Audi: What Does the Rest of the World Know That We Don’t?

June 6, 2008
OK, full disclosure: I am in love with the new Audi A4. And I am quite frustrated that once again, the German maker has decided to delay a hot new product's U.S. launch for a year while European motorists get first crack.

The redone A4, the all-new A5, the striking R8--there are plenty of reasons to be paying close attention to Audi, and that's exactly what's happening in much of the world. The latest sales numbers show the carmaker sold an impressive 426,200 cars and crossovers during the first five months of this year, an increase of 1.5 percent, which is no mean feat in today's climate.

"We are already ahead of schedule," declares Audi chairman Rupert Stadler, solidly on track to break the 1 million mark for all of 2008--the first time that would happen for Volkswagen AG's upmarket subsidiary. Though there are plenty of headwinds threatening to slow the auto industry down, Audi has the advantage of having an array of new products, such as the A4, ramping up to full production in the coming months.

The picture's a positive one virtually everywhere you look. Indeed, in many parts of Europe, the brand with the four rings is now outselling both Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Countering the generally downward trend among foreign brands, Audi continued gaining ground in Japan during the first five months of the year. In China, where the brand is celebrating its 20th anniversary, sales jumped 23.4 percent, through May, total volume topping 50,000.

Among the rare exceptions, the U.S. is the bad news bear, sales slipping nearly 3 percent, to just under 37,000. OK, blame the phase-out of the old A4, if you wish, but even if you were to adjust the numbers, the U.S. would still be lagging the smaller Chinese market, and not even keeping up with the U.K., where sales, so far, have nipped the 50,000 mark.

For any number of reasons, Audi has consistently failed to connect with U.S. motorists. The pat response is to blame the unintended acceleration brouhaha, but that's more than 20 years in the past, never mind it was effectively disproven. Even Infiniti is outpacing the German maker here in the States.

What do motorists elsewhere know? They clearly recognize Audi's reputation for design, especially interior styling, where it is generally considered the benchmark. Products like the R8 and S5 stand up in terms of performance, as well.

Perhaps, once it finally arrives here, the new A4 will finally connect with those American luxury buyers who aren't blindly loyal to the brands they see at the country club. Initial reviews suggest it's among the best entries ever in the compact segment. We'll tell you more when we spend more time behind the wheel.

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