Audi is looking to two new models to halt sales slide

With its sleek, wind-swept look, the Audi 5000 re-defined the word ``aerodynamic.'' The car, introduced for the 1985 model year, sold well and helped set a styling trend for other automakers around the world. But the 5000's success was short-lived, for it quickly became embroiled in one of the hottest safety debates in years, with hundreds of reports of ``sudden unintended acceleration,'' where, at times, 5000s with automatic transmission reportedly raced out of control when put into drive or reverse.

Quickly, the 5000 became an albatross on Audi's back, turning the carmaker from one of the fastest-growing European auto exporters into one whose long-term prospects for survival were questionable at best.

This week, Audi took what may be its most crucial step if the company hopes to achieve a comeback. The 5000 series is gone. In its stead: two new models, the 100 and 200, which could determine Audi's long-term prospects.

When Audi literally pulled the covers off the two new midsize sedans during a press preview last week at the Salishan Lodge, along the central coast of Oregon, it generated a fair share of confusion. On the surface, it was hard to tell the new from the old. Besides the new badges and slightly different tires and wheel covers, the 100 and 200 looked essentially identical to the old 5000.

``We've avoided making changes for the sake of change,'' declared Rob Blum, Audi's product design manager. Despite the problems that have beset the carmaker, consumer clinics showed that the basic shape of the 5000 is still widely admired.

That is not to say the new models are simply more of the same. In fact, Audi claims to have made more than 1,400 design and mechanical changes, some quite visible, such as an all-new interior, which more closely reflects the influences of the aerodynamic exterior.

There are some significant gestures to safety, ranging from the bumpers that can withstand a five-mile-an-hour impact to the driver's-side air bag, which comes as a standard feature on the higher-priced 200 models, and which will be offered as options on the 100s.

Audi officials insist they have made no specific changes directly related to the question of sudden unintended acceleration. This is the issue that has hurt Audi so badly. For several years, federal regulators have been investigating complaints linking hundreds of accidents, scores of injuries, and several deaths to the problem.

Although Audi officials continue to insist that sudden acceleration is caused by driver error - when drivers accidentally step on the gas instead of the brake pedal - the company has added an important engineering change to help prevent such occurrences on the 100 and 200 models. A ``shift interlock'' requires a driver to firmly depress the brake before shifting out of park or neutral.

Prices for the series range from just $24,980, for the base model 100E, to $37,885 for the 200 Quattro Wagon.

The new Audis' most notable change will be found in the glove box of both models: a small, credit-card-size warranty form called the ``Audi Advantage,'' which Audi vice-president Bert Triller boasts is ``the most comprehensive in the industry.''

The most significant feature of the Audi Advantage is that it covers all normal maintenance and repair charges - anything from broken water pumps to routine oil changes - with no deductibles for the first three years or 50,000 miles. Mr. Triller claims consumers in company focus groups estimated the program to be worth from $750 to $2,000.

The program, Audi officials add, is designed to counteract the negative publicity stemming from the sudden-acceleration fracas, and the fact that Audi trade-in values have sharply declined since debate over the safety of the vehicles began. (To counter that problem, the company has also linked trade-in values of its products to those of its competitors, including Mercedes, Saab, and Cadillac.)

The new 100- and 200-series vehicles will be ``very critical'' to Audi's long-term prospects,'' concedes Richard Mugg, the company's chief American executive. Indeed, recent months have brought a major slide in sales and market share. During the first half of this year, the West German-based automaker sold just 11,733 cars in the United States, down from 24,887 during the same period in 1987.

That decline came despite the introduction of two other new models, the Audi 80 and 90 compacts, which replaced the old 4000 series. Those vehicles have so far failed to win a strong response from hesitant buyers.

Still, Mr. Mugg confidently predicts that the new models will help Audi boost its sales to about 50,000 annually by the 1992 model year.

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