Audi, Atop the Ski Jump

I have some well-off relatives that live in Connecticut, and it was at one of their houses where I first remember seeing Audis.  I remember them looking sharp-edged and squared-off, but in the late 80’s there were lots of cars like that, and an offhand negative remark from another (probably jealous) family member mitigated any further interest I might have had at my young age.

I do remember the ski jump commercial, but again, I don’t recall it making much of an impression on me; I recall thinking that of course *all* cars could do that, but it was interesting that they’d gone to the trouble of putting the car up on the ski jump.

So it wasn’t until a spoiled rich kid that I knew tossed me, a rear-seat passenger in his late-90’s A4 1.8T, some lateral G’s in the high school parking lot that Audis really interested me.  All I knew at the time was that the 1.8T in that thing really PULLED right from a stop—probably the first time my young Corolla-calibrated brain noticed and catalogued torque.  The A4, of course, turned out to be the magic memory elixir that made America forget the “unintended acceleration” scandal of the Audi 5000 (which, as per usual in such cases, was more operator error than design flaw), and suddenly Audis became fairly common on the streets of the USA again.

Still, the horizon of my Audi knowledge wasn’t far from the tip of my nose.  And then, a few things happened, closely enough in time and space that my interest increased exponentially.

First, I finished college and started drawing a regular paycheck.  Around that same time, the May 2003 issue of Car & Driver hit the shelves.  I didn’t have a subscription while in school, but I grabbed a C&D from the bookstore on occasion, so I was familiar enough with the publication.  By “familiar enough,” I mean I knew that BMWs won every C&D comparison into which they entered, all the time, no exceptions.  Right?  Everyone who reads C&D knows this.

So when in the May 2003 issue, Audi trumped BMW in not one but TWO comparison tests (“Compact Adrenaline-Delivery Systems” and “Deep-Pocket Rockets”), I remember raising an eyebrow.  Audi, the brand that ten years previously one couldn’t even find on the average US street, was suddenly better than demigod BMW?

Two short years later, the very first iteration of Forza Motorsport arrived for Xbox.  While playing it one day, I suddenly stopped short.  Wait.  In 2003, Audi made a 450 hp, twin-turbo V8 four-door sedan?  A family car with a strong enough power-to-weight ratio to run with sports cars?  And then I made the connection—wasn’t this the Audi that bested the M5 in the May 2003 C&D?  I became an unabashed Audi fan.  It looked as though the cars from Ingolstadt were on the upswing.

My opportunity for ownership showed itself a few years later when I sold my first house at sizeable profit after making significant improvements.  I had also recently been promoted at work, and felt like it was time to replace my first post-college car with a more impressive ride (a mistake in hindsight—I miss that Acura RSX).  I found a private seller in the Chicago suburbs wishing to part with my dream example—an RS6 in Mugello Blue, with Ivory leather and carbon fiber trim.

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I discovered that the car had deserved to win that comparo with the M5.  It was astoundingly fast, and felt utterly competent and composed no matter what was asked of it.  It made an incredible noise of V8 burble-thunder, intermixed with spooling turbos.  It sat four comfortably with plenty of trunk space.  With fresh tires, high-temp brake fluid for its eight-piston calipers, and new, stiffer sway bars, it embarrassed a C6 Corvette and an S5 coupe on the track at Buttonwillow Raceway in Bakersfield, CA.  I can say from personal experience, then, that Audi can make (and has made) some spectacular cars.

After bringing the RS6 to US shores in 2003, Audi doubled down, giving the US the RS4 in 2006 and the stunning R8 in 2008.  The R8 dovetailed nicely with the release of “Truth in 24,” the riveting, NFL-Films-produced, Jason-Statham-narrated, free-on-iTunes documentary about the 2008 Audi Sport Team Joest’s year-long effort and eventual victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While the R8 and RS4 were aspirational cars, the A4 got a comprehensive redesign for the 2008 model year as well, making the brand’s hot cachet readily accessible to the upper middle class.  The economic downturn slowed sales growth, but once the Great Recession passed, Audi started hitting consecutive best-ever-US-sales years, and the brand became more common than at any previous point in my lifetime.

2012 saw the arrival of the gorgeous A7 and its mechanical equivalent, the handsome-but-more-conventional A6.  Both packed the now-ubiquitous “3.0T” supercharged V6, a stunning MultiMedia Interface (MMI) display, and a sumptuous cockpit.  Both cars were well-received by the automotive press, with the A7 netting Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year.”

And since then…almost nothing.

There have been projects and show cars and R8 special editions.  There have been more Le Mans wins.  There’s been the R8 V12 TDI concept in Detroit, circa 2008.  There’s been the e-tron concept in Frankfurt, circa 2009.  There’s been the R20 rumor.  There’s been the breathtaking Quattro Concept in Paris, circa 2010.  There was the TDI-availability explosion for model year 2014.  But lately, it’s hard to say that Audi continues to truly embrace the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto that it has always been synonymous with.

Why?  Because in its quest to become the world’s top-selling automaker, the VW Group has the Audi brand reaching downmarket.  Instead of creating the next great thing as with the A7 or R8, Audi’s resources have lately been pouring into the A3 and Q3, targeting a magic dollar amount ($30,000 on the A3) instead of targeting a luxury “feel” with less demanding price controls.  This is necessary, the Group believes, to achieve the 1-million-US-units-sold goal across Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, and the other US brands under its umbrella.  I have to feel this pressure for volume superseding the desire for quality luxury may have had something to do with the sudden departure of Audi USA President Johan de Nysschen (hired to lead Cadillac this past summer) in May 2012.

With this downmarket reach, instead of leading the way with new and inspiring designs and technologies, Audi has been only managing to keep up with other manufacturers on the tech front, and skating by with aging higher-end models on the design front, all while finding it more and more difficult to justify its demanded price premium, in part because the Four Rings badge can be had for less money.  Examples: Audi was the first to offer Wi-Fi in their cars, and for 2015 moved to 4G-powered Wi-Fi – the same as, for example, Chevrolet.  Speaking of which, Audi will bring in a low-priced A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid in early 2015, which sounds like it performs essentially the same as the Volt, which Chevrolet introduced back in 2011 (expect the new Volt, scheduled for unveiling in January 2015 at the NAIAS in Detroit, to smoke the A3 e-tron in every meaningful way).  Audi highlighted its TDI models in late 2013 for the 2014 push, but many Americans who can afford the models on offer still shy away from diesel (most of these buyers remember 70’s-vintage diesels, do so rather unfavorably, and don’t know what the 24 Hours of Le Mans is), so the TDI explosion pretty much fizzled in terms of driving increased sales volume…and by 2014, other manufacturers had begun to offer diesels, too, for the discerning customer.  Audi made use of Google Maps to power its first MMI system, and future Audis will be equipped with Android Auto…again, just like many other manufacturers.

So, has Audi somewhat “lost” itself in the VW Group quest for ever-higher sales figures?  In my enthusiast opinion, all Audis should have full-time mechanical all-wheel-drives with actual mechanical differentials.  There should be at least one five-cylinder model available, tying the brand to its history.  There should be no difference in the “scale” of luxury from Audi to Audi—they should all be impeccably fit and finished, brilliantly painted, and richly appointed.  If the VW Group wants volume, they should turn to the VW brand, instead of cannibalizing VW sales by cheapening Audi.

Still, perhaps the Four Rings are only taking a breath after all, and there’s yet a chance for Audi to turn it around.  Recent news brings us some tantalizing prospects.  The 2016 S6 looks brilliant, essentially doing a contemporary 2003 RS6 impression sans only the “R.”  The RS7 seems pretty much unbeatable as a money-no-object fast four-seat GT car.  The 2016 Q7 looks like a great update as well.  And here’s hoping the 2016 TT can make that particular nameplate resonate again—my wife and I were just remarking on how there used to be TTs seemingly everywhere, and we hardly see them anymore.  The driver-focused cockpit is very nice, and the gauge cluster going full-digital is more like it—more like the “Vorsprung durch Technik” I want from the Four Rings.

So it seems like Audi is hovering at a precipice atop the ski jump.  Do they plunge down into the ghastly storm below, seeking volume over competence?  Or do they do the harder, better thing and add on to the ski jump, stretching it to reach a higher altitude?  It seems 2015 and 2016 will bring us a little of both—here’s hoping the highs for Audi outweigh the lows.  Unless one of the lows is losing to Porsche at Le Mans, of course.

2014 LE Mans Winning R18 e-tron quattro no2

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