Chatting with Audi of Americas Product Planner, Filip Brabec

A supercharged V-6 for the new S4 will also find a home in the Audi A6 sedan.

Valencia, Spain – 2007 was Audi of America’s best year, with 93,506 sales from a comprehensive lineup of desirable luxury cars. But even as Audi continues to strengthen its position in the ultracompetitive U.S. luxury-car market, it is keenly aware that it is a small player here against the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus. That makes the job of Filip Brabec, Audi of America’s 32-year-old head of product planning, all the more important: When you’re fighting for every incremental sale against the big guys, your product mix has to be just right. And native Czech Brabec has a lot of models to juggle and to spread among a sales volume that’s roughly equal to the number of RX crossovers that Lexus sold last year. Think about it: Audi of America offers the A3, the A4, the A5, the A6, the A8, the TT, the R8, the Q7, and, soon, the Q5. Several of those models are offered in more than one body style, with more than one engine and transmission combination. And, of course, there are also the S4, S6, S8, and RS4 models to consider. That’s a lot of models to spread over fewer than 100,000 annual sales. “We have fifty-some model and powertrain combinations,” says Brabec. “How many will you have in two years?” I asked. “If I do my job right, we’ll still have fifty-odd combinations,” offers Brabec, “but spread over more models.”

What this means is that Audi of America will, going forward, take a good, long, hard look at ultra-niche models like the S4 Avant. “Wagon, S4, manual transmission-just think about it,” says Brabec. “Niche, niche, niche.” Sales volumes for such cars simply don’t merit their existence, is what he’s saying, especially given the euro-dollar relationship. Therefore, there will not be a next-generation S4 Avant for America. “And those are our twenty loudest customers” says Brabec, laughing. “We’ll hear from them.” As it is, Brabec says that he works “very carefully and closely” with his colleagues at Audi AG to maximize equipment levels for American customers even in light of the weak dollar. But, clearly, it will be harder and harder for Audi of America to include models in its product mix that have minuscule annual sales.

That said, there’s plenty of hot metal coming from Audi in the near future, and at the top of that list is the new S4, which is debuting at the Paris Motor Show in October and going on sale in America next spring. The big news here is that, rather than a V-8, the S4 will be powered by an all-new, supercharged, 3.0-liter V-6. “We chose it for performance, CO2 emissions, and packaging reasons,” says Brabec. “I first drove a car with a prototype of this engine back in 2005, and it blew me away.” Why a supercharger rather than a turbocharger? “We wanted a multiapplication engine,” explains Brabec. “A turbo wouldn’t work for all the cars we wanted to put this engine in.”

Cars such as the A6 sedan, which for 2009 gets the same, supercharged V-6 as the S4 as part of a major midlife face-lift. The A6 will not get a dual-clutch transmission, though. One assumes that will have to wait until the next-generation car.

As for other powertrains for the new Audi Q5 small crossover that goes on sale in February or March of 2009, Brabec demurs. “We have no immediate plans for a diesel,” he says. “It’s an expensive technology. Really expensive. But diesel is a huge topic for us at Audi of America. The Q7 TDI is the best-driving Q7 you’re gonna get. It’s the most comfortable, the most fuel efficient.” [Audi has already confirmed that a 3.0-liter TDI V-6 will be offered in the Q7 in the first quarter of 2009.] Brabec admits, “the price point of the Q7 TDI is a big point of debate. Mercedes-Benz is charging only a $1000 premium for the new diesel in the ML. This must be at a loss for them. They must want to retain diesel leadership in the United States, knowing that we are coming and BMW is coming into the same segment.”

In speaking with Brabec, though, it’s clear that Audi of America would very much like a diesel engine not just for the Q7 but also for the Q5; it’s just trying to figure out how to bring it here affordably. And one also perceives that, if Brabec could wave a magic wand, he would have Audi’s superb new 2.0 TSFI turbo four-cylinder gasoline engine for the Q5 at launch, too. If we had to guess, we’d say that the TSFI is more likely to arrive here for the Q5 than a TDI is. After all, the TSFI is already being offered here starting this fall in the new A4 sedan and Avant, and the Q5 is built on the same longitudinal-engine platform as the A4. And Audi AG is keenly aware that diesel fuel costs more than premium unleaded here in America.

In the meantime, the price of fuel is affecting Audi of America in some interesting ways. Four-cylinder models of the outgoing A4, rather than languishing on dealer lots waiting for fire sale, make-room-for-the-2009-models pricing, are sold out. “The market is crazy for A4 four-cylinders,” marvels Brabec. “The other guys [Mercedes, BMW] don’t have fours. Even as the A4 runs out [its model life], they’re gone. We don’t have any [in stock].”

“We’re also sold out of the A5 coupe,” says Brabec. “Which is too bad, because that means I can’t get one as a company car!”