Audi Americanizes Its A4
Ordinary Features in Sport Sedan
Are Adjusted to Meet Tastes
By NEAL E. BOUDETTE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 3, 2005; Page D1
German luxury brand Audi is trying to step up its game in the crowded luxury-car market, partly by making its U.S. models more American.
In an effort to bounce back from a couple of years of sliding quality and slumping sales, Audi AG is rolling out a redesigned version of its A4 sedan, the mainstay of its lineup. The new car is getting everything from extra electrical outlets inside -- catering to American tendencies to hit the road with cellphones and electronic gadgets -- to less-squeaky windshield wipers. (Wipers made for high-speed German autobahns squeak more on low-speed U.S. roads because there is less wind pressing the wipers against the glass.)
The A4, which faces off against rivals including the BMW 3 Series, the Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS, is part of a series of new cars Audi has engineered in an effort to put the company back on a growth track in the world's largest auto market. The new Audi will include features such as a six-speed transmission and a 250-horsepower V-6 engine designed to keep pace with rival German sedans. The previous V-6 model had 220 horsepower.
See Consumer Reports' model overviews for the Audi A3
and Audi A4
. Plus, see a summary of test findings
and Quick Picks.
The auto maker will for the first time also include a compact car in its lineup, the A3 hatchback, which has been on the market in Europe for years. In the U.S., it counts among its competitors the VW Golf and GTI, which are made by Audi's parent company, Volkswagen
The new Audis will be followed next year by the Q7, a belated entry in the luxury sport-utility vehicle market. It will compete in a crowded market that includes the hot-selling Lexus 330RX, the redesigned Mercedes M-Class, which arrives this spring, two vehicles from BMW -- the X5 and X3 -- as well as the Touareg, an upscale SUV also from Volkswagen.
Audi hasn't announced prices for the new models yet, but the A4 is expected to start around $29,000.
Audi's competitors aren't sitting still. At the Geneva auto show this week, BMW unveiled its redesigned 3 Series, while Lexus presented a sportier and more powerful IS sedan. Both are direct competitors to the A4. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, showed its updated M-Class SUV, giving it a jump on the Q7.
The Audi A3 -- long offered in Europe -- is getting a makeover for the U.S. market.
Audi, which had been largely absent from the wave of European luxury cars taking over U.S. streets in recent years, faces considerable challenges. Competition is tough, with BMW launching its 3 Series this spring. Mercedes is countering with the new M-Class SUV and R-Class minivan this year. On top of that, the Japanese brands Lexus, Infiniti and Acura are launching credible alternatives with the kind of sportiness and handling that used to set German engineering apart.
Success with these new U.S. offerings is critical for the auto maker, which has paid a price in recent years for sometimes appearing less-than-responsive to U.S. consumers. Audi's quality scores in J.D. Power & Associates and other quality studies slumped in the late 1990s, partly because the company relied on quality-assurance engineers based not in the U.S., but in Germany, to diagnose problems that sometimes were caused by conditions that cropped up only in the U.S. Once, for example, a fuel sensor was failing because of the higher levels of sulfur in U.S. gasoline.
The quality troubles at Audi surfaced amid a broader decline in German engineering. BMW, Mercedes and VW all have stumbled in quality surveys in the past several years as they rushed to develop more new vehicles and packed them with new, untried electronics.
Audi's reputation in the U.S. also took a hit three years ago when defective ignition coils on thousands of A4s, VW Jetta and VW Passats began burning out, stranding customers, and putting their cars in the shop for days or even weeks because of VW's slow reaction and a shortage of replacement parts.
Audi officials acknowledge its German headquarters hasn't always paid close enough attention to the idiosyncrasies of American customers. "We are really trying to listen better to what U.S. customers are telling us," said Rupert Stadler, Audi's chief financial officer, who also is responsible for North America.
In November, Audi launched its A6 midsize sedan after putting the car through more-thorough final testing on U.S. roads to fix any last hiccups specific to this market. One catch: a slight engine hesitation on cool mornings traced to its U.S. engine-control software.
The new A4 sport sedan, currently being delivered to U.S. dealerships, also has brake pads containing less copper, making them quieter and longer-lasting for the low-speed, stop-and-go driving typical on U.S. roads. The A3 hatchback will arrive in May, and a station-wagon version of the A6 comes in the summer. The Q7 SUV arrives next year.
The A4, however, is the key model, if Audi is going to gain ground. The compact-sport-sedan segment is the largest slice of the premium-car market and is dominated by the BMW 3 Series, with strong alternatives in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class as well as the Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS.
To make the A4 stand out in this field, Audi has used a type of fuel-injection technology to boost power with only a limited increase in fuel consumption and adopted the continuously variable transmission that, in addition to shifting more smoothly, is supposed to shift more quickly. The U.S. interior also has larger, adjustable cupholders, a feature that should ease one of the most frequent complaints of American owners.
A high-performance model, called the S4, comes with a 340-horsepower V8 engine, an option not available on the BMW 3 Series.
Growing in the U.S. is critical for Audi. About 80% of its sales come from Europe, and only 10% from the U.S. It needs to increase the U.S. share to remain competitive with faster-growing rivals such as BMW.
In a bid to boost responsiveness to quality issues in the U.S., Audi of America executives three years ago convinced senior management in Ingolstadt, in southern Germany, to create a separate quality team in the U.S. instead of continuing to rely on engineers an ocean away in Ingolstadt. One sign the effort is paying off came last fall when Consumer Reports put the A4 on its "recommended list" -- the first Audi ever to make it.