quattro all-wheel drive affords the A6 tenacious grip.
So you think you can drive? Of course, anybody could get behind the wheel. Getting a driving license is very easy in our country. Your road sense, driving ability and simple road etiquette aside (or lack thereof), you probably wouldn’t get very far if the automobile you were driving fell over, turned turtle, or broke down.
But fear not, cars today and the technology used to make them have advanced to such levels that it’s unlikely any of the above will happen to you in the course of your everyday commute. It’s even more unlikely in the case of an Audi. Anybody who’s driven one of these will attest to the fact that an Audi is among the safest and most reliable cars you could hope to own, or drive. In the unfortunate eventuality of an accident, you have airbags, high-strength steel and crumple zones to ensure your soft, fragile body is saved from the worst, with the car taking the brunt of the damage. Every day, scientists and engineers are toiling away in their labs, working with new materials, evaluating simulated trials on a computer and even crashing real cars into concrete blocks with humanoid dummies in them. All so that the next time you’re on the road, you’re safer than you were the day before.
But no matter how much these scientists and engineers do, there’s still very little they can do about the idiot behind the wheel. Or is there?
Welcome to the world of ESP, or Electronic Stability Programme. In the case of the modern automobile, you could even call this Extra-Sensory Perception if you like. ESP is a complex, computer controlled electronic system, as the name implies, controlling a whole host of mechanical componentry to ensure that there’s very little chance of the idiot behind the wheel actually causing an accident.
The entire Audi saloon car range was available for us to drive.
To show us just how the latest ESP systems work, Audi had invited us to Mahindra World City, off the Jaipur-Ajmer highway in Rajasthan. We were let loose on an open, vacant stretch of road, specially cordoned off for the event. To guide us and actually demonstrate the cars’ abilities, we had with us Mark Allison, a former racing driver, who now works with Audi, demonstrating to countless ‘dummies’ worldwide just what an Audi can do. At our disposal was the entire fleet of Audi’s saloon car range, including the A4, A6, A7 and A8.
Each one of these cars is new; the latest A6 having been launched just a couple of months ago. The oldest, if you could call it that, is the A4, having been around since 2009. The A8 and A7 Sportback are again spanking new models. Significantly, each of these cars has quattro, Audi-speak for all-wheel drive. Nobody knows more about four-wheel drive than Audi. The company absolutely dominated the World Rally Championship with the Quattro back in the Eighties. Since then, it’s almost become the company’s calling card.
A lane-change manoeuvre in the new Audi A7 Sportback
Four-wheel drive isn’t for off-road use in burly SUVs only, unlike a popular misconception. In slippery conditions, all-wheel drive offers benefits in traction which makes it half the battle won. For everything else, there’s Mastercard…er, sorry, ESP.
As yes, ESP, which is what we’re here to understand. ESP is the over-riding programme, which controls a host of other functions, which together keep your car as stable as possible and give the dummy behind the wheel as much control as possible. The subordinate functions include
- ABS, or Anti-lock Braking System, which prevents the wheels from locking up, thus allowing for steering input even under heavy braking
- BA or Brake Assist, which senses the pressure the driver is applying to the brake pedal and compensates accordingly
- TC or Traction Control, which detects the amount of grip each wheel has before sending more power there or braking the wheel to prevent it from spinning as the case may be
- EBD or Electronic Brake force Distribution, which as the name suggests, also prevents skidding when the car is out of control, by applying the braking force to the wheels which have the most grip
All these systems are controlled by the car’s ECU, which detects signals from a variety of sensors which detect and measure wheel slip, yaw, pitch, roll, steering angle, brake pressure, acceleration and deceleration. All this info is fed into the processing unit, which has been programmed to read and understand them, and depending on the inputs, an output signal is sent to the respective actuators, which in turn cut power or apply the brakes as required. And all this is done is mere milliseconds. Sounds fancy, but does it work?
In a word, yes. Yes, it does.
After a preliminary debrief on the correct seating position, we set about chasing Audi’s Stig in the lead car. In store were a slalom, singe lane change, double lane change, emergency braking zone, a fast chicane and a tight hairpin bend. For my first run on the course, Mark assigned me to the A8. Gulp. Here I was, in a stately Rs 1 crore limousine with big V8 up front, behaving like a hooligan. Not that you’d know it.
The A8's body control is amazing for a saloon of this size. The growl from the V8 is awesome too!
Honestly, there’s no getting away from the sheer size of the A8; it’s massive, and this thought was in the back of my mind on my first run through the course. After playing chicken on my first run, I decided the car could handle more, and duly gave the throttle a firm prod. Slalom, check. Single lane change, check. Double lane change, check. Hairpin, check. Fast chicane, check. Hmmm…
We repeated the course multiple times, swapping cars and going noticeably faster on each run.
Mark puts a bunch of 'dummies' through a steering exercise.
After we completed this exercise, next up was the emergency braking and dodging manoeuvre. We had to enter a straight course at 70 km/h. The end was blocked by cones, which was supposed to simulate a truck. We had to swerve right and brake hard, coming to a dead stop, without hitting any of the cones. The distance available to exit the lane was merely a foot or so more than the length of the A8. Of course, knowing that it was only a silly red plastic cone and not a real truck did help my confidence somewhat, but there were other thoughts creeping up. Would I spin it? Would the big A8 fishtail? If I over-corrected, would the car flip onto its roof? Predictably (although I didn’t know it then), none of the sort happened. A8, A4, A7 and A6 all dispensed with it easily.
We then tried only the double lane change manoeuvre, one that you’re most likely to face every day. Imagine a pedestrian or animal jumping into your path on a narrow two-lane road. You need to swerve right to take evasive action, but then swerve back left again to avoid hitting oncoming traffic. We upped the speeds as we went along. All we had to do was steer. Constant throttle, no brakes. The car would sort everything out, Mark assured us. And it did. I finally ran the course one final time as a passenger; Mark made the manoeuvre at a scarcely-believable 130 km/h!
The Audi A7 has the most feelsome steering of the entire range. Here, it zips through the chicane with alacrity.
It’s amazing to think just how far automotive technology has come in 125 years. Today, you can drive a big saloon at 200 km/h all day, all the while having your back massaged and your bum cooled by a/c vents in the seat. You can alter the in cabin temperature just so, scan multiple radio frequencies, or talk on your telephone at the touch of a button. You have the option of altering the way the car drives through multiple modes. If you don’t shut the doors properly, the car will do that for you too. And best of all, even if you did get distracted for whatever reason, there are so many systems in place to ensure you walk away alive. That is truly amazing.
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