Among the three German luxury car companies, Audi is standing tall. It is raising its U.S. profile, advertising more aggressively and enjoying strong sales. By adding to its lineup with sporty models like the A5 and S5, it has significantly freshened its image. While BMW sales are off 10% this year and Mercedes is down 5.3%, Audi has fallen just 3.5%.
The core of the Audi lineup is the compact A4. It competes against the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class, and accounts for more than half of Audi’s U.S. sales. For 2009, the car has been widened and stretched, and it has been given a sharper-edged, more tailored look. It’s Audi’s first all-new platform in more than a decade. In all, the 2009 Audi A4 is 4.6 inches longer than it used to be and a full seven inches larger than BMW’s 3-series. The main beneficiaries of the extra length are rear-seat passengers who, if they can’t stretch out in business-class style, will at least not have to ride with their knees under their chins.
The A4 comes with two engine choices: a 3.2 liter six cylinder and a 2.0 liter turbocharged four. I tested the four and it at no time left me wanting for more power. Good thing. The base price on my Brilliant Red tester was $32,700 – not far from the $33,400 entry fee for a 3.0 liter BMW 328i that has two more cylinders. Add on $7,300 for the ”prestige model” (18” wheels, premium sound system, chrome window trim), $2,500 for the navigation package with rearview camera, and $3,350 for some other goodies plus destination charges and the as-tested price for the A4 jumped to $46,675. That’s a healthy bite for a four-cylinder car.
Price aside, the A4 lived up to my expectations in every way. The refined and sophisticated cockpit with its easily accessible controls should be a model for all other automakers. Dynamically, the Audi was flawless, with impeccable steering, handling and ride. With its three settings, Audi’s adjustable suspension provides just as much comfort or control as you’d like – and unlike systems on other cars, you can actually feel the difference when you change between them.
Most luxury cars are for extroverts, but Audis are aimed at the inner-directed. A weekend’s worth of patrolling the back roads of car-crazy Litchfield County (near Lime Rock Park race track) elicited no thumbs-up or other spontaneous gestures of approval. That’s fine. Traveling beneath the radar has always suited my personality, and it cuts down on speeding tickets. If the euro continues to weaken and Audi can adjust is pricing accordingly, its appeal will only grow.