My A8's Dashboard Is Cooler Than Yours

Can Audi out-digitize luxury rivals Mercedes and BMW?

Rudiger Blasius is the kind of customer carmakers covet. The 38-year-old German heads his own company, Roder-Zeltsysteme und Service, a $50 million outfit that makes VIP stands for Formula One racetracks. He likes expensive cars and plans to replace his 2001 Mercedes-Benz E-Class in a year or so.

On Nov. 16, the day after Audi's new $66,700 A8 sedan hit German showrooms, Blasius took one out for a spin. His dealer demonstrated some of the gadgetry, including a high-tech system called Multi-Media Interface. MMI allows drivers to select from among 200 functions by sifting through menus on a screen that flips up from a dashboard panel. The driver can rotate a knob and get directions to any European city, check the battery, or choose among suspension settings. Blasius skipped the tutorial and mastered MMI in about 10 minutes. "You can figure it out intuitively," he says.

That's exactly what they want to hear at Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt. To justify the high price tags, makers of luxury cars are under pressure to deliver an ever-increasing assortment of safety, performance, and entertainment functions. "Right now, people have to be motivated to fork over this much money [for a car]. You need to meet their demands, even those that haven't been expressed," says Audi chief Martin Winterkorn. The trick is finding a format that doesn't overwhelm. Otherwise, the "dashboard would look like an airplane cockpit," says Willibert Schleuter, chief electronics engineer at Audi, Volkswagen's premium marque.

That's where newfangled dashboard computers come in. The most advanced of the bunch is BMW's iDrive, featured in its sumptuous, $66,000-plus 7 Series sedan, which appeared last November. The 7 Series has picked up a couple of awards for engineering excellence, but some drivers find iDrive, with more than 700 features, hard to navigate. Selecting a radio station is a five-step process.

Audi hopes to play its digital hand more shrewdly. With less than a third as many functions, MMI is billed as more user-friendly. Audi board members were enlisted to test the system, to ensure that it would not bewilder fiftysomethings, the A8's core market. Motoring magazine Auto Bild's verdict: "MMI is an excellent system."

Audi is betting heavily on MMI to boost sales of the A8 in a tough market. The carmaker has a long tradition of innovation. It was the first to build an all-wheel-drive sedan, the 1980 Urquattro. Unfortunately, Audi's brand image does not match its engineering prowess. In the $65,000 and up segment, it trails BMW and Mercedes-Benz. According to auto researcher JATO Dynamics, sales of the A8 have barely topped 80,000 in the past seven years, while those of Mercedes S-Class have exceeded 360,000.

This time, Audi is determined to do better. It has pumped an estimated $600 million into the second-generation A8, aiming to more than double annual sales, to between 20,000 and 25,000. On exterior styling, Audi's designers played it safe. Too safe, according to Auto Motor und Sport magazine, which says the car looks like its bland predecessor. But inside, the A8 is packed with features. Going a step beyond keys that click to unlock the car, sensors on the door handles of the A8 recognize the key as the owner approaches and unlock automatically.

Audi's engineers have taken pains to avoid some of the glitches that can plague high-tech cars. To ensure that the electronic systems do not drain the battery, they installed a program that switches off nonessential functions if the battery runs low. The company is hosting special training courses so mechanics can quickly iron out any kinks. "Out of 28 technicians in the shop, 5 have been to courses in Ingolstadt to work on the A8," says Frank Hess, an Audi dealer in Büdingen, near Frankfurt.

Not all luxury carmakers are banking on multi-function systems with hand-controlled dials. Mercedes chief Jürgen Hubbert says they distract drivers in a way old-fashioned buttons don't. Come spring, Mercedes will offer a voice-recognition system as an option on its E-Class line. All auto makers are dabbling in this field, but critics say the technology is not yet ideally suited for the noisy environment of a car, with people chatting and the radio playing. But Audi's Winterkorn is betting dashboard computers like the MMI will be the road more traveled.

By Christine Tierney in Ingolstadt, Germany

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