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Posted: May 04, 2009

Executive wheels: Poor Audi – it followed BMW too closely

A lower price would help Audi sell its A5

Jeff Rundles

I feel almost bad for Audi. As I write this I am in the middle of my test drive of the 2009 Audi A5, a beautiful coupe that is a pleasure to drive. Recently I did a review of some other Audis – the ’09 A4 3.2, the ’09 A4 2.0T and the ’09 A3 3.2 – and in the pantheon of fine cars in the German line, the A5 is right up there among the very best. I want to say this up front: The A5 is a great automobile, wonderful to drive and all that.

What I feel bad about is that I took possession of the A5 by swapping it for the BMW 335iX, and the week before the 335iX I had the BMW 335d, the diesel model. We can address them all here, but here’s the bad part: Both the 335iX and the Audi A5 had all-wheel-drive and they were very similarly equipped, and amazingly there were priced within a couple of thousand of dollars of each other, right at $52k to $54k (the Audi was higher), which in both cases was way over the base price and included extras. OK, so I was horrified that a BMW 3-Series car could go for more than $50,000, or anywhere near $50,000 for that matter, and I believe that price range is unbelievable for a car like the A5 too, and I will address the price issues on all of these vehicles later. But here’s the thing: Knowing that the 335iX and the A5 are virtually the same price, and driving one and then immediately the other, well, it’s unfair to the A5. Why? Because if you drove these cars back-to-back as I did, and were armed with the same like-price information, I don’t believe there is a person on earth, except for an Audi dealer, who would choose the Audi. The BMW is just a better car. Period.

The BMW feels larger. It feels heavier. It is clearly more powerful. It is faster. It has tighter steering and more driver control/feel.

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Once again, this is not to say that the A5 is a bad car. I might feel differently if the test drives were weeks apart instead of back-to-back. And I would certainly feel differently about my recommendations if the A5 was $10,000 cheaper.

But all things being equal – and the prices were essentially equal – the cars were not equal.

The A5 is an odd vehicle. My test-drive model is the Audi A5 3.2 quattro, meaning that it has the 3.2 liter V6 engine with 265 hp and that it is all-wheel-drive. A few weeks back I drove the Audi A4 3.2 quattro, and as it turns out they are very similar cars – the only difference being that the A5 is a coupe and the A4 is a sedan. For all intents and purposes, these are the same cars. Now, I am not a coupe man – I don’t like the larger doors on the two-door model, and I don’t like having to let people in the back by folding down the front seat, and in the coupe they compromise the legroom in the back. I realize that some people like the coupe, and as I said, the Audi A5 is a nice car. But giving it another name than A4 coupe strikes me as disingenuous.  Also expensive – why have a different badge, and a different marketing campaign for the same car only in a coupe? In the A4 line, Audi has, or rather had, other models –like the Cabriolet, which is, or was, a two-door convertible model (apparently, the rag top has been discontinued in the A4 line). So, anyway, it’s not without precedent that the coupe could be included in the A4 line. (Indeed, in the BMW line they just market the “3” Series as the 3 Sedan, 3 Coupe and 3 Convertible, keeping the whole 3 thing alive).

I am not going to say much about the A5 because in my recent review of the A4 – I did both the A4 3.2 and the A4 2.0T – I said pretty much everything I could about the ride and feel of the cars. The A5 struck me as an A4 coupe, and I liked and disliked the two the same. The difference on the A5 was that my test drive model was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, and it was truly a pleasure vis a vis the automatic. I prefer an automatic, and would buy one if I were to get a model that offered both types, but having said that, the manual in the A5 was very responsive, easy to use yet driver friendly, and the clutch was just the right amount of stiffness and ease.

What really appalled me about the A5 was how they ended up pricing this model. As I said in the A4 review, I thought the A4 2.0t was overpriced, and that the A4 3.2, with more of a natural-sized engine, was the better deal. The A4 3.2 came in right at $42,000, but it didn’t have some of the costly upgrades, like the navigation system.

This A5, however, was another matter. The base price is $40,700, just a tad more than the A4 3.2 ($40.4k), and I can safely say that at that price this would be a very nice vehicle. But they added on almost $3k for Audi drive select, and $2.4k for the navigation, and $2.2k for the Technology package (rear parking system with camera; advanced keyless entry and start; side assist warning), and $1,900 for the Premium package (Homelink garage door openers;  xenon plus headlamps; LED daytime running lights; auto-dimming mirrors; heated front seats; memory seats and mirrors), and $1k for Milano leather seats, $900 for 19-inch alloy wheels, and $850 for a Bang & Olufsen premium sound system. All of that stuff is great, no doubt. But the bottom line here is $54,190 (including destination charges). C’mon. That’s too much. Sure, you could pare it down a bit closer to the base price I suppose, but goodness gracious; this is an A4, which by any other overpriced name would not smell as sweet.

RATING of the A5: 2 WHEELS (OUT OF 4)

On to the BMWs. As I mentioned, I am horrified that a 3 Series BMW now goes for $50k-plus. About a year ago or so BMW brought the new 1 Series to these shores, as in the 128, and I was hoping it would be like some of the smaller BMW models I saw in Europe in late 2007. It’s a nice car and all, but it is so similar to the 3 Series it is astonishing. More precisely, it is like the 3 Series BMW from just a few short years ago, when the 3 Series was a bit smaller. They have made the 3 larger, and in the process the base price went way, way up.

bmw3seriessedan_335xi_2009.jpg_.jpg

So now the 3 Series BMW is what the 5 Series used to be in almost all respects – and especially in price.

I want to impress on readers this price thing because I have been reviewing cars for a long, long time and the recent jacking of prices, particularly among the European models, I believe, is unprecedented.

Just so you know. When it comes to the cars themselves, the 2009 BMW 335iX and the 335d are magnificent machines.

Not long back I drove a regular 335i (a coupe), with no “x” as in all-wheel-drive and no “d” as in diesel, and I found it to be an excellent, if overpriced, car. I don’t care for coupes, and the 3 coupe had all of the coupe problems I mentioned earlier, but other than that I loved the car. Except for the day it snowed like a banshee during the work day and I had a lot of trouble getting home. A BMW – any BMW that is not “x” equipped – is perfectly awful in the snow, especially if it is equipped with the low-profile racing tires that nearly every BMW car model seems to come with as a matter of course. For that reason alone I would never own one.

But the 335ix is another matter. Just to be clear, BMW used to call this car the ix, but they have decided to accentuate the “x” and they now call it the BMWi  xDrive Sedan. I think that was a smart move, in that the simple “x” was subtle, and everyone else – Audi, Mercedes, VW, Volvo – is really making an effort to sell their all-wheel-drive systems. I happened to have the BMW i xDrive when it snowed again, and I can attest from personal experience that it is a giant leap forward on a snowy day than just the “I” model. But it isn’t quite in the Quattro, 4-Motion or 4-Matic territory for one simple reason: BMW likes to put those low-profile, wide racing tires on the cars and while it doesn’t negate the AWD, it doesn’t do it any favors either.

But on the open dry road – look out. The BMW is so solid, so slick, and so powerful. Equipped with a 3.0-liter I6 engine, putting out some 300 hp, the car just hauls. Compare this to the A5 which has a 3.2-liter V6 with just 265 hp – there is no comparison.  

The 335i xDrive is just a great car. I used to say that the 3 was too small, the 7 too large, and the 5 is just right, a la the Three Bears. In that respect, for the last several years, the 5 Series BMW was truly the “Ultimate Driving Machine” of the BMW marketing slogan. I haven’t driven a 5 in a while – and I can’t stand the electronics, the I-drive – in the larger BMW models – but I have to say now that the 3 pretty much qualifies as the new Ultimate Driving Machine. The power, as I said, is stunning, the handling sublime, the road noise nonexistent, and the ride is wonderful.

BMW has seating that is quite different than other car models – the leather is stiff, and the seats very firm, and at first you think they are a little uncomfortable. But then you realize that it all adds to the experience. The seats keep you refreshed and alert for the job at hand – driving – especially if you are in the midst of a longer haul.

I also like the interior of the car very much. My test-drive model had all the stuff – nav, satellite radio, Bluetooth, an impressive radio with CD/MP3 and iPod inputs – and they have employed a sort of modified I-drive system for accessing everything. But here everything works easily, unlike in the 5 Series. Plus it had push-button starting – in fact, you just have to have the key fob in your pocket, and then the doors unlock with a touch and the car starts with a press of the button (I will say, however, that during a snowstorm, I couldn’t get the door to unlock automatically and had to hit the unlock button on the key fob. Hmmm?).

bmw3seriessedan_335xi_2009_dashboard.jpg_.jpg

So, the base price on the 335i xDrive Sedan is $42,000 – and at that price, which includes the AWD, this is as sweet a car as comes around. Then they added on a ton of extras – some of them are: $1,000 for a Cold Weather Package (heated steering wheel and front seats, fold-down rear seats), $2,650 for the Premium Package (garage door opener, digital compass mirror, auto-dimming mirrors, lumbar support, Bluetooth), automatic transmission for $1,325 (very nice system), $700 for park control, $2,100 for the navigation, $595 for satellite radio, etc. The bottom line was an astounding $52,095 – better than the Audi in all respects, but still – that’s pushing the price envelope.

RATING: THREE-AND-THREE-QUARTERS WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).


The 335d, the diesel, is in almost every respect the same car as the one with the normally aspirated engine, so I won’t go into repetitive details. Just the important ones.

Throw out everything you think you know about diesel engines. Smelly? No. Noisy? No. It has a slightly different rumble to it, but you hardly notice that.

What you do notice is the power.  On all of the sheets and literature, the 335d features a 3.0-liter I6 engine that puts out some 265 hp – 35 fewer horses than the 335 ix. But wait. The 335d is a rocket ship – really. I don’t go in much for torque, but this thing must have a ton. Once you’re on the highway and up to speed, the 335d and the 335i feel pretty much the same, with perhaps a slight power lean to the 335i (it really can kick it at speed.) But the 335d from a dead stop, stoplight to stoplight is a beast. Very fast. Very quick. Unbelievable. Plus, you get fuel economy: The 335d is rated at 23 city/36 highway, with a combined 27 mpg rating. The 335ix is 17/25 and combined 20. So the diesel has excellent fuel economy and it’s just flat-out fun to drive.

The only problem I encountered, and I must admit this was true of both BMW models, was that my wife said she’d be happy when they were gone because I drove like a maniac. The truth is she was right: A BMW feels so solid, gives you so much control, that you go for it, and – this is key – a BMW, any of them, just works better the more you push it. So I wasn’t a driving maniac; I was simply doing research.

The base price on the 335d is $43,900 (no x AWD here), and they added pretty much what they added on the 335ix. The bottom line here on the diesel is $55,445 – still pretty aggressive pricing. But man, what a car.

RATING: THREE-AND-THREE-QUARTERS (OUT OF FOUR).

Note: I would have given both BMW models a 4 out of 4 rating with better pricing. I did love the cars as much as anything I have driven. 

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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