By Mike Rutherford
The mighty BMW and Mercedes-Benz empires will soon have a major and deeply uncomfortable problem on their hands. So will the weaker Jaguar, Volvo and Lexus - but with more pain.
In fact, all manufacturers of what can loosely be described as compact premium sedans are about to find themselves with a dilemma they could do without.
Audi is to blame. The firm from Ingolstadt at best torments and at worst traumatises rivals. It's the company's imminent A4 replacement that's inflicting all the damage.
This is bad news for Audi's competitors but don't let that worry you. Much more important is that buyers in the market for a classy, R275 000-plus motor car will be ecstatic with the arrival of the latest Audi. And so they should be.
The all-new A4 will be launched in South Africa in May 2008; expect to see the 1.8-litre TFSI and 3.2-litre V6 quattro petrol models and the two-litre TDI - with possibly a larger diesel option as well. Each will have a six-speed manual transmission.
It doesn't look wildly different from the outgoing A4. It's not different enough to revolutionise the hotly contested "compact executive" market in which it's about to do battle.
And the cold truth is that if you're after a car that stirs emotions, offers exhilarating performance, makes all the right noises and delivers undiluted driving pleasure, the new mid-sized Audi is not the car for you.
But if you take a more clinical, pragmatic approach to the costly process of buying, running and later selling a car, the new Audi A4 presses most of the right buttons.
Put it up against its two strongest competitors - the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class - and the A4 wins, on paper at least, in several important departments.
It's longer, wider and more aerodynamic, has more legroom and a bigger boot. Most versions have more power, yet every new Audi A4 has a lower price than its equivalent Beem or Merc. Astonishing.
And it gets better. The trade-in guides are predicting that after three years/100 000km the new Audi will have the lowest depreciation by far.
The forecasts are that a R275 000km 3 Series will be worth between 37 and 43 percent of its purchase price after 36 months, with the equivalent figures for the C-Class 35 to 43 percent.
The numbers for the new A4 are a healthier 40 to 47 percent. So Audi is now boasting that its latest offering has the best residual values in its class.
The options "list" is more of a heavy-duty catalogue: extras such as B&0 sound system, satellite-navigation, adaptive cruise control and a drive select system can easily add more than R100 000 to the purchase price.
Having briefly driven all the launch A4s, the most appealing version for drivers living in the real world is the 210km/h, two-litre diesel, which officially averages 5.5 litres/100km. That's hugely impressive for a car almost as long as a Bentley Continental.
Despite its grace, agility, sheer effectiveness as a cruise missile and good manners as a town car, it is doubtful whether all the A4 versions could see off equivalent BMWs or Mercs in behind-the-wheel tests.
But I honestly don't believe that comparatively wealthy private buyers and mid- to high-ranking company car users consider the "driving experience" to be a top priority.
Rightly or wrongly, such people often want little more than to be associated with the coolest brand, to be seen in the most stylish car with the most fashionable badge.
And these people will be turning their backs on the existing BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class and opting for the fresher, hotter Audi A4 instead. - The Independent, London