DAVID FURLONGER: Lap of luxury? Not for me, thanks
Audi hopes a new-car blitz will give it a market advantage in SA
Maybe it’s because I’m a peasant but I was relieved to move out of Audi’s luxury Q7 sports utility vehicle recently and into the rather less luxurious Q3. There’s nothing wrong with the Q7. It’s a big, brash, bold vehicle with ridiculous acceleration, more safety and driving features than this article has room for, and bucketloads of space for passengers and luggage.
Easy to drive, it’s ideal for those with families, particularly on long journeys. However, for the five days I drove it, mainly around Johannesburg but also out to Magaliesburg, I couldn’t get excited. It’s an excellent piece of machinery and design and I can understand why some people (those with R1.4m-R1.7m to spare) are fans but it’s not for me.
The Q3 is a different beast. Usually when you move down within a vehicle range, you miss what you had before. Instead, I found the Q3’s compactness much more to my taste. Ditto the price bracket of R651,000-R729,000.
The Q3 boasts plenty of style, performance and roominess of its own – just not on the scale of its big brother. Both enjoy the benefits of Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system but one is the equivalent of a luxury yacht and the other a family speedboat. I know which I prefer.
Audi SA, on the other hand, is betting that demand for its cars will hold up better at the top end. SA’s premium-vehicle market, dominated by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, has shrunk in recent years as worsening economic conditions have pushed car-buyers into cheaper alternatives. Last year’s Covid crisis accelerated the trend.
Analysts say many former customers may never return and that premium brands must get used to operating in a smaller sector. Audi SA head Sascha Sauer begs to differ. He says Audi sales in the first four months of this year rose 28% from a year earlier, compared with 20.3% for the SA car market as a whole. For the full year, he wants to increase sales from 5,800 to at least 7,000.
Globally, Audi sales hit near-record levels in the first quarter of 2021. From 353,000 in 2020, they rose to 463,000 – just shy of the 464,000 record set in 2018.
In SA, sales of cars costing R1.5m and above have proved particularly resilient. “People in that category buy anyway, irrespective of what’s going on economically around them,” says Sauer. “Overall, I’m quite bullish about our prospects for this year.”
Retail, planning and supply chain head Asif Hoosen says that, but for stock shortages, Audi sales this year would be even better. That’s true for all companies. A global shortage of semiconductor chips and other materials has played havoc with vehicle production around the world.
In SA, Audi’s situation is worsened by a major product overhaul. The latest Q7 and Q3 both arrived recently. They will be followed soon by new versions of, among others, the Q2, Q5 and A3. Stock of some outgoing models has already run out.
“By the end of this year, the Audi brand will have the youngest and freshest car range in SA,” says Sauer, himself a German newcomer, having taken charge at Audi SA late last year. “In an environment still not ideal for selling cars, having the youngest range gives us an advantage.”
He hopes it will become even younger next year, with the likely introduction of Audi’s electric battery-powered e-Tron. No firm date has been set and Audi SA’s website is inviting potential customers to express interest in purchasing.
Sauer says the SA government must stop dragging its feet on electric cars and incentivise motorists to buy them and motor companies to build them. Electric cars sell by the million each year around the world and are predicted to account for half of all car sales in the next few years. Sauer says: “If we don’t prepare ourselves for the future in SA, we will be left behind.”
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