INGOLSTADT, Germany— Audi is working hard for respect in America. But that’s only among people who haven’t yet driven the cars. Those who drive Audis know that the other side of Volkswagen knows something about making premium, ultra-competent sedans and wagons.
Audi of America will sell around 90,000 vehicles in the U.S. this year. The improvements to the 2002 A6 ought to help it hit the 100,000 mark by 2003. Believe it or not, Audi executives are not in a hurry to hit that milestone before then.
The truth is that Audi needs to grow slow in order to let its dealer body—a beleaguered bunch with barely a brand to sell just seven years ago—catch up. “The heart of Audi is technology,” says Audi of America marketing chief Martin Trahan. “And we are moving almost too fast for our dealer body to keep up.”
Look at Audi’s sales chart for the last decade and it looks something like a fishhook. Go back 15 years and it resembles a horseshoe. False, but well-publicized, charges in the mid-1980s that the old Audi 5000 suddenly accelerated out of control all but killed the brand. Thanks to time, and some top-drawer products, those days are well behind Audi.
Trahan acknowledges that Audi is a “tier two” luxury brand, frequently cross-shopped by car buyers against Acura. “But we're working on getting above the line,” said Trahan pointing to a marketing chart that showed Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus above a line, with Audi and Acura below the line.
The 2002 Audi A6 offers a bonus that European drivers have been enjoying since 1999, the Audi mutitronic continuously variable transmission. This baby replaces the Tiptronic tranny in the A6. And it is just about the smoothest automatic on the road.
The Multitronic is a wonderful transmission. We tooled around some lovely Bavarian villages on twisty roads, and out onto the autobahn. The shift from one gear to another (there are six in all) was velvety smooth.
2002 Audi A6
The difference between Multitronic and other transmissions is this: On manual as well as automatic transmissions, specific transmission stages are physically present inside the casing. There are typically four, five or more pairs of gears or gear trains. With Multitronic, there is just one set of gears with a flexible belt, which looks something like chainmail. This belt, which the Audi engineers say lasts for the life of the car, allows an infinite number of transmission ratios. The Multitronic eliminates any shift shocks or loss of torque that occurs with other transmissions.
When we drove the A6 on the autobahn and really took it for a ride, it had the odd tendency to sometimes slip lower in the engine speeds when you touched off the gas, yet there was no loss of power or speed. The goal of the Multitronic is to mimic a manual as much as possible. In fact the gas mileage of the Multitronic is a smidge better than the manual.
All that aside, I’ll take the manual. But if I were opting for an automatic transmission as so many Americans (and an increasing number of Europeans) do, I would want this slick piece of work.
One of the reasons that not many American buyers will opt for the Multitronic is that it is only offered on Audi’s front-wheel drive A6, not the quattro version. And if I were buying an Audi, I would want the quattro all-wheel-drive system.
To make up a little for the lack of Multitronic on the quattro, Audi does make it available on the TDI versions, making it the first time that a continuously variable transmission has been offered with a diesel engine. Diesels are all the rage in Europe, Audi’s main market, and there is growing interest in America for diesel cars.
2002 Audi A6
Audi developed the Multitronic on its own rather than going to a supplier. The reason is simple. No supplier expressed interest in the technology as Audi began developing it.
2002 Audi A6 3.0
A total of 48 different possibilities come with picking out a new A6. There is a 1.9 TDI, 2.5 TDI and 2.5 TDI. In the regular gasoline engine department, the range is from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that gets 130 horsepower on up to a 4.2-liter V-8 with 340 base horsepower. The multitronic can be matched up with five of Audi’s engines. Continental Teves’ ESP system is standard on Audis this fall.
The A6 was as quiet as I would expect it to be, and quieter than the last version I drove in the U.S. Accounting for the change is glass that is 30 percent thicker. It is a glass found increasingly in premium cars. It is two panes sandwiched, with a plastic layer in the middle for added quiet and security.
Offered as an option is GM’s OnStar system, including the Virtual Advisor system that allows you to take and respond to e-mail, get your stock quotes and sports scores all in hands-free voice activated fashion. Other carmakers that have tied into OnStar, like Lexus, aren’t offering Virtual Advisor yet.
Eighty-five percent of Audi buyers opt for quattro. In fact, admits Audi marketing chief Martin Trahan, quattro has even higher name recognition and brand equity than the Audi brand does; at least for Americans. “Audi is an understated brand,” says Trahan.
2002 Audi A6
How can that be if sales have gone from a scant 12,000 in 1993 and 1994 to nearly 90,000 this year? It’s because people who are wise and want all-wheel drive systems but don’t want it in a balky gas guzzling sport-utility package discover from reading Consumer Reports and Working Mother that two very sane automotive brands offer wonderful all-wheel-drive systems in all their passenger cars—Subaru and Audi. Once they learn quattro, people not familiar with the glorious history of Audi and Auto Union, begin to investigate Audi as their next purchase even if they never had Audi on their shopping list before.
Trahan says that the vast majority of new customers are people trading up and out of Asian imports, especially Honda, Toyota and Nissan. They aren’t saying how many Volkswagen owners trade up and over to Audi, only that it isn’t very many.
Buyers of the A6’s big brother, the A8, have a higher education and income than American buyers of the Mercedes S Class and BMW 7-Series, according to Audi. That is understandable, as an Audi would only be a status symbol among a very bookish crowd.
There isn’t enough snob appeal in Audi for the mink and Rolex crowd in Beverly Hills. Also not surprising is that Audi buyers, says the company’s market research, tend to be more entrepreneurial than the buyers of their German rivals. That means that the chairman of Oracle probably drives a Mercedes. The CEO of the start-up Oracle wants to buy is more likely to drive an Audi.
The biggest news for Audi lately has been the TT. Like the New Beetle was for Volkswagen, the TT has been a showroom traffic generator. And, say dealers, a lot of A6s and A8s have been sold to buyers who came in to check out the slick TT.
The TT isn’t for evryone, especially for long rides. But at a little over $40,000, the Audi A6 sedan or Avant make for an excellent main car. A little less snob appeal than its competitors, but a practical and satisfying car.