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AUDI'S A4 SEDAN HELPS PROPEL REVIVAL A DECADE AFTER BAD PR; SALES ARE UP 46% FROM YEAR AGO FOR BEST NUMBERS LOGGED SINCE 1987

By Published on .

It has taken a couple of years for Audi of America's latest comeback strategy to take hold, but the German car marketer posted unit sales of 12,702 in the first six months of 1996, its best half-year tally since 1987 and 46% higher than a year ago.

Audi's entry-level A4 luxury sedan, introduced last fall at a starting price of $26,500, has become its best-seller, accounting for 65% of sales through June. More than that, it has brought the brand younger customers who had owned other German or Asian cars, said Marketing Director Kenneth Moriarty.

"That's a good sign for us," he said.

The recovery from bad publicity has taken a decade. News of unintended acceleration started a sales slide in 1986, but three years later federal officials cleared Audi, blaming the consumer complaints on driver error.

"Everybody says it takes 10 years to forget something like that," said J. Mays, former Audi design director, who left in 1994.

MORE U.S. FOCUS

Executives at Audi's German headquarters decided to remain in the U.S. market and a few years ago started designing products with the U.S. customer in mind, Mr. Moriarty said.

The A4, which replaced the 80 model, has attracted buyers between 30 and 40 years old, and more women than other Audi models, said Rick Myracle, chief operating officer of agency McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C.

Audi's other models continue to attract its traditional buyers between ages 35 and 55.

REVVING UP THE A8

Later this year, Audi will launch the A8-a high-end, all-aluminum sedan-considered a halo car, or flagship model, for the brand, Mr. Moriarty said.

"It's going to showcase what Audi can and does do with the same engineers" who design the A4 and A6 models, he said.

The sticker price on the A8, with an industry-first six air bags, starts at about $57,000.

Of course, the marketer thought it had a halo car in 1990, the Audi 100, said Terry Trickett,chairman of Audi's dealer council. But the styling was stodgy and became dated when Audi brought out a new version just 18 months later.

COMEBACK STRATEGY

Audi began its carefully plotted comeback in 1994. The plan hinged on the brand's patented, all-wheel-drive Quattro system-now in all its vehicles. With lower, more competitive prices, the tactic has worked, Mr. Trickett noted.

"Management changed its mind in panic every other year, but now it has a consistent theme," said Philippe Defechereux, who worked on the Audi account at the start of the decade as head of DDB Needham Worldwide's now-defunct Detroit office.

"Audi with Quattro is a superb German sports sedan," he said. "Product is key, and these guys have done a terrific job."

Audi is expected to spend an estimated $40 million this year in measured media, up an estimated 33% from '95. Although Audi's Mr. Moriarty wouldn't discuss specific ad spending, he indicated it would rise again in 1997.

"Over the past few years, we've been telling our story with increased frequency and we're absolutely going to continue with that," he said.

Audi took a hiatus from TV advertising in the '80s, but returned in 1994 to national network and cable, as well as spot buys.

In print, Audi only advertises in auto enthusiast publications. But the marketer is now studying the use of other magazines for the A8 launch.

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