalt blue, clear ocean water. I can't swallow, breath, and soak in fast enough.
A bright red Ferrari F430 Spider is next to me at the stop light in Puerto Banus heading towards the Autovia del Mediteriano. The pilot is wearing a very flashy and colorful silky shirt. On the top of that he is wearing slightly oversize sunglasses that has a huge glittering F letters on the temple. He looks like a clown to me. Maybe he is going to some kid's birthday party or maybe it is the bleeding-edge fashion in town. I am sure which one.
The most awe-inspiring, spine-tingling, and hair-raising roads of Andalusian, in my opinion, is the A-4130 in Las Alpujarras. To find this road, look for a village named Travelez in Las Alpujarras. Head east from that village on the only main road, A-4129. The A-4130 will be on the right hand side not too far from the village.
If you are a roller coaster junkie, you know about the Boulder Dash, Raven, Shivering Timbers, GhostRider, and Cyclone. Those are in the top 10 best roller coasters list compiled by the junkies. I am not a roller coaster junkie, but I think the experience I have on this road is equivalent to riding those roller coasters. Every hairpin, zig zag, switchback, and blind curve on this road are G-force producing turns.
The cloth sport seat on this A3 Sportback is spartan, less sophisticated than the the Recaro bucket seat on the RS4, but it serves its purpose well and I don't find anything lacking. It transfers the car movement up to my spine accurately, warning me of any possible drift.
The road is safe at regular posted speeds but it can be treacherous at any higher speed as it has very narrow mountain passes and ridges with salivating bends, hairpins, zig zags, and blind curves. Going downhill is an even more nerve wracking experience because I can see the panoramic unobstructed view of how far I would plunge into the canyon if I understeer the car. Fortunately again, there is barely any traffic on this road since it doesn't have any village along it. It is more a connecting road between two arteries. At seven at night I pass only one car in the 10 km stretch of the purest form of joy of driving. As the sun is setting, it plays shadow with the mountains and valleys accentuating the already breathtaking landscape.
Getting to A-4130 from A-4129 may not be as fun even though A-4129 has similar characteristics as A-4130 with a lot less scary parts. There are several villages along A-4129 so the traffic can be heavy at times. I was stuck behind a three car convoy led by an asthmatic minibus. No hope for passing lane as this road doesn't even have a dividing line.
After waiting patiently we got to the section where I could see no oncoming traffic for about 1 km ahead. I dropped the hammer to 3rd, the rpm reved up to 2200 rpm, I floored the accelerator and with no drama, I passed the three cars in no time. The car just pulled away at increasing rate of acceleration. Back on my side of the road, I eased the accelerator, applied a gentle breaking, and maintained a smooth steering and entered a left blind curve. I reached my side of the apex, shifted to 4th, applied the accelerator, and I resumed my syncopation.
There were moments when I pressed the accelerator too early before I completely cleared the apex thinking that I had a quattro with the 60/40 rear/front torque distribution. Since this is a Front-Trak car, subsequently, I understeered the car, but within millisecond the faithful ESP kicked in and help me with my line.
Another road worth driving on, in this region, is the road that leads to Sierra Nevada from Granada, A-395. I climb all the way to 2500 meter where I arrive at a rest stop with restaurants where bus loads of tourists are enjoying the 280 degree sweeping view of the pastoral beauty of rolling mountains and valleys. At 3000 m, there is an observatory and a mountain pass that would take me to the Las Alpujarras, but the pass is closed when I get there. This road is similar to the A-376 from Sevilla to Ronda and Marbella as far the beauty and the technicality.
On the way up to Sierra Nevada not far from Granada, I was slowed down by a gang of Vespas. Six women were riding in a close formation at slightly less than the posted speed limit. I followed patiently waiting for a passing lane to emerge. But all of them turned on to a driveway leading to a big white villa on the right side of the street. They had to be having a pedicure party or some kind. After all it was a siesta time.
A-4 Cadiz to Sevilla
It is not the car, but the Autovia A-4 from Cadiz to Sevilla. After two days of resting and relaxing at the beautiful coastal and port city of Cadiz, I am driving back to Sevilla to catch a 27-hour train rides to Nice (France), a stop over for my long train journey to Ingolstadt. I find it hard to drive at the speed of the flow of sparse traffic. This 2.0 TDI motor just wants to go like a pack of Eskimo dogs barking impatiently to be let loose to pull the sled. Autovia A-4 is relatively brand new toll road with Autobahn quality.
An Aston Martin DB9 passes me while I am doing 160 km/h on the sixth gear. Without dropping to the fifth gear, I put the pedal against the metal and I see the needle passing 170, 180, 190, and 200 effortlessly. The last 10 km/h requires a bit more time, but finally the needle rests comfortably just a tad beyond 210 km/h. The Garmin Nuvi confirmes that I am traveling at 210 km/h.
I follow the DB9 at a constant distance for 20 minutes or so till the driver no longer wants an A3 as a permanent fixture on his rear view mirror. At top speed, this small A3 feels very solid and confident. The aerodynamics of the car generates plenty of down force for this speed that I feel completely in control. The steering feedback is a race car quality. Needless to say, I arrive 20 minutes earlier than I have planned at Estacio Santa Justa. It gives me plenty of time to look for a gas station to fill up.
I have only filled up 4 times covering 2100 km distance. A quick math based on the total number of liltres of diesel fuel I purchased, I am getting a whopping 34 mpg. And I have been driving fast and up and many mountains. Another benefit of diesel technology that I like. The A3 2.0 TDI is a compact, fast, agile, confident-inspiring, thrilling, and good-looking car.
Saying Good Bye to Spain
As my train leaves the station, I can't help reflecting on my driving vacation. After 8 days driving A3 in Andalusian I feel refreshed and satisfied. It was a great way to finish my one month stay in Spain providing the frosting to my fulfilling time in Madrid and Barcelona. I met many kind and fun loving travelers and residents, drivers and non-drivers, during my last 30 days. Memories I will treasure greatly, friends I will keep in touch.
I have not learned much in life, but I know one think about myself. When I drive through exciting, exhilarating roads, I find a sense of place. I arrive at a non-artificial state where I see ever so clearly how the here and now is so much more meaningful than any other mental fabricated experiences. The pure joy of driving! Now, I am off to Ingolstadts to visit what some consider the place as their mecca.