A brace of Audis makes a play for American hearts and wallets

April 8, 2011, 10:07 PM UTC

Audi’s A4 and A6 exemplify the automaker’s best qualities: sophisticated design, excellent craftsmanship, and superb road manners. But the company has some catching up to do if it wants to win more American customers.

A pair of Audis showed up on my test drive schedule as winter morphed into spring in the Northeast. They weren’t the newest models in the line — the 2011 A6 is being replaced by the redesigned 2012 model as this is written, and the all-new A7 arrives this month. But they reminded me why I like Audis so much — and helped me to gauge how close Audi has come to reaching top tier status in the U.S.

2011 Audi A4

Audi is the late arrival to the American market compared with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and has been trying hard to catch up. So far this year, import luxury car sales have trailed the overall market, but Audi has been outperforming its German rivals, as well as Lexus. It takes more than velocity to compete in this arena, as we shall see.

Revamped a year ago, the compact A4 remains the core of the Audi lineup. Along with its sportier sibling, the S4, it accounts for nearly half of Audi’s car sales. Audi has had less success establishing the larger A6 as a second core model; Audi sells only a quarter as many of this model as it sells A4s. That contrasts with Mercedes, where sales of its E-class nearly equal those of the smaller C-class, and BMW, where sales of the 5-series run at about half the rate of the 3-series.

Both the A4 and A6 exemplify Audi’s best qualities: sophisticated (if a bit understated) design, excellent craftsmanship, and superb road manners. Except when the headlamps are on, exposing their beaded L.E.D. trim, Audis never advertise their presence; they are the stealthiest of top-shelf autos. And their long-established Quattro all-wheel drive systems give them unmatched driveability in difficult conditions.

Quattro was standard equipment on the Ibis White A4 test car I drove. Power was provided by a 2.0 liter engine with TFSI (TFSI stands for turbocharged fuel stratified injection). It produces an ample 211 horsepower for this 3,715 lb. car and hurries it to 60 miles per hour in 6.6 seconds. Fuel economy is a respectable 21 miles per gallon of premium gas city/29 miles per gallon highway.

The A4 felt light on its tires and held its own in the free-for-all afternoon traffic leaving New York City. With an manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $34,140, it is a relatively inexpensive way to move into the world of import luxury sedans. Adding the sport and premium plus package brought the as-tested price to $39,995.

The biggest shortcoming of the A4 is size; the back seat is tight and the trunk compact. So for my next run, I moved one up one class in the Audi hierarchy to the A6.

It was a big step. The A6 is nine inches longer, nearly 400 lbs heavier, and came with 1000 cc. more engine capacity in its 3.0 liter V6, again with TFSI, that puts out 300 horsepower.

2011 Audi A6

All that extra stuff comes at a price, first at the dealer and then at the gas pump. The aventurine blue pearl test car carried a sticker price of $56,275, the prestige and sport packages boosting it north of the $50,200 manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The bigger motor and heavier weight brought the fuel economy numbers down to 18 mpg city/26 highway.

It was money well-spent. Even at the end of its seven-year run, the current generation of the A6 is a no-compromise luxury car, with the presence, heft, and feel you would expect. It proved especially adept at absorbing the jolts from the broken pavement on Manhattan’s West Side Highway, which is bumpier than usual this year. For sheer competence, combined with below-the-radar presence, it is hard to beat.

Audi has made no secret of its ambitions. It has announced its intention to boost its sales 50% over the next five years, volume that would be high enough for it to contemplate building cars in its own U.S. plant.

To establish itself in the top rank, however, Audi has to solve some quality and reliability problems that might be acceptable among larger brands, but not in one at Audi’s price points. Audi ranks slightly below average in initial quality, and further below average in three-year dependability in the latest J.D. Power rankings. Consumer Reports complains that the V6’s supercharged engine has been well below average, and it deems only the A4 in the entire Audi lineup as worthy of its recommended rating. (BMW also gets only one recommendation; Mercedes wins four).

Having been exposed to the near-impeccable quality of Japanese luxury cars, American buyers are less forgiving of imperfections than customers elsewhere. So Audi has more catching up to do. At a later date, we’ll get a chance to see how the 2012 models do.

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