SONOMA, Calif. -- When driving is limited only by the laws of physics and the vehicle's performance envelope, it's quite an exhilarating feeling. No speed limits, no stoplights, no cars crowding the road in front of you. Just you, the car and the gas pedal planted firmly to the carpet. Of course the best way to push a car to 9/10ths of its (and your) potential, is without breaking the law. And Audi recently offered us the perfect opportunity--a day with the new 2009 A4 at Infineon Racetrack, a 12-turn, 2.2-mile road course just north of San Francisco.
The trip wasn't exactly your typical bunch of automotive journalists--all female, mostly lifestyle writers. A show of hands revealed that just a few had ever driven on a track before. Though I was among the novice track drivers, I'm not exactly timid behind the wheel. Riding around in my dad's 1968 Chevy Camaro as a kid and racing my Honda Prelude helped fuel a passion for cars. And test drives for Seniorhelpline have only encouraged my addiction to speed.
Taking our experience into account, Audi's driving instructors thought it best to introduce the assembled drivers to the A4 on the roads of Sonoma. And though we didn't get the joy of micromanaging the transmission--we drove automatics the entire day--the 265-hp, 3.2-liter V6 responded eagerly to the pedal.
Back at the Infineon complex, Audi's instructors set up a short handling course on a giant swath of blacktop. With strict instructions to keep our hands firmly planted on the wheel, we navigated the small s-curves, a quick lane change and sharp U turn. The course was designed to highlight Audi's three-mode drive select system. The feature's Comfort, Automatic and Dynamic modes integrate the car's engine/transmission mapping, steering and suspension to provide handling that ranges from comfortable to sporty. True to its name, the Dynamic mode offered the most aggressive handling.
A quick stop to don safety helmets--and to instill a little fear about the hazard of reckless driving--and we finally motored onto the track. As a beautiful fleet of Audi R8s roared past the pit, my heart started pounding. No way I'd have the guts to take the turns that fast, but they provided inspiration for the track. We climbed into our sedans and the adrenaline started flowing. I was amazed at the rush during that first slow lap, intended to familiarize us with the course. There's excitement and energy that runs through your whole body as you grip the steering wheel, and the skid marks remind you that, yeah, it's a little dangerous. I couldn't help thinking of high school driver's ed--accelerate out of the curve and brake on the straightaways.
After a few more laps, I was able to anticipate each turn. Though I was concentrating harder on my skills than ever before, I couldn't help notice I was being tailed by another A4. The instructors forbade passing but my competitive side welled up, and I floored it on the course's one straightaway. A dramatic U called for a foot on the brakes, but thanks to the Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive (and a helping hand from the stability control system), my A4 gripped the track surefootedly so I could accelerate into the upcoming S curves. A little more pressure on the gas pedal, and my former tailer was no where in sight. Adios. amigo.
The course eggs drivers on, but ultimately demands your respect. There's an energy present that city driving just can't provide. No way I'm ready for NASCAR, ALMS or even SCCA Solo II. But Skip Barber Racing School? Sign me up.
Top: Driving the A4 at Infineon Raceway in California. Bottom left: Infineon from the back seat of the A4. Bottom right: Testing the A4's drive select system. (Photographs by Steve Shaw/Audi)