Number Two daughter scorned the Audi Sportback press launch, a day trip to Le Touquet, as Daddy’s booze cruise. It was nothing of the sort of course despite quite drinkable supermarché Merlot at €3 a bottle. Nice car, nice people, but scarcely the alcoholic adventure press launches once were. They gave you a breath test before driving in the morning. Were they worried somebody was going to sue Audi for plying them with drink? Probably the Milton Keynes risk assessment department told them they had to. Bit of a charade really; nobody seemed to fail, one wonders how veterans like the late Patrick Mennem would have reacted. Taken it in his stride I expect.
It’s odd how car manufacturers with ambitions of grandeur avoid “hatchback”. We’ve had Liftback, Fastback, Notchback, Sportcoupe Sportwagon; now Audi has turned to Sportback with a 5-door coupe look-alike. Hatchbacks were invented 70 years ago, the first predictably a front wheel drive car with a low floor. The Citroën Commerciale 11 Large (or Big 15) of March 1939 was a voiture de tourisme with a third row of seats. Citroën found the spare wheel was so heavy the bottom half of the hatch had to be hinged underneath. The 1939 tourisme season was somewhat attenuated, however, and by 1945 for one reason and another not many Commerciales were left.
Citroën revived it in 1952. The Big 15 returned with an extended boot, but up-market hatchback imitators were on the way. The following year Aston Martin opened the rear window in he sloping rear of the DB2/4 so you could load your monogrammed suitcases on to a shallow platform behind the seats. In 1958 the Farina Austin A40 Countryman was a 2-box saloon, something akin to an estate car, with a horizontally split tailgate. One version had a conventional boot lid just in case the customers were not convinced. The Renault 16 established the adaptable top-hinged hatchback with moveable seats in 1965, and Austin replied with the Maxi in 1969. It was a horrible car, with doors inherited from the unlovely 1800, but its heart was in the right place. Typically for BMC it was a bright idea stricken by ineptitude and woeful quality
Audi’s new saloon desperately wants to look like a coupe, a racy recipe that used to be implausible. There had been oddballs like the Maserati Quattroporte but you could scarcely take that seriously. Designers found it too difficult to get a low roofline and practical rear doors. Moray Callum’s Mazda RX8 was a clever ploy until Mercedes-Benz showed the CLS at Frankfurt in 2003. Nobody noticed at first. Mercedes-Benz was bringing out new shapes every week. The CLS was exquisitely proportioned and set a trend. Now they’re all at it. Jaguar XF, Porsche Panamera and did you see the Peugeot RC Hymotion at Geneva? VW Passat CC, Lexus, Honda FCX, Toyota Avensis the list goes on.
The Audi Sportback is customary Audi quality. The cost of the extras is a bit daunting. I tried a 2.0 TDI SE, list price £26,400 but the extras took the price to £31,970. Sport seats cost £465 presumably the ordinary SE had decent seats too; £145 for what they called aluminium hologram inlays in the doors; £690 for 10-spoke V-design alloy wheels; heated seats £243; Audi media interface £245 and mobile telephone preparation whatever that is, £365. It all adds up. Jon Zammett says that they had to specify the press cars with whatever happened to be first on what he called the extras tree. You could add the best part of 10K with fancy seats, different alloy wheels, MMI navigation with a 10GB hard drive. Luggage capacity with the back seat upright is only 10 litres less than an Avant – about the size of a small suitcase. It’s 6cm longer in the wheelbase than the 2-door A5 and you can ring the changes on engines and transmissions from 2.0 to 3.2 and three diesels, 7-speed S-tronic, multitronic and quattro four wheel drive.
The 2 litre diesel turned out to be about the best compromise. It’s quiet, lively, and with the 6-speed manual SE at £27,140 swift enough for most purposes. What a pity press fleets can’t resist low-profile tyres. They think they make cars look better while all it does is generate disagreeable road noise. It’s not too bad on the 2 litre diesel but quite spoils the 3 litre.
AUDI 100 YEARS
Audi has been celebrating its centenary but its four-ringed symbol only dates from 1932, when Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer in the German state of Saxony joined together following the Depression and threats of state intervention. The badge was based shamelessly on the Olympic emblem, and Auto Union became as potent a symbol of prestige as the three pointed star of Mercedes-Benz, when they competed in grand prix motor racing. Unfortunately in 1945 Auto Union found most of its factories in East Germany. There were fitful attempts at revival by the East German state with smoky Trabants and asthmatic Wartburgs.
Mercedes-Benz meanwhile grew rich in West Germany. Volkswagen revived itself in Wolfsburg within artillery range of the Iron Curtain. BMW abandoned its factories on the wrong side of the border and re-established in its native Munich. Rights to the old Auto Union were claimed by both East and West German contenders, but in 1948 with the arrival of Marshall Aid, currency reform by the federal finance minister Ludwig Erhardt and the introduction of the Deutsche Mark, Germany turned the corner and the Economic Miracle got under way.
Desperate to get back on their wheels, Germans ran their old cars into the ground, looking for spare parts for aged DKWs. Some 60,000 of the quarter-million two-stroke cars made before the war had survived. Former Auto-Union president, Dr Richard Bruhn and salesman Carl Hahn were in the west when the new frontiers were drawn up, and set up a DKW spare parts centre in Ingolstadt. DKW was one of the rings in the 1932 amalgamation so they boldly claimed the old title.
In the 1950s Auto Union still carried overtones of the Third Reich. DKW was associated with motorcycles and down-market two-strokes, Horch had been a favoured parade car of the Nazi hierarchy, Wanderers were recreated in East Germany as Wartburgs. Only Audi had the clean-cut premium-price image to compete with Mercedes-Benz and the emerging BMW.
The new Auto Union GmbH was established in September 1949 with loans from the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, reconstruction credits, and a local authority grant which paid for rebuilding the bomb-damaged Rheinmetall-Borsig plant in Düsseldorf. This began making DKWs on pre-war designs, with a 688cc transverse two-stroke twin-cylinder engine, and a body intended for a 1940 model. In an effort to reduce the heavy fuel consumption it had a smooth aerodynamic body, with flush headlights, full-width bodywork, and a long tail enclosing the luggage boot.
Introduced at the 1950 Frankfurt motor show, the DKW was right for a cash-strapped world where cheap engines mattered more than clever ones. Boldly Auto Union made the DKW dearer than a Volkswagen, and in 1950 the rebuilt factory made 1,380 cars, 6,873 vans and 24,606 motorcycles. By 1954 it was making nearly 60,000, its high price stuck, and it was prospering.
In 1958 Daimler-Benz nearly took it over, acquired the Düsseldorf plant and began to expand Ingolstadt. Two years later Volkswagen bought new share capital, and the cars became Auto Union DKWs, and Daimler-Benz was eased out. In 1965 when a 72bhp four-stroke was developed VW-Auto Union coined the name Audi, signifying the end of the two-stroke and setting the premium-priced brand on the road.
The relentless ascent of Audi continued with galvanised body shells, the aluminium A8, ground-breaking aerodynamics, Q7 its first Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with seven seats, adaptive air suspension, four wheel drive, and enough electrickery to keep a celebrity clientele happy for a lifetime. Q7 is a big car, as much Deutschland Üuber Alles as Vorsprung Durch Technik, and with a choice of 4.2V8 petrol and 3.0V6 diesel, awash with luxury appurtenances.
It has acoustic parking which means beeps and facia display rather than waiting until you hear the bump, and its rear-facing camera has a 130degree field of view showing the rear bumper and tow hitch on the facia TV screen. You can manoeuvre Q7 into position for hooking up to the horsebox, or boat. Perhaps not a caravan. It has Electronic Stabilisation Program (ESP), traction control (ASR), Electronic Differential Lock (EDL), 6-speed tiptronic with Dynamic Shift Program (DSP), Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) and two 24 gigahertz radar sensors in the back bumper that warn the driver when the car behind is too close.
Seven seats? Well maybe 5+2; the rearmost pair are not very big, and might well spend most of their time folded down in the big boot floor. Yet the Q7 confirms Audi’s place in the up-market pecking order alongside Range Rover Sport, BMW X5, Volvo XC90, Lexus RX and the rest of the classy country-style cars parked round the polo field. It manages it subtly, as befits a classic marque, by looking less of a Chelsea tractor and more of a big estate car. You can’t be inconspicuous in a vehicle getting on for 17ft long and 6ft 6in tall, but it doesn’t look so pushy, and from the other end of the village can look quite modest.