Audi A7 / Ram 1500
You never really think of this while scarfing down a burger, but a cow can be a mean beast. Particularly when that cow is actually a steer with twin horns as long and pointy as scimitars.
Right now there's a big ol' Texas longhorn a dozen paces away, head lowered and glowering. If this were a cartoon, smoke would be bellowing out of his nostrils. He's either gonna charge or break off to the right and escape. I'm supposed to get him to turn around and follow the herd. It's a Mexican -- or Texan, perhaps -- standoff.
Then...kaboom! His massive frame explodes into action, thousands of pounds of lean, delicious meat making a hard break sideways. I make my own move: standing on the gas pedal and giving life to a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6.
The beauty is faster than the beast. Tires spin through soft dirt. The car plows through high weeds, skims over prairie-dog holes, and cuts him off. The steer stops short, snorting, then flips a callous tail and follows his cow buddies. Turns out a $72,000 Audi A7 makes a pretty convincing cutting horse.
I look over at Chris Thomsen, a real cowboy on a real horse, and, just behind him, another longhorn -- the Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn Edition. Who needs you guys, anyhow?
We're at Texas Ranch Life, an 1800-acre working dude ranch an hour outside of Houston. There are a few hundred longhorn and bison in this rutted field. The Ram is the obvious ranch vehicle, but right now I'm feeling pretty darn tootin' about my Ingolstadt steed of steel. You'd also assume that the Audi is the better urban runabout, but I'm no longer convinced of that, either.
These are two of our 2013 All-Stars: the Audi A7 and the Ram 1500. The A7 starts at $61,000, while a fully loaded Ram 1500 can brush past $55,000. They seem to occupy two parallel universes, the twain never to meet. But, who's to say any driver is so singular, so mono-minded, so damn boring? Some days we feel like a supple sedan with sinuous lines and others an übermasculine rip-roaring, Hemi-snorting pickup truck.
There's one place in the world where the A7 and the Ram might be cross-shopped -- Houston. Swimming in crude, awash in petro-dollars, the town draws multinationals who dig their automobiles. Although it is less crass than Dallas, Houston is built on a bedrock of irascible, leave-us-alone determination, peopled by bleeding-red Republicans and more than a few would-be secessionists. So, you know, still Texas.
Which vehicle would be the quintessential Houstonite's go-to ride? Only a series of tests could decide.
Test No. 1: Is it Houston Hot?
The French Cowboy is riding shotgun in the Ram, and he's pleased. "Texas women would like this very much," he says. "I'd do well with this truck." The French Cowboy, as he's nicknamed, is actually French, and I sense he'd do fine even without the truck. Philippe Schmit is the chef/owner of an eponymous restaurant in a chic part of town. Philippe the restaurant is a place of leather stools, frosted mirrors, and an attractive clientele. Philippe the man moved to Texas almost eight years ago after stints in top New York restaurants like Le Bernardin. He's our guide for a night about town and a litmus test to which vehicle might best please a Houstonite.
The Laramie Longhorn Crew Cab is the tippy-top model, with a $3805 premium over the regular Laramie. The as-driven price of $54,335 includes coveted mechanicals such as the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, four-wheel drive, and air suspension. It takes its crew-cab duties seriously; rear doors are full size, and full-size humans actually fit.
The Longhorn gets an extralarge dose of leather frippery. The chocolate brown hide and thick stitching are of European quality, there's real wood on the dash, and it comes without the tawdry veneer that looks like cheap plastic. (The Audi, interestingly, has almost the exact same wood on the dash and center console.) The Longhorn jumps the luxury shark, though, when it comes to the studded faux saddlebags on the front seatbacks. They are as subtle as a loud-voiced Texan in, well, a restaurant in Paris.
But George-H-W-Bush are the seats comfortable! And creature comforts like the backup camera, Garmin navigation, and rain-sensing wipers call the Ram's essential truckness into question.
Houston traffic demands swift lane changes and prompt stoplight escapes. Despite its weight and girth, the 1500 handles admirably even in emergency maneuvers, as evidenced by our avoidance of a stray dog on a lonely Texas road. This is due partly to the optional active air suspension ($1595), which keeps the chassis relatively level. At speed you can feel the truck squat, and shutters in the grille close to improve the aerodynamics. This is not to say the Ram doesn't ride like a truck, but you don't have to manhandle it.
More surprising still is that our truck has the same number of gears as the Audi (eight). ZF happily strikes again. The Hemi is perhaps more a psychological salve than a mechanical necessity, as the available 3.6-liter V-6 (305 hp, 269 lb-ft of torque) is highly capable. However, if you're going all out in the epicenter of the American oil world anyhow, what's a bit less gas mileage for the Hemi's 395 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque?
It's getting dark and, with the A7 following behind, Philippe directs us to Uptown Park, an area of upscale restaurants, swarming with Houston's omnipresent socialites and valets. Over appetizers, Philippe dishes about Houston's mansions and mentions that his investors favor Lamborghinis. Then he glances at his watch. "I have a date now, and I'm late. She may be waiting for me. But no rush."
I whisk him away in the A7, and although he compliments the speed and élan of the Audi, he says, "The Ram is the one for me."
I have an appointment with our next local guide anyway, a jewelry designer in her twenties, Lauren Craft. She grew up here and moved back from New York to start her own company. Lauren is wearing a couture skirt, Louboutin heels, and a friendly, if slightly confused, smile. "What are we doing, exactly?" she asks politely. Well, she's taking us -- and the vehicles -- out.
She slips into the Audi's passenger seat and we whirlwind through hot spots with names like Uchi and Anvil and Katsuya. Valets swarm (the pretty girl doesn't hurt), and the A7 is placed alongside such cars as a Ferrari California and an Aston Martin Vantage. The Ram often vanishes to the back of the lot. At one point, it's left in the middle of a street clogging traffic as the valets play a game of chicken. One finally relents and is visibly sweating as he backs it into a tight spot.
"The Audi fits in," Lauren says. "It's sleek and sexy, and I like how low it feels to the ground." When we switch to the truck, she looks down dubiously at her sparkly short skirt and then at the height of the Ram. "Wait!" I cry. "It sinks down." So it does, with two clicks of the key fob, a bit of street theater. She pops inside, rubbing the outlandishly large leather Longhorn stamp. "I've never seen a truck with details like this." It isn't necessarily a compliment.
No question, in the eyes of the valets and the fashionistas, the Audi wins in terms of Houston hotness.
Test No. 2: Does It Earn Its Keep?
The Audi is so unctuously smooth in traffic that it can almost seem a bit like light jazz -- pleasantly background -- except for the vibrant yip from the 3.0-liter V-6. Power is moderate at 310 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, but the supercharged engine uses it wisely, all midrange punch. There's something sensuous about the A7's ghost-in-the-machine drive quality. You slipstream through traffic, low-slung and yet somehow still above it all. It's arch and elite but not BMW arrogant.
So, too, goes the interior, a cyborgian mix of nature and technology that's bloodlessly blended together. The cockpit takes itself a bit too seriously to be called warm, but you've got Wi-Fi, Google Maps, and a sharp sound system. It's a better place to live than many actual living rooms.
What you really don't expect from the A7, considering the pared-down, sexy lines, is its sheer practicality. Essentially, the Audi is a long-limbed hatchback. And right now at Texas Ranch Life, the mother/daughter duo of Taunia and Lacey Elick are shoving four large hay bales back there.
This is part of my ranch test. Texas isn't California, so no slackers are allowed. A vehicle has to earn its keep. The A7 is quick enough to round up cattle and capacious enough to haul around hay -- in this case to feed the ranch's miniature horses, Horace and Harry.
I even go so far as to sit in the back of the A7 with the hatch up and shoot skeet out of it. Twelve-gauge shotgun to shoulder, mindful not to blow out any windows, I pop off several rounds at hand-thrown clays. (And miss, every time.)
The A7 is game, but when I stand in the bed of the Ram to shoot (and score a hit), I've got to be honest with myself. It was the Ram we took off-roading to recover a runaway cow. It hauls ten times as much hay. The Ram is the king of the ranch.
Test No. 3: Urban practicality
Texas is famous for being big and flat, so I'd hoped that driving and parking would be a cinch. Not so much. It's basically Los Angeles traffic with a twang.
When you live in a city, you're always running late for some meeting. Our final test was one of urban practicality: getting somewhere quickly and finding a place to park. We arranged a race from the Hotel Derek to downtown, ten miles away, using freeways. Road test editor Christopher Nelson would pilot the Audi. We'd start with vehicles off and have to plug the destination into the nav systems. The first vehicle to park downtown wins.
And we were off.
The Audi's nav system is great. The Ram's? Well, I may have misinterpreted its initial directions. The Audi seamlessly slipped into the flow of traffic. I had to wade in with the Ram. The Audi took the most expeditious route. I was lost and had to get creative.
The freeways were packed. Somehow I found a back road, but I'd wasted long minutes. Still, the difference in the predicted arrival time was a mere two minutes. As in all of my tests, the twain were more closely aligned than anyone could have expected.
Yet when I arrived downtown, the Audi was already neatly parallel parked, idling in the only available space. I took one look and realized that the Ram never would have fit in there anyhow.
The Longhorn is the ultimate in cowboy cool, but Houston is an Audi kind of town. -- Jason H. Harper, photography by Martyn Goddard
Price: $60,995/$71,970 (base/as tested)
Engine: 3.0L supercharged V-6, 310 hp, 325 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 18/28 mpg
Price: $24,395/$54,335 (base/as tested)
Engines: 3.6L V-6, 305 hp, 269 lb-ft; 4.7L V-8, 310 hp, 330 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 395 hp, 407 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 16-18/23-25 mpg, 14/19-20 mpg, 13-15/19-21 mpg (3.6L, 4.7L, 5.7L)