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Autobahn Crashes Hurt Audi Make

February 8, 2000

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) _ The sleek, ground-hugging Audi TT won acclaim for its futurist design and responsive handling when the German roadster came to market in 1998 _ selling nearly 55,000 worldwide and 6,000 in the United States since.

But what was once a driver’s dream machine has been tarnished by a series of deadly crashes in which speed-loving Germans pushed the high performance car to the limit, lost control and rocketed off the autobahn.

Panic over the car’s safety piqued when the former East German road rally champion Peter Hommel totaled his TT and died last month.

Now Audi is responding to a wave of consumer concern with a voluntary recall to retrofit the cars with the latest braking technology called ESP, or Electronic Stability Program. It’s the second stage in a recall program that earlier upgraded the car’s suspensions and installed a rear spoiler.

Restoring the luster to the premium brand sports compact and regaining the trust of leery car fanatics will set the company back an estimated $75 million, Audi said Friday, as company chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen tried to soothe drivers’ shattered nerves.

``I wish to apologize formally to our TT customers for the uncertainty which has emerged in the last few months,″ Paefgen said. ``Our initiative is intended to put an end to the uncertainty.″

Audi is still haunted by memories of the sudden acceleration allegations that extinguished the brand in American markets during the 1980s. Investigators eventually cleared the carmaker of wrongdoing, but Audi is moving quickly this time to refit the $31,000 car despite its claim there are no design or manufacturing flaws. The first fatal crash happened late last summer. And after several more nonfatal crashes, Audi announced in October an offer to replace the suspension and install a rear spoiler at no charge to all TT customers worldwide.

But with three more deadly crashes reported in January, Audi stepped up the pace. All told, Audi says it is investigating roughly 55 crashes _ all of which, including the five fatal ones, occurred only in Germany. All five fatalities apparently occurred after the drivers pushed their cars past 110 miles an hour.

Beginning next month, customers can have the ESP system _ which comes standard on all new Audi TT’s _ installed in their older models for about $325. The new technology brakes each wheel independently to prevent the tail end of the speedy compact from swinging out around curves and pulling the car off the road.

The hitch is that it’s only available to customers who can bring their car to Audi’s production plant outside Munich, Germany.

Company spokesman Axel Engel was adamant that the series of crashes was symptomatic of German driving culture and shouldn’t spark alarm elsewhere.

``This is completely a German issue. We don’t have any complaints from anywhere else in the world,″ Engel said. ``How people drive their car is something we can’t control.″

On Germany’s autobahn, the elaborate network of expressways that often has no posted speed, cars zip along at 100 miles an hour or more. With a top speed of 140 miles an hour, the TT is too much temptation for some drivers.

The company wasn’t planning to introduce the ESP retrofitting offer in the United States unless there was major demand, Engel said, citing the modest U.S. speed limits.

``The problem with the TT is that we have a lot of people who are first-time sports car drivers″ attracted by the relatively low price, said Christian Breitsprecher, an auto analyst with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt.

``So now people who used to drive compacts have a real sports machine in their hands, and maybe they just can’t handle it.″

Audi says it’s unfair to stigmatize the TT because there are no comparisons to show that it is any more crash-prone than its competitors, especially Porsche’s high speed Boxster which doesn’t offer ESP technology. Of the 55,000 TT’s sold worldwide, 25,000 are on the road in Germany. Since October, 18,000 cars have been retrofitted for better safety, Engel said.

Only a handful of lawsuits have been brought against the company _ mostly focusing on the cost of refitting, not damages from the crashes.

But this is not the first problem with the TT. Last August, the company recalled 46 cars from its year 2000 line in the United States because of a problem that could cause gasoline leaks.

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