Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

Audi has a supercar conundrum

The Sport Quattro Concept: Reasserting the "technik" in Audi's motto -- Vorsprung durch Technik
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Audi intends to wow the Frankfurt crowds with the latest concept car bearing the revered Quattro name -- this time, a plug-in hybrid with 700 hp and hot-hatch lines so infernal that Satan might strike a deal to drive it.

But for Audi, the Sport Quattro Concept is a whole lot more than that.

It's a reassertion of the "technik" in Audi's motto, Vorsprung durch Technik -- "advancement through technology."

Audi built its brand upon technological prowess, pioneering all-wheel drive in 1980 with the Quattro rally car lovingly known to fans as the ur-Quattro. The badge used on that car still adorns all of the brand's awd cars.

Nowadays, Audi is smoking-hot, with enviable brand equity in China and surging U.S. sales. But much of its success stems from a hip image and trend-setting styling inside and out. As popular as its cars have become, Audi is aching for an iconic engineering feat like the original Quattro.

Having axed plans for an electric version of its R8 supercar, Audi has nothing as radical as the BMW i3 electric hatchback and i8 plug-in hybrid sports coupe, which will bask under the lights in Frankfurt before going on sale. Many people think that is a major reason Audi saw fit to show r&d chief Wolfgang Duerheimer the door and replace him with VW product development chief Ulrich Hackenberg.

Audi's traditional breadwinners, its sedans, face stiff competition, too.

The freshened A8 flagship sedan will be on display in Frankfurt, but it has already been shown up by Mercedes-Benz's redesigned and technology-engorged S class. To give just one example, that car boasts LEDs for all lighting -- inside and out -- something that for all its innovation with LEDs, Audi has yet to do.

With a straight face, the executives from Stuttgart describe the 2014 S class as the "best car in the world." Would the Audi brass say that about the A8? Probably not.

The first line of an August press release announcing the A8's specifications put it merely "among the innovation leaders in the luxury segment."

That's not a bad place to be, but Audi wants more.

There are many ways the brand could repeat its awd triumph. A big push into autonomous driving, to name just one. But reviving the iconic Quattro as a technology showcase would quickly show customers and competitors that Audi is way more than just a pretty face.

The question for Audi CEO Rupert Stadler is how much a true halo car is worth.

Audi is hardly hurting; it pumped out about $7 billion in earnings last year, delivering 46 percent of Volkswagen Group's total profits even though Audi sells 14 percent of all vehicles groupwide. The formula is clearly working -- halo car or not.

But as any executive who has ever green-lighted such a car knows, some things cannot be quantified in dollars and cents.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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