What happened was, my New Zealander mother-in-law bought a farm in Eastern Saskatchewan. Since my own mother lives a relatively urban existence in Regina (Saskatchewan's capital), and we live in Vancouver, and we took delivery of a brand-new Audi A4 Avant (3.0l engine, 6-speed, most options) on December 14th, it seemed obvious that we should load the family into the wagon and visit our mothers two time-zones away for Christmas.

The Avant was a pretty inevitable choice; the rules say that you if have one or two children you get a station wagon; with three or more a mini-van, and if you're a generally inadequate human being you get an SUV. I've been driving VWs for years and this time around we wanted something with some pep and excitement, and we both wanted a manual transmission. You can't seem to get an A6 wagon with a manual unless you get an S6, which is some pretty serious coin and I wouldn't go there.

Station wagons have the advantage of being less visible to officers of the law with the irksome duty of enforcing speed regulations. In which context I need to make it clear that any sections of this essay that suggest that speed limits might have been exceeded are highly misleading; this trip was conducted at all times within the posted limits. I do however have an active fantasy life and said fantasies often involve driving fast, something that the 3.0l A4 does pretty well. A key aspect of my fantasies centers around the number nineteen - when you drive in an area where speed limits are posted in kilometers, booking someone on the highway for doing less than 20 over the limit seems small-minded, petty, and really not worth the time and effort of an efficiency-minded public servant.

From my place in Regina to my brother's in Calgary is 972 km (with a lot of mountains in the way), then 731 to my Mom's in Regina, and another 209 to the mother-in-law's near Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. That's 1900km either way.

Let's start with loading up. If you have a station wagon then there's no real reason to travel light, is there? After 20 minutes of trying to cram what seemed like an only moderately immoderate pile of stuff into the back bin I was getting really testy, then I realized my problems were being caused by slick plastic thing that you pull across the back to hide your laptop from strip-mall thieves. It wants to hang down and get in the way, or pull back and keep you from stacking the bin anywhere near full, or stick up so you lose your rear-view. This thing is totally an effete in-town accessory. No problem, fold the back seats down and it lifts out, effectively doubling your cargo capacity. And if you're a reasonably tall person, the rear-view and rear window are situated so that you can see behind pretty well even with the bin piled up within a few inches of the top.

The biggest potential problem on this trip wasn't the untried (in our possession 7 days) car, nor the roads, nor even the predictably bad Canadian winter weather. It was the payload, namely our 3-and-a-half year old son, a basically nice kid who when aggravated has a whine that can shatter plate-glass at 50 yards, and a really regrettable tendency to over-acting. It's a credit to the car that he was pretty mellow most of the way.

Our departure was a little on the strained side because I pulled over a half-block from departure, with the family still testy from departure stress, to figure out how to reset the trip computer - the control provided for this purpose, helpfully labeled "reset", has some other functions including confusingly blanking the whole dashboard display.

This display, while we're on the subject, is really pretty good. I'm really not interested in the car's guess at how many km are left in the tank since that depends on the hills and traffic and speed limits and so on, and the car has a perfectly good gas guage anyhow, so we left it displaying the outside temperature (between +5 and -20.5 Centigrate on this trip) and how long we'd been driving on this leg.

Here are a couple of lists, starting with the really good things about this car:

Seats and general passenger comfort
I'm medium-large, my wife is definitely small & skinny, we were both comfy and the kid slept a lot.
Bad-weather handling
The Audi sneered at the snow and slush and ice and all that stuff.
Not just the nice built-in stereo, but the low ambient-sound level once you get into 6th gear.
Outstanding road coverage in a lot of really lousy conditions.
The engine
It's a honey.
Baggage stowage
The nets and straps that come with the car work like a champ and stow away neatly.

And here's the list of Things That Need Work:

The windshield-wash basically doesn't work at high speeds, leaving your windshield speckled and messy, and the back window needs way too much maintenance on anything but bone-dry roads. Also, the intermittent wipers don't have enough speeds.
Climate control.
If you put it on "Auto" it cranks the fan up high and leaves it there, way too noisy. If you adjust the temperature and put it on "Econ" it works better, but you feel like you're not really getting your money's worth out of all those buttons. If you just want to blow cold air on your feet, or warm air on your face, or something reasonable like that, well I'm not smart enough to figure out how.

In-town performance takes some work; the 3.0l Avant is no pocket-rocket. You have to be pretty smooth with the clutch to get a serious leap away from a red light, and you have to be way better than average to move fast and not yank your passengers around something fierce getting into and out of second gear. The car red-lines alarmingly fast in first gear and since there's not much torque south of 3000 RPMs, third gear is more of a one-night stand than a long-term commitment.

I'll probably learn to love the A4 around town, but on the highway no learning is required, the car just does what you want, that's all.

Fourth gear is your workhorse for passing and maneuvering and most normal driving - fifth was never more than a fourth-to-sixth way station. I'd never spent quality time with a sixth gear before, and it takes the noise level waaaay down at pretty well all practical speeds even bearing in mind the magic number 19.

Speaking of noise... ah, that CD player. We stayed away from the Bose add-on system and I'm pretty sure that's the right thing to do, serious audiophiles universally hate Bose's creamy-smooth marketing and sacrifice of sonic truth at the altar of first-blush appeal. The built-in "Symphony" system is plenty good enough and easy to figure out and Audi really ought to send Bose packing.

We took along a ton of music and bought some more at a Boxing Day sale: the inventory included Ry Cooder, Arvo Pärt, Pete Townshend, Tchaikowsky, Puccini, Paul Simon, Charles Mingus, die Toten Hosen, Warnes/Cohen, Ferron, U2, Cephas & Wiggins, Al Green, Niko Case, Redgum, Johnny Cash, the Cure, and of course the Bananas in Pyjamas, the kid's favorite, which he got to listen to once per leg of the trip.

Our first real chance to stretch out was on British Columbia's Coquilhalla Highway, 300k of one-way incline: up going inland, down heading home. On hot summer days cars with cooling-system inadequacies are to be found at regular intervals being hosed down by the uphill roadside. The scenery is only middling for the region (which actually means pretty damn nice). It's a good piece of road-building though, speed limit 110 (cough 19 cough), with some moderately interesting curves; the traffic was light enough that we pretty well let the cruise control and sixth gear free up mental cycles to listen to the nice music with the kid in road-zen mode. Thanks, sings Jennifer Warnes for the trouble you took <pause> from her eyes/I thought it was there <pause> for good, so I never even tried...

The first time we hit a really noticeable up-hill I wondered briefly whether sixth gear running at just under 3000 RPM with the car pretty well loaded would present a problem; after that I didn't worry about it any more, I just listened to the music.

Driving through the mountains north of the 49th parallel, it gets dark early. The low rays of the sun spilling just over the edges of the huge valleys east of the Okanagan are, well, words can't begin to describe the beauty, but we're talking like 3PM here and still a good 6 hours of driving time to go. So we saw a lot of darkness on this trip.

Those used to the mighty US Interstates would not feel at home on the Trans-Canada; some significant parts of the road are still two-lane. Some very significant parts route through huge mountains, around Great Lakes, and across the Canadian Shield. Which means that there are large parts where you can't leave your brain on autopilot.

Compounding the difficulty of course are the tractor-trailers that take up more than their share of road, and when there's a lot of snow on it, travel in a three-lane-wide cloud of temporary blindness. Aside from that, the good news is that the traffic isn't that heavy during the holidays.

Of course not all the driving was on the Trans-Canada. We say quite a bit of the back-roads of Saskatchewan, which are really straight, have reasonable surfaces, and basically nobody driving on them; the locals have a very flexible attitude toward speed limits, and "when in Rome" they say... at 160kph the Audi was just developing that smooth Autobahn hum.

We'll end up here with just a few random anecodotes from here and there across the country.

We were heading West across the Rockies and some SUV dweeb was pulling a U-Haul at insanely slow speeds, he built up a 30-car caravan on a two-lane stretch. My wife was driving and muscled her way past most of them to right behind the U-Haul; she gets irritable in these situations and the temperature in the car was going up. We pulled into a long left climbing turn with nobody visible in the other lane and I said "go get him" - I didn't notice the 6 inches of nasty rutted snow in the other lane and my wife just didn't care; she tossed the car over there, took it up to about 5000RPM and whipped by him neat as neat in the first third of the available space; the Audi apparently failed to notice that it was being asked to turn and accelerate at high speed on a slippery surface. Sweet.

Another time, many hours into a really long leg, pitch-dark, I went by a couple of cars and one of them turned out to be operated by some crazed psycho who went into tailgate mode, with one headlight pitched up for maximum eye damage. He'd been riding us for a good 15 minutes when I came over a hill and saw a long straight empty moonlit valley; I said "screw this" and put the hammer right down and kept it there, resolutely looking away from the speedometer - his headlights went backward like Wile E. Coyote when the roadrunner steps on it, and we didn't see him again. Smiles.

And then there was the time we were heading through the Cypress Hills park on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, spooky-beautiful snowy Prairie space, curvy hills and a huge sky under a slanting winter sun, pouring the car around the big slow turns, kid mellowed out, we had on the new Johnny Cash American IV Christmas record and Johnny started singing Danny Boy. Now, his voice isn't what it once was, and I held my breath when he reached for the high note - but he hit it just right, and then the sun gleamed in 30 places off the side of a train a mile away, and I shivered top to bottom, you can't find it in a museum or an art gallery but it's the real thing.

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
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January 01, 2003
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