An invitation to drive the new Audi A3 around Silicon Valley, celebrated epicenter of America’s tech boom, hit my in-box the other week, promising “the unique opportunity to dive deeper into its development with our innovation partner representatives from AT&T, Bang & Olufsen, e.solutions, Google, MyScript, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and our own Electronics Research Laboratory.”
The A3 is an important launch in its own right, but check this. Once there was a brand. Then there was the cross-branding exercise. And before long came the multiple-branding exercise. Like the inscrutable Chevrolet Monte Carlo campaign of 1998, which teamed the car—General Motors’ geriatric expression of personal muscle—with (then) over-the-hill NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and the Tasmanian Devil, a Warner Bros. cartoon character. It was a marketing crash-and-burn that was tragic to behold.
So simple, so stupid, so yesterday. Who needs cartoon characters now that there are so many “innovation partners” to help prop up interest in one’s new offerings? Now we have the new Audi A3, and the particulars of its launch take cross-branding to a level that would make Iron Man blush while confirming that connectivity is the new automotive battleground. Along with the invite from the Vorsprung Durch Technik people (in which the entry-level A3 is claimed to offer “the most sophisticated array of technology” of any car Audi makes) came a cascade of breathless statements from more than half a dozen nonautomotive firms. Then came the most cross-branded introductory event these old eyes have ever seen.
Crucially, the A3 is number one in a long line of cars that will come to the U.S. sporting Volkswagen’s new MQB platform, the first fruit of the company’s common-architecture master plan. At its Silicon Valley event, however, rather than talk about the platform, which will see dozens of disparate models made out of more or less identical pieces, Audi chose to highlight the A3’s status as a connectivity overachiever. How it is its own mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, with the first-ever 4G LTE data connection. How seamlessly it syncs with Google Earth. How superior its graphics processing is, thanks to input from gaming experts. How killer its sound system is. How dope its slender pop-up info screen looks. How there’s a program with AT&T to provide your Wi-Fi service. And we haven’t even gone anywhere yet.
Audi says it is going after a younger customer. Paradoxical it was, then, that several attendees at the A3 launch were Vietnam vets. Like many not in the intended demographic, they were baffled by the presentation, trying to figure out whom the cobranding benefits and how and in which direction the money flows. There’s no doubt that carmakers have turned over a lot of design and engineering responsibility to outsiders, and this event reflected it. But I’d wager that the benefits flow both ways.
Rooted in the twentieth century, carmakers are fascinated by twenty-first-century technology and information companies, not least by the huge fortunes and high rates of return they rake in for their owners. Sometimes, it must make auto execs wonder what they’re doing in the car industry. So, lately, many have begun fancying themselves players in the tech and information businesses, too. And they are and can be, depending on how ready they are to insert their products into the techno mix, as the A3 launch proved.
A lingering problem is the driving part. The A3 is a perfectly pleasant entrant into the low-end campaign of the luxury brand wars, where it will tough it out, successfully we predict, against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLA and the BMW 2-series. But my test drive suggested that, in the effort to meet its $30,795 price point, the new A3 had lost some things that made the last one special. Hard, shiny plastics stood out, and the A3’s handling and its transmission also lacked that last degree of crisp response, as if they’d been softened for American tastes. What if all the energy that went into making this car a first-class web-surfer instead went into making it a better thing to drive? Chances are, we’ll never know.