Chasing a Le Mans Legend behind the wheel of the 2015 Audi S3

first_img The New Land Rover Defender Is Just as Glorious as We Expected I sat behind the wheel of the 2015 Audi S3 on the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) outside Austin, Texas and anxiously tapped on the steering wheel. And I had plenty of reasons to be anxious.Behind me sat 10-or-so journalists in a caravan of S3s, ready to take hotlaps around the now-infamous Formula One track. Situated in front of me was an R8 V10 piloted by Le Mans legend Allan McNish, who would be setting the pace for us around the track.The Audi representative riding shotgun, turns to me and asks if he can put on some tunes. “Sure,” I replied, not really paying attention to the request.Suddenly, the small S3 cabin is flooded – by way of the seriously bumpin’ 14-speaker Bang & Olufen sound system – with the angry sounds Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” As he quickly turns the stereo up to full blast, my co-pilot looks at me and shouts, “Is this OK?”Before I could respond, in front of me, McNish punches the throttle on the R8 and roars off toward the first corner. Feeling the eager eyes of the other 10-ish journalists behind me, I, too, punch the throttle. The S3 hunkers down and rips away.Keeping upI know that the Audi rep onboard the leading R8 was reining in McNish. Mine, however, was egging me on, as I came fast into corner one, a sharp uphill left-hander.“This is awesome!” he shouted. And he was right; it kind of was. Rather than being overwhelmed with the moment I was living, however, chasing a racing luminary around the track, I was focused on simply keeping up without wrecking the car.To my amazement, the car did a far better job keeping up with the supercar than I had anticipated. At full throttle the 292-horspower and 280-pound-foot 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine sounds not like a pint-sized four-pot but rather a seriously beefy V6.With a six-speed dual-clutch transmission pushing power out to all four wheels through Audi’s infamous quattro all-wheel drive system, the S3 can hit 60 from a dead standstill in 4.7 seconds and top speed of 155 mph.In Sport mode, the transmission shifts late and hard – but in a very pleasing way. American buyers, who, unlike the Europeans, are not privy to a six-speed manual, will not miss it; the DCT is just as pleasing.Having just driven the 2014 Audi S4, I expected the all-wheel drive sport sedan legend’s new little brother to mimic its handling characteristics. And it does – but it’s even better.Where the S4’s MLB chassis now feels soft and squishy, the S3’s MQB is sharp and quick-to-react. In fact, it’s the best application of the new Volkswagen Group platform, which includes the Porsche Macan and 2015 Volkswagen GTI.Audis have been notorious for being understeer prone. The S3 simply isn’t. Going through the S curves, I was able to kick the backend of the S3 out a bit. This, to me, proved that the S3 simply isn’t a rebadged and uprated A3 (it’s a different engine) but rather a serious compact sports sedan ready for primetime and hair-raising Sunday drives.SpartansThe only real downside I see to the S3 is its interior. Audi is well known for its outstanding and segment-leading interiors. The S3 is good, yes. However, it doesn’t really meet up with the spare but well-appointed interiors of the rest of the Audi line. The 2016 TT, for example, is Spartan but also has enough going on that the occupants don’t feel like they’re missing out on anything.Smartly, the designers have made up for their lack of dashboard inspiration with some seriously cool quilted sport seats that will come as an additional option partway into 2015.Though it’s a bit spare, the cabin is very quiet and comfortable. Before we got to COTA, we journalists had put several hundred miles on the S3s. After hours behind the wheel, I never found myself tired or wishing I were elsewhere, which is not something that can be said for most hard-and-fast cars under $50,000.IncomparableIf you’re wondering: no, I never caught up with McNish. I felt like I got pretty close, though. That was until he stopped mucking about and actually drove. Then he was just a blur in the distance.Ignoring my driving inadequacies, however, let’s look at the S3 as it stands in the marketplace.Some might wrongly think that the Audi S3 competes with the likes of the BMW M235i or the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. They’d be wrong. The M235i is an inline-six-powered, rear-drive coupe so is not in the same realm. And the AMG would compete with an RS 3, should something like that ever come to the States.So the S3 stands without comparison … both technically and metaphorically.However, if forced to compare, and I am going to force myself, I dare say that the S3 is far more well rounded than the other two Teutonic offerings. The S3, unlike the M235i, is far more comfortable – and affordable, when held side-by-side and dollar-for-dollar. Also, the S3 is far more fashionable and gentlemanly than the AMG any day of the week. Sure, the S3 has carbon fiber accents but it doesn’t rub it in your face.For $41,000, buyers get a car that can – kind of – keep up with Allan McNish on an F1 track and keep occupants comfortable for hours on end. Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty incomparable. 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A huge boon Alberta town hopes to pull new kind of energy

EDMONTON — An Alberta town is planning to pull a different kind of energy from the abandoned oil and gas wells that ring its outskirts.Hinton, west of Edmonton on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, is teaming up with academic researchers and the private sector to install what may be Canada’s first geothermal heating system in its downtown core.And some say it could change the ground rules for industry all over Alberta.“It would be a huge boon for the economy of this province,” said Jonathan Banks, a University of Alberta geologist who’s working on the project.The town and Calgary-based Epoch Energy propose to re-open an abandoned gas well near the community and use heat from the bottom of the hole to warm municipal buildings.Water five kilometres down simmers at 120 C. It would be pumped topside and used to warm another fluid, which would be piped downtown to the networked buildings. The water would then be re-injected.One study has run the numbers for 12 public buildings, including schools, government offices, the hospital and the RCMP detachment. The $10.2 million cost would be paid back in 16 years at current natural gas prices. The town would cut its CO2 emissions — and associated carbon tax costs — by 3,795 tonnes a year.“It makes sense,” said Hinton Mayor Rob Mackin. “We were built on resources and this is just an extension of that.”Banks draws a distinction between ground source heat pumps in common use and true geothermal energy. The first, he says, draws on solar energy stored in the top layers of the Earth while the second uses heat actually generated in the depths.The geothermal concept is widely used around the world, but Hinton’s version has a few wrinkles.Rocks beneath the town contain tiny pores which hold oil, gas and water. Pump those pores dry and rocks behave differently. Those differences are well-understood for hydrocarbons, but not water.“When it’s related to oil and gas, we know everything,” said Banks. “When it’s related to geothermal, we actually don’t know any of this stuff.”Water from that far down is full of salts and other materials such as heavy metals. Will those materials crystallize out at the surface? It’s not known.Questions on pump rates, pipe sizes, flow rates and well spacing all need to be answered.The town has asked the provincial government for $1.2 million. Hinton and the university have borne the cost so far.There are also legal and regulatory issues.Alberta has no legal structures for owning heat. A system to encourage oil and gas producers to transfer end-of-life wells to geothermal producers needs to be developed. Transferring environmental liability from oil and gas producers to geothermal producers must be figured out.“There has to be a really fulsome conversation between oil and gas, green energy producers and the regulator to say there’s a good outcome here if we can figure out how to do this together,” said Lisa Mueller of Epoch Energy.The Alberta Energy Regulator says it is already discussing how to adapt to geothermal, as is the province.If the questions are answered, the possibilities are large. Alberta has thousands of oil and gas wells that offer possibilities.“We would typically look for water above 60 degrees,” said Banks. “There’s a practically unlimited supply of that in Alberta. There’s an ocean of it.”Geothermal heat could sponsor a whole new industry — greenhouse agriculture.“If you could go to a greenhouse developer and offer a 20-year fixed-price heat contract, there’s a lot of upside there,” said Mackin.Communities such as Boise, Idaho, use geothermal to melt snow off streets. Any industry that needs to heat water — such as the oilsands — could let heat from the Earth do the heavy lifting, carbon-free.If everything goes well, Mackin said his town hopes to have the pilot project up and running as early as 2019. If it is, Canada will join the rest of the world.“This isn’t new elsewhere in the world,” he said. “This is new for Canada.”— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960 read more