JASPER, Ark. – Curves were as plentiful and smooth as a waterfall's edge under a crescent moon.
Blonde Bride, road, and car all seemed to work in harmony as we cruised with the top down, basking in the warmth of a sunny afternoon in both of Arkansas' mountain ranges.
The car, an Audi S5 Cabriolet – a fancy way of saying convertible – wrapped us in a richly appointed interior, comforted us with graceful, all-wheel-drive handling, and thrilled us with a muscular V-6 turbocharged engine mated to an eight-speed transmission that was smoother than a freshly brushed billiards table.
The road, Arkansas 7, the state's longest state highway, delighted us with an endless series of stunning, postcard-perfect views as traversed the Ouachita Mountains, dipped down through the Arkansas River Alluvial Plain, and climbed into the Boston Mountains, the southern region of the Ozark Highlands. It is not for nothing that it is designated a scenic byway.
The bride was a picture of sweet repose who, despite her better instincts, uttered not one scream as we slithered through the serpentine pike like a sidewinder in flight. Instead, she served as an infallible navigator, made necessary because the Audi's navigation system and telephone interface periodically lost their cookies, leaving your intrepid pilot to fly as cluelessly as the Russian Air Force.
The mountains get their name not from the Massachusetts capital but most likely from 19th-century settlers for whom any difficult task was "a Boston." To this day, without the miracle of motorized machinery capable of carving roads into mountainsides, it would still be nigh on impossible to navigate this land, which two nearly two centuries after the founding of Arkansas remains sparsely populated.
The term mountain is also a misnomer. Unlike the Appalachians and Rockies, formed by uplifting, folding, and faulting, the Boston Mountains were lifted from an ancient seabed about 300 million years ago, so the underlying sedimentary strata are relatively horizontal. The uplifting left giant plateaus. As with that other Grand Canyon out west, erosion carved out the valley.
If I may digress momentarily, I understand that chamber-of-commerce types might wish to attach the name to one of the world's wonders. Still, why rely on something far away to imply greatness nearby. Why not simply call it the Arkansas Canyon? It is full of lovely trails, impressive waterfalls, and breathtaking cliffs. It is worthy of a name that salutes its uniqueness and recognizes the natural state.
The Arkansas Grand Canyon is about 10 miles long and between four and 15 miles wide. The highest points along the rim are about 2,200 feet above sea level, the lowest points, along Big Creek, are between 800 and 1,000 feet, according to federal topographical maps. That makes for some steep cliffs.
It sits in the middle of Newton County, a region so rugged that never has a railroad attempted to enter. The county is in the middle of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, which comprises 1.2 million acres of pristine, second-growth timberland.
Private land is rare. Trees are bountiful.
"We have the cleanest air in the United States," boasted one of our hosts, Clint Guidry, who with his wife, Sandra, operates the Overlook Inn http://www.theoverlookbedandbreakfast.com, a few miles south of Jasper. Their plantation-style home sits high on a hill above a Highway 7 overlook of the valley.
Visitors are given the entire second story and veranda. A gourmet breakfast is served on the veranda. A luxury cabin is also on site. Blonde Bride preferred the cabin, but it was already spoken for on the night in question.
We came upon the Guidrys after we decided to spend a second night in the area. We spent the first night at Arkansas Grand Canyon View Cabins (arkansasgrandcanyonviewcabins.com). Our cabin was clean, comfortable, and had a private deck overlooking the valley, from whence we witnessed one of the most spectacular sunrises ever. If the cabin had been available a second night, we certainly would have taken it.
Serendipitously, it was not.
One might expect a German-engineered automobile to be well thought out, to be well manufactured, and to achieve a holistic level of excellence among multiple mechanical and electrical systems. By and large, the S5 did not disappoint.
The infotainment glitches previously noted are concerning because they remind us that Audi is a subsidiary of Volkswagen, which is infamous for expensive-to-repair electronic glitches that have a habit of appearing after warranties expire. Because the companies insist on using proprietary software, consumers are forced into using dealer service departments. I've been hearing the tales for decades. Veteran mechanic Scotty Kilmer tells one of them.
We were also unimpressed with Audi's lane-keep assist. One would expect a car priced at $73,540 to be able to keep itself centered in its lane. The Audi could not. Even on interstate highways, Audi's system consistently failed to recognize side markers and would go off the road without correction.
Those nits picked, it is hard to find fault with the S5. It is based on the estimable A6, which sells for around $45,000 and is rated by most critics as one of, if not the best entry-level luxury sport sedan in the world.
The only significant difference is the driveline. The A5 comes with a 2.0-L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that puts out 261 hp and 273 ft.-lb. of torque and a 7-speed S tronic® transmission. Audi says the A5 scoots from zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds and has a factory-governed top speed of 130 mph.
The S5 adds $10,000 for a 349-hp, 3.0-L V6 that cranks out 369 ft.-lb of torque. The bigger motor gets an 8-speed Tiptronic®. Audi says the Cabriolet shoots from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds and has a top speed of 155 mph. We did not push the car enough to have an opinion on those numbers.
So that's 10 grand for roughly a 35% increase in power. While trying to calculate the value, bear in mind that a V-shaped engine is better balanced, so there is less vibration throughout the driveline and that affects not only the driving experience but also the longevity of mechanical and electrical components.
Both the A5 and S5 have superb driving dynamics, thanks to Audi's superb AWD system quattro®. Both also exhibit careful choice of materials and high craftsmanship. Over the past decade, both have earned high marks for reliability.
Some American critics complain because the big engine lacks the trademark roar of Detroit muscle, but that's an imputation of personal bias into an observation that ought to be at its basis, objective. In truth, the S5 has a silky sound, much like an F1 racer in a sotto voice. One hears the engine spool up rapidly and execute a series of upshifts in rapid-fire order: BWAA, bwaa, bwuhuh ...
There is an exquisite harmony to it that is matched by the car's amazing stick through the twisters. Is it worth it to pay another 10 grand for a convertible? Only if you have a passion for driving that fills your heart with pure joy. If not, get an SUV.
We'll be back
Several things motivated us to stay over, not the least of which is that it took a lot of driving to reach the area. Though we spent the night before in Hot Springs, it was a long day. It started with a dawn hike up and down North Mountain, followed by a couple of hours in the Quapaw Baths soaking out the aches and bruises of months of hard work.
We were deeply impressed with the warmth and friendliness we encountered in the area, not only in Newton but also in the next one north, Boone, where we had to go to pick up a bottle of wine. Hey, Beautiful Blonde Bride and I grew up in small towns and we understand that some are friendly, some are not. People in Jasper and Harrison, Ark., are.
The way back was much easier and quicker. We jumped on I-40, zipped into Little Rock for lunch and a shopping trip to Trader Joe's, and then shot down I-30 to Texarkana. Elapsed time: about five hours.
This is good to know because we now consider this journey a scouting trip, a successful one at that. I suspect that when the leaves start to turn, we'll be back.
With any luck, we'll have another nice car.