April 24, 2001

Entry Level Luxury is the Core of the Big Apple's Own NY Auto Show
Article and Photos by George Achorn

New York, NY - They say everything is bigger than life in New York. Skyscrapers line the streets as far as one can see all the way to the horizon. Times Square bustles with New Yorkers on the go and flocks of tourists vying to catch sight of Carson Daly at the TRL studio above their heads while trying not to bump into too many locals down below.

Further down the Isle of Manhattan, at the Jacob Javitts Convention Center, automakers gather for the last major show of the model year. With its late timing, the New York Auto Show (NYAS) still plays a significant role to manufacturers, even though it may not be as large as the North American International Autoshow in Detroit.

If there was any underlying theme this year, it had to be the importance of the entry-level luxury car segment. The covers were pulled off of the all-new Audi A4 and Jaguar X-type as they weigh into the already crowded segment with contenders like the BMW 3-series, Mercedes Benz C-class and Volvo S60.

The A4 is an extremely important product for Audi of America, and its replacement in the USA with successful follow-up is critical to the folks from Ingolstadt. The original A4 placed Audi back on the map for the United States in the wake of the unwelcome and unfounded unintended acceleration debacle of the '80's. Its healthy sales helped make the USA Audi's largest export market, second only to Germany. In the meantime the original A4 continues to set sales records, despite the fact that the general public is familiar with the car's replacement.

It's no surprise then that the A4 is now evolutionary as much as it is revolutionary. In person, the car is significantly more attractive than it appears in photos. The main critique of the predecessor, the lack of rear legroom, has been addressed and the car appears to be one of the most serious contenders in its class with few close rivals. The overall result is a design that mimics the successful A6, though with more aggressive dimensions and some new Audi design cues.

The new A4 will be a technological tour-de-force for Audi. An all-new 3.0-liter V6 and the venerable 170-hp 1.8-liter turbo motors will power the car. Transferring that power to the ground will be a new continuously variable transmission called "Multitronic". The CVT will initially be available only on front-wheel-drive models, with quattro versions soon to follow. Audi claims the new transmission has better performance than manual equivalents.

In a shot across Audi's bow, Jaguar has entered this segment with its own attractive offering, based on Ford's European Mondeo chassis. The new X-type will be equipped with all-wheel-drive and design work much akin to earlier XJ6 models. Jaguar has announced a base price of $29K, though the more basic model on the show floor, equipped with a smaller 2.5-liter 6-cylinder, still weighed in at a hefty $36K. With pricing like this, Jaguar's threat to A4 sales seems remote, though the market potential of the Jaguar brand in this particular segment remains to be seen.

It would appear the European makes are in the driver's seat when it comes to this burgeoning niche of entry-level luxury, with very strong contenders from Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Jaguar. However, the Japanese luxury brands are also on the move. A new Acura TL Type S and Lexus IS300 stationwagon have entered the marketplace, and Nissan's debut of the newer and larger Altima point towards an Infiniti G-series that could be nearly identical in size to the new A4 and BMW 3.

Back at Audi, Len Hunt (VP or Audi North America) also announced a new direction in Telematics that includes a partnership with General Motors' own OnStar division. OnStar will now be optional in all Audi products beginning in the 2002 model year and it will be interesting to see how this choice will be perceived by American consumers.

In addition to entry-level models, all-wheel-drive seems to be also be a highly prevalent trend, showing that Audi has pioneered a technology that seems to be soon widely copied. The already established purveyor of awd vehicles, Subaru, showed off its highly successful Impreza WRX. With 227-hp on tap and a price tag in low 20s, it will be interesting to see just how much of a performance niche Subaru can build.

Not to be outdone, Mitsubishi, which has been hinting at a North American debut of its own Lancer EVO, went as far as showing one of the cars along with a Lancer rally car to help kick off the renaming of the Galant to Lancer.

As if the all-wheel-drive Jaguar X-type wasn't enough, the Ford Motor Company also chose to show the Volvo SCC concept. The SCC is a good look into the future S60R offering that is being readied for a January introduction. This particular car features the Haldex all-wheel-drive system like those used in the Audi TT, and it is highly likely that the production S60R will forego Volvo's current viscous coupling technology and replace it with the superior Haldex drive.

Even Pontiac jumped into the fray with a their Grand Prix G8 concept. This coupe, equipped with a potent Corvette-sourced V8 and an all-wheel-drive system of its own, most likely acquired through a dip into the Fuji Heavy Industries/ Subaru partsbin.

Other significant cars also made their own debuts in NY. The new Hummer H2, BMW M3 Cabriolet, Ford Focus SVT and Land Rover Freelander could be found inside the convention center, while concepts such as the Lincoln Mark 9 coupe, the VW Microbus and Lara Croft's Land Rover Defender were also present.

Porsche, on the other hand, showed off a vintage 917 racecar to emphasize their own Porsche Rennsport Reunion. This vintage racing event, scheduled to be held at Lime Rock, CT this summer, will be perhaps the ultimate Porsche event the US has ever seen.

Bigger than life suits the New York Auto Show just fine. It's not supposed to be the definitive US autoshow. That title goes to Detroit. Yet New York has this way of shoving itself into the limelight just the same. So, is it any surprise that the NYAS has placed itself as a particularly significant event filled with North American introductions that will prove to be especially pertinent to the US market, even if it was thinner on concept cars than its Michigan-based show rival.

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