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April 15, 2005

UK: Redesigned Audi should assure Avant ascendency

Audi UK is targeting 5,500 sales for its redesigned A6 Avant (station wagon or, as we Brits say, estate car) in its first full year, 2006. The target for the rest of 2005 is 3,000 units.

Audi UK is targeting 5,500 sales for its redesigned A6 Avant (station wagon or, as we Brits say, estate car) in its first full year, 2006. The target for the rest of 2005 is 3,000 units.

That’s in strong contrast to the United States where, according to WardsAuto.com, the Audi arm there says it expects the new model merely to maintain the modest 2,500-unit US sales pace set by the S6 wagon and the old A6 Avant combined, both derived from the previous-generation A6.

Wards said Audi US doubts consumers there will adopt the new Avant because they still hanker for behemoth SUVs.

“We know there is a difference in acceptance of the Avant between North America and Europe,” Norbert Seitner, head of product planning-Audi of America Inc., told Ward’s during a media test drive in Italy a few weeks ago. “In Europe, the Avant is a very successful concept. It is more like a lifestyle feature.”

He’s not kidding.

Over the past eight years, the Avant ’s share of all A6 sales in Europe has skyrocketed from 25% to 61%, Ward’s said. “In the US, it is about 10% and stable,” Seitner told Wards.

While wagons may, nonetheless, be on the ascendancy again in the US after years of decline at due to the popularity of minivans and SUVs, for Audi UK, the load-lugging versions now account for 61% of sales and around 66,000 have been sold here to date.

World-wide, some 500,000 have been sold since the last redesign in 1997.

Audi itself has been on something of a roll in the UK, trebling sales since 1995. Unit volume rose from 40,615 in 1999 to 77,982 last year and market share went up from 1.8% to 3.0%, reflecting the ever-widening range of models, an amazing assortment of petrol and diesel engines (both types are offered with direct injection), three different types of automatic transmission, a choice of two- or four-wheel drive (quattro) and plenty of body variants.

Now focusing on the A6 Avant , Audi UK has moved the model more upmarket with larger dimensions and higher equipment levels. This wagon version attracts more private buyers and more older buyers. Other key demographic points include 68% aged 35-54, customers that are almost exclusively married males, 74% have children, 23% have university masters degrees or doctorates, 47% have household income over £90,000 and 20% own their company. Sporty leisure pursuits dominate – you get the picture.

In the UK, products from two key German rivals are the main target. Hence the revelation the Avant is 87mm longer and 14mm wider than the BMW 5-series Touring (Munich’s word for wagon) and 80mm longer and 38mm wider than a Mercedes E-class Estate. In load space litres, the Audi tops the BMW by 10-65 litres depending on seat layout – no comparisons were given for the Merc.

The A6 Avant range kicks off in the UK this month with 14 models priced from £26,505 to £46,265 and offers a choice of four V6 engines (2.4 and 3.2 petrol, 2.7 and 3.0 TDI) and a 4.2-litre V8 petrol. Quattro 4WD is optional on all bar the 2.7 diesel and a two-litre, 140PS four-cylinder diesel will be available to order from May for delivery from August.

The 1.05 metre-wide load area offers up to 1,660 litres of capacity. A two-tier load floor with a foldable and multi-position lockable top level can be located in various slots to stop loads from sliding in transit, and a wipe clean plastic tray built into the lower level is ideal for hiding things like muddy boots.

A new cargo securing system uses two rails recessed into the floor combined with four sliding, adjustable and lockable lashing eyes to keep items of all sizes secure. Various bar and belt securing devices that attach to the floor rails are optional and a specially developed rack can carry two bikes.

As is usual with the three German competitors in this class, the Audi comes nicely equipped as standard – in what is billed ‘comfort-oriented’ SE trim or ‘more overtly sporting’ S line trim (for £2,720 extra) – and then buyers can pick from an eye-watering list of options – air suspension, power tailgate, keyless entry/start, two grades of sat-nav, upgraded climate control, active headlights, active cruise control, sunroof, seat heaters and so on.

Without giving a specific figure, Audi UK says most Avants it sells are built to order.

Not that the standard spec. is shabby. The SE and S both include features such as the Multi Media Interface (MMI ) Basic Plus control system (Audi ’s equivalent of BMW ’s i-Drive and Merc’s COMAND; more intuitive to use than the BMW ’s set-up but it does have more buttons to push), cruise control, 10-speaker CD system, full climate control and automatic light and wiper activation. Among other things, the S adds 18-inch 5-arm alloy wheels, part leather-upholstered sports seats, sports suspension and an upgraded braking system on some models.

The full redesign has resulted, natch, in new styling inside and out, a more rigid and more aerodynamically efficient body shell and numerous tweaks to the suspension, steering and brakes. The engines are more powerful and the petrol 3.0 V6 has grown to 3.2 litres while the diesel line has seen the 1.9-litre four grow to two litres with more power and torque and two versions of the 2.5-litre V6 morph into new 2.7- and three-litre units.

All are delightful to drive. Power and torque ranges from ‘adequate’ with judicious use of right foot and a very responsive auto (2.4 V6 petrol) through ‘ohmygawd’ (4.2 V8 quattro) to ‘this is the ideal compromise that most people will buy’ (3.0 V6 diesel).

Audi agrees, saying that 75% of buyers will opt for one of the three oil burners. The three-litre is especially good as there’s not a hint of combustion ‘crackle’ in the cabin, the engine note is a distant hum and it has extraordinary mid-range pulling power when pressed.

Handling and steering feedback is exemplary and we thought, even with Audi UK cheating by using smooth French roads in Provence, that the ride was just that little bit more absorbent, smooth and less jiggly than in the BMW 5-series.

Making those 5,500 sales in a full year shouldn’t be too hard.

Graeme Roberts

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