Audi at the 2004 NAIAS

It may be smack dab in the middle of the Mid-West, but make no mistake – the North American International Auto Show is most important to every manufacturer who sells cars in the United States and Audi is no exception.

Though no ground-breaking new concepts or models were shown at Detroit, it is clear that changes are afoot at Audi as it moves more seriously into the sporting premium brand that its directors intend it to be (as well as more independent of Volkswagen and more uniquely its own). Two of these changes include the shared director of PR going to Volkswagen and Audi bringing in Doug Clarke to direct for Audi. Audi’s existing PR team has remained, including Jennifer Cortez who handles PR for the USA.

Audi’s illustrious North American leader, Len Hunt, suggested that 2004 is all about numbers for Audi. While it was the best year on record for Audi in both the USA and Canada, Hunt chose to focus on the specific numbers 8, 10 and 12.

For Len, the number 8 best represents Audi’s motorsport feats for the year. Audi’s R8 and RS6 Competition are major bragging points. While the R8 won its fourth straight American Le Mans series title, it is the bruiser RS6, also fitted with Audi’s potent turbocharged 8-cylinder monster, that won both Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ titles in the SPEED World Challenge GT Series.

Both champion Randy Pobst and Michael Galati will be returning to the series in the RS6, and it was announced that driver JJ Lehto will join them for the new season in a third RS6 Competition.

He also tipped his hat to Champion Racing and, in addition to their RS6 team successes, their their third place finish at Le Mans behind the two factory Bentleys. As Hunt pointed out, this was the first podium finish at Le Mans for an American team in 19 years.

For Hunt, the number 10 also had its own sweet meanings. Most recently, Car and Driver crowned the S4 as one of its 10 Best Cars, while Ward’s rated the car’s 340hp V8 as one of its 10 Best Engines. On hand for the announcement, Audi had the S4 sedan, and its new S4 Cabriolet – the latter debuting at NAIAS.

10 also refers to the number of cylinders in Audi’s Le Mans quattro mid-engine sports car concept, making its own North American debut. Using a turbocharged version of the Lamborghini Gallardo’s V10, Audi has yet to determine whether the car will actually be built.

As Hunt moved on to the number 12, Audi’s new A8 12-cylinder rolled out from behind its curtain with Ralph Weyler, member of the Board of Management of Audi AG, seated inside.

Weyler was on hand to celebrate several key bragging points for Audi. First, Audi broke its global sales record for the 10th year running, with a substantial 70% rate of growth in China.

Weyler also emphasized 2003 as Audi’s “hat trick” year for concepts; introducing three during the year, including the Pikes Peak quattro, Nuvolari Quattro, and Le Mans quattro. 2004, he suggested, will be Audi’s “hat trick” year for production vehicles.

With that, Hunt and Weyler moved their focus to the handsome new A8, showcasing Audi’s new “shield grille” face. For Audi, this car is the brand’s flagship and thus the NAIAS was a great place to launch the new look in a production vehicle.

On the stand, fitted with 20-inch polished RS4-style alloys, this A8 looked much more aggressive than the pre-release press photos might have suggested. With 450-hp and a host of cool new technology, Hunt announced that the car would be available across Europe in spring and early summer, though those of us in the USA will have to wait until the end of 2004 to purchase the vehicle. While that’s a hefty wait for the car, we’re happy to hear that this newest 12-cylinder A8 will make it to the USA at all considering its predecessor, based on the older D2 platform, was never sold Stateside.

Nevertheless, Phaeton customers can have their 12-cylinder now, and at a promotional price. Regarding the VW, the company has just released non-promotional pricing of the W12 at roughly $94,000. Guessing Audi will price their car slightly higher, the new A8 12-cylinder will be the most expensive Audi ever sold in the USA.

Hunt also hinted that there will be more models on the way that have been specifically designed for the US market. We assume this is referring to the upcoming A3 “sportbrake” 5-door and the “A7” road-going SUV based on the Touareg/Cayenne platform and looking much like the Pikes Peak quattro concept.

After the presentation, when the crowds moved on to other company’s stands, one could easily see just how broad the Audi range is becoming in the USA. Aside from the Le Mans quattro, S4 Cabriolet and the new A8 12-cylinder, other new models were also on hand, including the TT 3.2 S-line, A6 2.7T S-line, and A4 3.0 Ultra Sport. Joined by models that have been around for a while, such as a TT 1.8T quattro, allroad 4.2 quattro, A6 3.0, S4 sedan and A8 4.2, Audi’s hope of another record year doesn’t look too far-fetched, considering there wasn’t even room in the stand for cars like the A4 1.8T, A4 Cabriolet, etc. So too was the situation for the dominating R8 that, while regulated to a spot downstairs, still made it into Cobo Hall.

Behind the main floor area, we found a display by Audi AG of Audi-brand swag and an impressive wheel display. Of note amongst the wheels (photos of each in our show gallery), were several wheels being considered for sale in the USA, including 18-inch RS6-style 5-spoke wheels for the A4 and A8 (note, two different offsets), a 20-inch polished RS4-style wheel for the A8 and the BBS CH-style sport wheel first shown in Frankfurt and intended for the A4.

Amongst the Audi Collection of apparel and branded merchandise were the typical line of goods we’ve gotten familiar with on the Audi Collection website, though a new 1:43 scale Horch Roadster looked to be a new item for those vintage Auto Union buffs.

All things considered, playing the numbers seems to be something Len Hunt has gotten quite good at. The state of Audi is stronger than ever in the USA and he and his team deserve some high praise in that regard. With tough competition coming into the market, and the equally competitive multiple race series in which Audi competes, 2004 will not be an easy year to plan another record pace. We have faith, and we have another number in mind – quattro means four in both Italian and Latin, and since there are four rings on the hood of every Audi, we think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bet on the number 4 in ’04.

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For more photos of the car in this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.