NAIAS 2004: Audi Recap
Audi’s press conference at NAIAS 2004 was quick and concise. Opening with the statement that it had achieved the best ever sales results in both the US and Canada in 2003, Audi of America VP Len Hunt then went on to recap other achievements from the previous year.
It is no secret that Audi believes that motorsport success drives success in the showroom, and as a result the first achievements highlighted were from the racetrack. Its R8 Prototype won the American Le Mans Series title for the 4th consecutive year, and the RS 6 Sedan was formidable in the SPEED World Challenge GT Series. In fact in both series Audi won the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships.
At the big race – Le Mans itself – Champion Racing’s R8 Prototype chased the two Bentleys all the way to the checkered flag, giving it the first overall podium finish by an American team for 19 years. Champion will again be representing Audi Sport North America in both the ALMS Series and at Le Mans this year with drivers Marco Werner and JJ Lehto, while Randy Pobst and Michael Galati will defend the SPEED World Challenge GT Series Championship for Champion Racing in two RS 6 Competitions.
Finally, Audi is feeling very good about the number of luxury Sedan customers being attracted with the new A8 L. Sales of the previous generation A8 never exceed 3,000 in any full calendar year; the 2004 A8 L sold 700 units in December 2003 alone. With a 5,000 – 6,000 annual sales rate goal, Audi believes it can continue to erode the high end market share of rivals BMW and Mercedes.
Audi showed the S4 Cabriolet and Le Mans quattro study for the first time in North America. Suffice it to say, they let the cars speak for themselves with only short references to each vehicle during the press conference. Len Hunt cited the fact that the S4 Sedan had been named to Car and Driver magazine’s “10 Best” cars list and then referred to its sister, the S4 Cab, as “a 340 horsepower soft-top that delivers some hardcore wind-in-your-hair driving!”
It was the A8 L 6.0 quattro that was at the center of Audi’s presentation. Rolling onto the stage amid smoke and musical fanfare, new Audi AG Board Member Ralph Weyler emerged from the back seat to acquaint the gathered media representatives with the vehicle.
The underlying message from Weyler was that the 12-cylinder A8 represents the new design evolution of the Audi brand. He referred to the car specifically as “the icon for the entire Audi product family” and noted that the new single frame grille – which is exclusive to the 12-cylinder A8 at the moment – will spread across the Audi range from the top down. The single frame grille is a nice throwback to the design cues of the Auto Union vehicles from days of old and shows how Audi continues to innovate forwards while respecting the heritage that got it there.
The technical specs of the A8 6.0 quattro are simply tremendous and make it unique in the world of ultra high end luxury sedans. The combination of 450 horsepower (580 Nm of torque), quattro all-wheel drive and air suspension and a total weight of less than 2000 kg (due to the aluminum body and chassis) means that the 12-cylinder A8 can sprint from 0-62 mph in 5.2 seconds.
Buyers in European markets will see the 12-cylinder A8 launched in the Spring and Summer, while the first US sales will happen by the end of calendar year 2004. Inquiries about the North American price were not answered, but with a few winks and nods from Audi officials it appears that the A8 6.0 quattro will sell at between Usd $110,000 – $120,000.
There were two other intriguing messages from Mr. Weyler, the first being a reminder that Audi had a “hat trick” of motor show premiers of concept cars – the Pikes Peak quattro, Nuvolari quattro and Le Mans quattro – in 2003 and that Detroit is the start of a 2004 “hat trick” of Audi production car motor show premiers. We know that the next generation A6 will show this year, meaning there is one blank still to be filled in throughout the show season.
Second, Audi will begin developing more models specifically for the US market. I asked Len Hunt about this point and the example that he brought up was the upcoming A3 5-door variant due in the US in 2005. This will be a completely new design as opposed to the European 5-door A3 which Hunt referred to as “a 3-door A3 with two more doors added”. With the B6 chassis A4/S4 slightly larger than the previous generation B5, Hunt talked about an A3 that would fill in nicely in size below the B6 lineup.
Finally, 2005 will be a crucial year for Audi in North America. Audi has broken its global sales record for 10 straight years and it will be depending on North America’s continuing strong growth if it wants to extend this record. By 2005 Audi of America will have the 12-cylinder A8, next generation A6, 5-door A3, A4/S4 sedan and Cabriolet variants and perhaps its SUV in showrooms. With gaps in the product line being squeezed out, it will be critical for Audi to execute on its sales strategy.