Sunday, July 20, 2008

Audi, building their brand

Last week I took part in something called the Audi Driving Experience. This was a totally free event up at Sears Point. Let me say right off that this was a clear attempt to sell some 2009 Audi A4s, but beyond that it was clearly much more, and hints at the very clever approach that Audi have in regards to building their brand.

The day began with complimentary breakfast in the main area of their purpose-built Audi Experience complex at Sears Point. We were split into two groups and each went to a classroom for a briefing on what to expect and a quick overview of the new A4. We were told that we would be "test drivers" of the new A4, a car that many car magazines have yet to drive.

Next up was an autocross. We paired up with another attendee and each of us got one lap of the course in each of four cars: a Mercedes C300, Lexus IS250F, BMW 328xi and the A4 3.2 Quattro. All four cars were four-wheel-drive, with similar engine sizes and spec levels. To be fair, the Audi was the spendiest at an MSRP of $48,000 compared with the $38k Lexus, the cheapest. Chris, my partner for the morning and I chose well by starting with the Merc before progressing to the Lexus, then Beemer then Audi. Funnily enough, that was also the ascending order of perfomance, and Audi clearly did a good job of proving that the A4 is the best. Despite its horsepower advantage over its rivals, I found that the Quattro system was the best of the 4WD drivetrains, with no annoying chatter of the outside rear wheel under hard acceleration out of corners, something that the Merc and Lexus were especially guilty of.

A couple of things to note here. Firstly the two guys running the autocross course were familiar to me: former Mitsubishi USA factory rally driver Lauchlin O'Sullivan, who lives here in San Francisco and who I know pretty well; and Ramana Lagemann, former Subaru USA factory rally driver. Secondly, it was a great reminder of just how much fun an autocross is. Both Chris and I were not afraid to really cane the nuts off the cars. Other participants were a bit more timid. I came away resolute to get my Subaru STi to an autocross soon. It will also be an ideal introduction into performance driving for my fiancee K, who is itching to get the Scoob onto a track day soon.

After the autocross it was over to the pitlane, where we set up in some more A4s. More rally drivers were in attendance here including a former Production-GT class rival, Stephan Verdier. We were led onto the track by an instructor in a TT and each got five or so laps, with the instructor leading us around by means of example and through walkie-talkies installed in each car. It worked very well and I thoroughly enjoyed my laps. The A4 was a decent car to have beneath me too: predictable, with decent grunt and a nicely setup chassis that was soft enough for road conditions but stiff enough for a few harmless laps of Sears.

What became obvious throughout the morning was that Audi are one of the most brand-aware car manufacturers out there. They know that BMW owns the "best German sport-sedan" title in the minds of the public and their inferiority complex has led them to put a lot of dollars into efforts to prove themselves sportier. This is why it's Audi who have the last eight Le Mans wins (yes, 2003 was a Bentley-badged Audi) and why they spend millions of dollars every year on initiatives like the A4 Driving Experience. I think it works. If someone were to ask me what the sportiest German car manufacturer is, ten years ago there's no doubt that BMW would be the answer. These days I'd probably be just as likely to say Audi. If I was offered either a BMW M3 or an Audi RS4, I'd probably take the Audi. It would be a tossup between an RS6 and an M5, but the fact that a car like that can come close to the amazing M5 says loads. It was an S4 that was so very nearly my next car back in March, not an M3. And BMW's reticence to leverage their F1 efforts, still hiding behind the "Sauber" moniker whilst Audi are loud and proud about their dominance at Le Mans, is helping tip the scales Audi's way too.

I've always imagined my next car would be an Audi S-something. Their investment in brand-building through sportscar racing, along with giving me the keys to a new A4 for the morning have done nothing to undermine that prediction, that's for sure.

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