Audi cars are meticulously designed, the sheet metal lovingly sculpted to near perfection – the notes almost perfect. This is at odds in a world where mass produced cars as such are increasingly bland, homogenised products. You could say Audi has taken the functional and turned it into the aesthetic.
Clearly the consumer thinks so. In the midst of the 2009/10 financial crisis, Audi continued to produce new models to replace the outdated, even inventing further market segments. Whilst others saw a noticeable dip in sales, the German marque saw sales rise in the UK and US, and in China reach 228,000 to become one of the most successful export brands in one of the most crucial markets.
There is, however, a small grey cloud hovering amidst this sunny scenario: the cars are beginning to look a little too similar. The strict design guideline that resulted in these handsome siblings, recognisable day and night as a close-knit Audi family, is beginning to restrict individuality, rebellion even. Off course there is the brave and brilliant R8 and the timeless TT but not arguably enough individuality within the mainstream models.
Audi is very much aware of this. Revealing the new A6 saloon last week in Sicily, Audi Group design director Wolfgang Egger told me that having spent many years honing Audi design to have this visual synergy, his job now is to give each and every one of his products their own individual visual identity.
He believes the marque has arrived at a place where it has enough confidence to create unique voices for all future models including the much-anticipated e-tron electric cars.
Egger is visibly excited when he explains his new task. His team showed us the rather evocative Quattro concept not to long ago at the Paris Motor Show that hints at this new, bolder direction in design.
He also talks of creating an even wider model spectrum – maybe even a two-wheeler range for urban mobility – yet stresses that whatever his team designs must stick to the Audi design code. ‘It is essential that we retain focus in our design, that we are strict with ourselves,’ he says.
‘The needs of our customers and the usage profiles of our cars are becoming increasingly varied,’ explains the designer acknowledging the challenges his firm face in the increasingly competitive car buying market.
‘This will make our model spectrum even wider, through to e-tron vehicles with electric drive. We want to hone the brand profile even more. The legacy of Audi is its emotionality and we will retain this and make it even stronger.’
The current range
Car designers are typically working a minimum of five years ahead of anything we’re likely to see, let alone drive on our roads.
Audi produced the small and stylish A1 city car and the all-new A7 Sportback at the end of last year. The A1 was a much-needed entry-level car that hopes to attract younger customers into the brand. The A7 is Audi’s answer to a niche market segment that requires a bigger four-door saloon/sedan car, but one that retains a youthful appearance – hence the coupé styling.
The latest addition to join and complete the family is the A6 saloon replacement, and like the others it is a showcase for highly skilled vehicle design and advanced engineering.
Like the A7 and the A5 and A8 before that, the A6 is extremely well tailored. By shortening the length and height by a fraction, but slightly broadening the width and raising the beltline, plus shedding 80kg in weight, the car immediately appears more compact and sportier.
The face carries the trademark singleframe Audi grille – tweaked on the A8 to appear more sculptural – and showcases the light design that is at the forefront of the current visual identity ensuring the cars are distinguished day and night. The all LED headlamps are also at the forefront of lighting technology, communicating with satellite navigation systems to adjust their operations according to driving conditions.
Inside the wraparound dashboard and lighter treatment of material point to the new interior design direction first seen on the A8. ‘The use of organic materials is certainly a trend of our time,’ explains Stefan Sielaff, head of Audi design. ‘Take for instance the naturally tanned leather that we offer in the Audi A8. For us it encapsulates luxury; it helps us to reach our premium customers. Simply touching the leather is a vividly tactile experience.
‘The theme of sensuality is a common thread running through every aspect of the car. It is also conspicuous in the open-pore laminated wood,’ he notes referring to the veneer of layered oak introduced to the marque on the A7 Sportback. It is cut from a single block in which extremely thin layers alternate between untreated and dark-stained wood.
Sielaff explains: ‘The wafer-thin oak veneers are elaborately bonded and worked. The complex manufacturing process also speaks volumes about attention to detail. When you touch the wood, you feel only its natural structure, not a varnished surface.’
There is something admittedly quite un-Germanic – perhaps even Scandinavian about this application but nevertheless it helps achieve the organic, homely feel anticipated for the cabin. Wolfgang Egger says its part of their scheme ‘towards hand finishing’. This mixed with the extremely high-tech display area points to where the marque is heading in interior design with the next generation of cars.
The 2010 Quattro concept takes this vision further. Inside is made of lightweight carbon and the treatment of the centre display points to future Audi design. ‘We have taken away the centre display so instead of a rigid driver oriented area, it is now very free indicated by the concentration of technology,’ says Egger. ‘Its more reduced, relaxed and driver oriented without being too obvious.’
He explains that with this concept a great deal of time was spent on simplifying the user interface, so that the driver can concentrate on driving. ‘The driver is not confronted with a multitude of switches, but a clearly organized workspace,’ he says. ‘The slender centre console contains only one control dial for the MMI (Multi Media Interface) system with the main menu switches being located at fingertip length, on the edges of the instrument binnacle.
‘The wrap-round architecture of the cockpit is typically Audi and is concentrated on the driver, the customisable instrument graphics are presented on a clear digital display and contain all the information required by the driver, including the navigation, entertainment and communication systems,’ says Egger, adding: ‘Everything has been reduced to the max.’
He says that most aspects shown in the Quattro concept are technically feasible and could find their way into Audi production cars over the next few years. ‘From integrated MMI systems through to carbonfibre,’ he concludes.
Nargess Shahmanesh Banks
Read her review of the latest Audi A6 in Wallpaper* .
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