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
picture of the day
January 01, 2003
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