How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

Audi has a bone to pick with you, Mr. Luxury Hybrid Car Shopper. They know you want fuel economy, but they think you're looking in the wrong place. They want you to consider their revised 3.0-liter V6 turbo diesel instead, and they invited a bunch of journalists to drive it and prove how efficient it could really be.

There were just two problems with Audi's plan: first, this revised engine has 240 horsepower and a face-melting 428 pound-feet of torque; and second, they asked me to drive it.

Oddly enough, I ended up proving their point, even though I didn't set out to.

(Full disclosure: Audi needed me to drive their 2014 A6, A7 and Q5 TDI models so badly that they brought them to Washington, D.C., where I live, and allowed me and some other writers to take them on the area's loveliest back roads. I didn't stay at the Mandarin Oriental hotel because I live five minutes away, but I had a really good steak there.)

Audi is pushing hard to make buyers more aware of their TDI cars. They know that more and more people are making fuel economy one of their top priorities when they buy cars of any sort, but they want more luxury buyers to consider their range of diesel engines.

After all, despite the passage of 30 years since the abysmal Oldsmobile diesel engines all but ruined the reputations for oil burners in the U.S., the general car-buying public still has strange conceptions about diesels. I always thought that was unfair. It's like refusing to buy a Toyota today because you had one that rusted in the 1970s. Diesel sales do happen to be way up this year, but they still represent just a fraction of the marketplace.

They're noisy, this unenlightened person might say. They're dirty. They smell. They're slow. They're for buses and trucks, not cars.

Real enthusiasts, Europeans and modern diesel owners know full well that these stereotypes just aren't true, but Audi has some hurdles to clear with U.S. buyers who think "green" automatically means electrics or hybrids.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

But the advantages of diesels are many, like in this revised 3.0 turbo V6. In addition to the aforementioned horsepower and torque numbers, the 2014 A6 and A7 are EPA certified at 24 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. Audi claims that a single tank can go 700 miles, enough to drive from D.C. to Chicago without stopping unless you have to pee.

Did I mention that those two cars can do zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds? Because they totally can.

So for the TDI Challenge event this week, Audi asked several groups of journalists to pilot the new V6 TDI cars around some of the loveliest backroads the D.C./Virginia/Maryland area has to offer in a kind of race to see who could get the best fuel economy numbers.

But I don't work for SmugHybridDriver.com or Hypermiling Pussy Monthly. I work for Jalopnik, goddammit, and that meant my first priority was to see how these cars performed on these amazing roads. Listen — you put me in a car with 428 pound-feet of torque, and shenanigans are going to happen.

Let's put that number into perspective a moment. That's more torque than what you get from the supercharged V6 in the S5, the 4.2-liter V8 in the RS5, AND both the V8 and V10 engines in the R8. It's more torque than the Hemi-powered 2013 Dodge Charger Daytona I used to blast through Texas last week. It's just an obscene amount of torque.

I wanted to see how these impressive power and fuel economy numbers translated into real world driving, and I got the chance in the A6, A7 and Q5.

My co-driver on this mission was Paul Rivera Sr., Audi Club North America editor, music equipment manufacturer, Jaguar E-Type owner and a fascinating fellow in general. Paul has sampled just about every Audi you can imagine over the years, including these, so he was a little less apt to go flat out all the time than I was, having already sampled these wares.

Still, both of us put the cars through their paces, and apparently harder than anyone else: we got the second-worst recorded fuel economy of any team on that day. Wooooo torque!

But what we found is that even when the TDI cars are being abused mightily, even when used to blow past slower traffic and soar down country roads at high speeds, they still return really excellent fuel economy.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

First up was the A6 sedan. Like all the cars we drove, it had Quattro all-wheel drive, an eight-speed Tiptronic paddle-shift gearbox from ZF — a responsive and quick-shifting transmission I consider the best conventional automatic in the world right now — and the new-for-2014 upgrade in torque. Previously, the car was rated at 369 pound-feet of torque.

The A6 is a roomy, stylish, tasteful sedan. It has a very modern and well laid-out interior with a ton of toys that are for the most part pretty intuitive and easy to use. It has an extremely comfortable ride, and it's attractive without being too ostentatious or overly conservative.

And when you plant the gas pedal to the floor, it flies. I mean, it just flies. The acceleration in this car is astounding, especially when you consider its 4,178 pound curb weight. The 5.5 second zero to 60 mph time felt like a bit of an understatement. This is very much a performance engine.

The A6 excels at high speed straight line maneuvers. Need to pass someone on a two-lane back road? Hit the accelerator and the car just goes and goes and goes and never feels like stopping. This little V6 engine feels more like a big V8. There's a bit of hesitation right off the line, but then it rockets forward.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

Diesels have a reputation for not really sounding all that great, but this one is something of an exception. It's relatively quiet at low RPMs, but when you get on it, it emits a pleasing rumble, although one that's decidedly machinelike.

I should probably take the time to mention the stop-start system on all of the cars we drove. Stop-start technology, which shuts of the engine at a red light or a stop sign to save fuel, has been around for years in Europe and it's finally making its way here.

If they're anything like the system Audi has been using recently, that's a good thing. When you pull to a stop, the car shudders a bit, like when a manual-transmission car stalls out very gently. And when you lift your foot off the brake, it instantly turns the engine back on and is ready to go in about a second's time. It's quite impressive and it does help save fuel from being needlessly burned off at idle, but if it's not your bag you can turn it off.

I put the A6 through its paces as best I could as we went into the Virginia country roads, although that's easier said than done. Virginia and D.C. are religious about clamping down on speeders the way the Deep South is religious about, well, religion. Speed limits are absurdly low everywhere. Cops lurk around every corner. Nearly every speed limit sign says "STRICTLY ENFORCED." Radar detectors are illegal.

In spite of this, I found the A6 to be a car that easily counters the notion that diesels aren't built for fast fun. Like most Quattros it feels geared towards understeer, and even with the adaptive steering set to "dynamic" mode, it's still bit lighter-feeling than I like. However, it's more agile than you might expect, and it handled the back roads admirably.

Even with a heavy foot we achieved an average of 29.6 mpg after driving 102.5 miles in the A6. Not bad at all.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

Next up was the A7. I love the way this car looks. I think it's one of the prettiest hatchbacks on the market, a design that everyone else has tried unsuccessfully to copy.

It's on the same platform as the A6, uses the same engine, and is very similar inside, but you'd be surprised at how differently it drives. My co-driver Paul says he's never quite gotten Audi engineers to explain why that's the case.

Overall, it's a better handler than the A6, with a chassis and steering that feels tighter and more composed in the corners. But driven back-to-back, it also feels slower, perhaps due to its slight weight increase. In the end, Paul and I agreed that the A6 was the more fun car to drive, which is great news because it's the cheaper one.

But it was in the A7 where we really got to cut loose on Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. I hammered the A7 hard down the stretch of road and was thankfully unencumbered by other traffic or Johnny Law. Even pushing the car as hard as I could within the boundaries of safety, I still only got it down to 23.7 mpg. I have driven a lot of high-performance where that kind of maximum fuel economy was a pipe dream.

In the end, after 92.6 miles of driving, we managed 29.2 mpg in the A7. Once again, I'm impressed. Do you know how nice it is to hoon a car as hard as you want and never worry about whether you're going to run out of fuel? In all of this driving, I don't think we ever shaved more than a quarter tank off, if that.

The last leg of the day was spent in the Q5. I'm not really much of an SUV/crossover guy, but I did like this car. It's older now than the A6 and A7 and it feels it inside. It's not bad, per se, but the interior feels a bit more dated than its siblings. It's also slower due to its additional weight, but fuel economy is still respectable at 24 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG

Still, while not explicitly a performance SUV, it remains nimble and fun to drive. The new diesel V6 is a good upgrade, and I'd say it's the engine to get in this car. After a long day of driving, Paul and I decided we had had enough of backroads — were we in an R8 or a TT-RS we would have come to a different conclusion — so we used the Q5 to fight through D.C.'s miserable afternoon highway traffic to go home. (Driving in and around this city can make you hate the entire concept of the automobile.)

Even with all the traffic, and switching stop-start off because we were so bumper to bumper for a while, we swung an average 30.2 mpg in the 102 miles it took to get home.

Overall, in the three cars we averaged 29.7 mpg. Really not bad, right? These numbers together put us at second worst fuel economy for the day, and they were still impressive. The winners that day hit 35.4 mpg, but I'd be willing to bet they didn't have as much fun as we did.

And that's kind of the point Audi wants to make here. The TDI V6 proves that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can have a fuel efficient car that still has excellent performance. Why would you really want an anemic hybrid when you can have one of these cars?

Granted, all the ones with the TDIs aren't cheap — our A6 TDI model stickered in at $67,295 with all its many options, and our Q5 came in at $51,945. But there are plenty of luxury hybrids in those price range as well, and the TDI cars are arguably more fun to drive than any of them.

If you need one car that can do it all, these end up being great choices. After a day with the TDI engines I kind of wondered how anyone could want something different.

But hey, it's not me Audi needs to convince. It's John Q. Public, who still seems wary of the diesel engine for some reason. Let's see if they can lure him away from his next hybrid purchase.

How I Annihilated The Audi TDI Challenge But Still Got Great MPG