THE VINE DECEMBER 14, 2009
Pity Audi: These days, the feds seem to be lavishing most of their attention (and money) on near-bankrupt Detroit automakers, foreign car companies benefitting from cash for clunkers, or upstarts promising newfangled batteries. And that's left Audi straining to attract Washington's attention. So, last year, the 100-year-old German company moved its U.S. corporate headquarters from Detroit to Northern Virginia, started hosting swank policy soirees, and sponsored Obama’s inauguration, the Symphony, the Washington Ideas Festival, and the Redskins.
Why so little notice? For one thing, Audi's trademark plush vehicles—which typically cost somewhere between a year's college education and a small house—aren't exactly everyman vehicles that do well in a recession. But Audi is also lagging way behind on the recent craze over electric and hybrid vehicles. So far, all the company has is a space-age concept car, which hasn't attracted anywhere near the buzz of the Prius or Chevy Volt.
That fact seems to rankle; a few months ago, Audi's American president, Johan de Nysschen, called the Volt a "car for idiots." And, today, at an event at the National Press Club, de Nysschen went further, tearing into the hype over electric vehicles, explaining that the grid wasn't nearly ready to handle an influx of plug-in vehicles, and that all the money the government was spending trying to reduce tailpipe emissions—especially subsidies for the Volt—would be better spent trying to clean up power plants.
As an alternative, Audi's betting on "clean diesel," a lower-carbon fuel that’s much improved over older, soot-spewing diesel fuels. Green Car Journal even named Audi's diesel-powered A3 TDI its "Green Car of the Year"—a car that, unlike the always-around-the-corner plug-ins, can actually be bought today (a new National Research Council report says plug-ins won’t be available in significant numbers for decades). Audi has been selling diesel vehicles for decades in Europe, where gasoline is more expensive and drivers have been historically been more willing to accept more smog in exchange for lower carbon emissions. But in the United States, diesel hasn't yet shed its dirty image.
The odd thing about de Nysschen's speech was his attempt to redefine the word "luxury," which is part and parcel of the Audi brand. Consumers, he said, are never willing to compromise on quality, so the key is giving them the same lavish vehicles they've only bought, only cleaner—which is what diesel fuel can provide. The Q7 TDI SUV, he boasted, gets 33 miles per gallon, compared to the Cadillac Escalade hybrid’s 22 (note, though, the EPA puts the Q7’s mileage at only 25 mpg).
But here's the question: Should the benchmark for a clean-diesel luxury SUV really be another luxury SUV? Or should we be looking at the lowest-carbon means of getting around, period? For instance, the A3, Audi’s clean-diesel luxury hatchback, gets 42 mpg, which is only impressive until you notice that Honda's new diesel Accord gets 62.8 mpg. Luxury still has a cost—so why should it be non-negotiable? Audi might get more love if it used its considerable resources and vaunted engineers to work on a super-light, reasonably-priced, clean-diesel people carrier—even if it doesn't qualify as "luxury."