VW's luxury arm continues to improve as market softens Audi of America Vice President Len Hunt sums up 2000 in one succinct phrase: "Back to business as usual."

Volkswagen's luxury division continues to fare well in the U.S., despite what many have dubbed a "softening" auto industry. "We've seen a little bit of a slowdown in terms of showroom traffic, but sales are still extremely healthy," says Mr. Hunt. "It's probably a good thing because the market was running at 17 million (last year) and we know that's in excess of where it should be. So, the softer the landing, the better."

Audi's sales are so healthy, in fact, that the automaker appears on target to reach an all-time record of 80,000 units in 2000. That figure surpasses a sales goal of 75,000 units aimed at smashing Audi's previous high water mark of 74,061 vehicles in 1985.

While Audi built its U.S. recovery on the strength of the A4 in the past, 2000's success story has been the A6. The automaker has seen 23% growth for the A6 model line, versus 8% for the A4, Mr. Hunt says.

Even with the increased sales, Audi has no plans to up its current number of dealerships: 265 in the U.S. and 35 in Canada. Instead, Mr. Hunt says Audi will continue to invest in existing "people and facilities." The automaker also is working closely with its dealers to retain customers, those won over from the competition. "Audi's comeback story from a low point of 12,000 to 80,000 (units) is one of conquesting business, which is different from other automakers who have probably relied a lot more on their existing customer base," says Mr. Hunt.

Audi studied other non-automotive businesses, such as Ritz-Carlton and Disney, in order to find out how key business processes could be used at dealerships to improve the overall buying experience. As a result, Audi introduced its PURE (Personal Unique Responsive Experience) program at its dealer meeting in May 2000. The automaker says dealers will begin to see the impact of the initiative in 2001.

While Mr. Hunt is hesitant to talk about sales figures for 2001, he says Audi should see double-digit growth, "near the 10-15% range." Fueling that growth will be the Allroad, S4 Avant, TT Roadster and, at the end of the year, the S8.