New Audi A3 Cabriolet

There is nothing quite like driving a convertible car – rays of sunshine warming the spirit, a touch of breeze in your hair… the sheer sense of freedom is unbeatable. Cloth roofs, rather than folding metal hardtops, though less practical in an urban garage-less setting, lend an even more carefree spirit to the convertible, and Audi has maintained this with its latest A3 Cabriolet.

This is the new open-top version of the A3. It has a longer, more elegant body than its predecessor that, due to the hybrid steel and aluminium construction, manages to be around 50kg lighter. It is handsome on the road, practical in its small size yet with the spirit of a grown-up car, as we discovered driving through the New Forest and the surrounding countryside.

The weather being typical UK springtime – a mix of sunshine and outbursts of pouring rain – the snug-fit cloth roof was put to the test on more than one occasion, opening and closing in a little under 18 seconds and at speeds of up to 31mph. Convertibles often suffer from boot space, but here the roof folds neatly in a compact tray, leaving the luggage space at a reasonable 287 litres.

The cabin is considerably more spacious than the previous Cabriolet. It is also all Audi, so it is thoughtfully designed using good quality material often sacrificed in smaller cars. Expect a pretty high-tech car too, equipped with the latest version of Audi’s MMI infotainment system. Using a central control dial or shortcut raised switches, the system allows you to instinctively manage navigation, entertainment, interior settings, as well as ride dynamics on sportier models with drive select.

In recent years Audi has managed to create a family of cars that are at once recognised as Audis no matter what size or shape. The marque is now on a mission to add elements of differentiation to each model – and the outcome will be intriguing to see.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read more on Audi here.

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Gorden Wagener on Mercedes design

Gorden Wagener would like to introduce a more focused design philosophy to Mercedes-Benz cars. He wants the cars to have more sculpture, more personality and ultimately resonate aesthetically with a more contemporary customer. Since becoming vice president of design 2009, Wagener has worked hard to introduce a stronger brand identity through a Mercedes aesthetic rooted in heritage but with the contemporary twist.

The process is well underway. ‘We want to have one single overall design language that takes from tradition but also introduces new values,’ he told me at the September Paris Motor Show. ‘This way we can transform this brand into the future as an innovative one.’

We’ve been in a small dark room, tucked away in a corner of the buzzing exhibition stand, watching the latest Mercedes sculptures come alive. Aesthetic S is a projection display whereby the observer sees the car come alive in three acts.

Internally what this and the three sculptures before have done is to simply inspire the team. For us bystanders they hint at the marque’s design direction for upcoming cars, in the case of Aesthetic S evoking the spirit of the upcoming executive S-Class.

Wagener says: ‘The sculpture is a more artistic approach that embodies our design philosophy rather than showing the new S-Class.’ Visibly elevated by the experience he explains that had he asked his team to sketch a new S-Class, they would refer too much to the outgoing model. Here they have complete freedom. ‘You see inspiration comes when you ask someone to do you some artwork.’

The sculpture series were his idea. In fact Wagener has had quite a weighty task of evolving the company’s design department. Here we have a marque that is steeped in history, one that has been at the forefront of innovation and at times creative thinking, yet a victim of its own success. Years of stable, but more conservative customer base have resulted in some, arguably, staid products.

The pavilion here gives a good insight into the emerging product portfolio. The new CLS Shooting Brake with its sleek lines and handsome proportions sits alongside the heavily sculpted SLS AMG, here shown for the first time as an electric. Bathed in ‘electric blue’ it is certainly attention grabbing.

Wagener explains that Mercedes-Benz Design is the term used to describe the philosophy for the cars. He notes that Mercedes-Benz Aesthetic defines the more art-based projects like the sculpture we’ve just seen, and Mercedes-Benz Style focuses on the product design sub-brand.

Launched two years ago, it delivers all sorts of premium products from helicopter interiors, to sofas and most recently a luxury yacht that was unveiled a few weeks ago in Monaco. Naturally, they impact on one another. In the cargo area of the CLS Shooting Brake’s boot, for instance, vertical slabs of cherry wood – sanded to a smooth finish and waterproofed – contrast beautifully with the simple smoked oak inlays and aluminium rails.

Mercedes-Benz Design execution will naturally depend on the size of the vehicle: ‘Our strategic approach was to make a chessboard out of the brand with different players.’ So cars like the A-Class and CLS, with a younger customer in mind, are designed to be sculptural and therefore very expressive, and others like the more sober S-Class, clean and timeless. Incidentally Wagener doesn’t think there should be a unique visual for electric mobility.

‘I think luxury has to be individual,’ he continues. ‘We want to create objects that are beautiful, luxurious and timeless. We want to elevate that almost to sublime-ness – the highest form of aesthetics. And that level of grandeur fits the S-Class.’ Will it be younger, more dynamic? ‘Yes the S-Class will be,’ he says, ‘This is what I mean about taking the brand into the future.’

By 2015 ‘the picture will be very obvious of what Mercedes is about’. Until then, the marque is in the difficult transition period with cars that don’t completely fit this new philosophy. ‘With every new car coming you will see where the journey is going and it will be very exciting.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read my full report from the Paris Motor Show 2012

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Book review: The Porsche Book

Love or loath cars, most of us would agree that Porsche builds beautiful automobiles that are thrilling to drive. From the timeless sculptural form of the 911 – so perfect in proportions that the designers find it hard to improve upon – to the Cayman, Boxter and the many derivatives, the Stuttgart marque simply creates emotionally charges vehicles that cause a visceral reaction in most of us.

The Porsche Book, edited by Frank Orel is published by teNeues

In recent years the company that was founded by Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche back in 1931, has had to expand on its model range to include the four-door Panamera, the Cayenne sports utility vehicle and the just announced Cajun small sports utility (still in concept stage) – in the process offending some Porsche purists – yet it has never lost its global emotional appeal.

The Porsche Book, edited by Frank Orel and published by teNeues, aims to capture this. And with 173 photographs and images, this is very much a visual adventure. Written clearly for lovers of the marque, the 24 chapters have been designed to somehow race the reader in a nostalgic, image-packed journey through Porsche’s rich engineering and design history.

Providing text in English, German, French, Chinese and Russian, this elegant hardback captures the essence of Porsche: timeless design, speed and the promise of freedom.

The Porsche Book, edited by Frank Orel is published by teNeues. You can purchase this book and a comprehensive selection of design books on our new on-line bookstore opening on Design Talks soon.

Purchase this book here on the DT Bookstore.

Read more on Porsche Porsche 911 TargaSecond generation Porsche Cayenne, the limited edition 911 Speedster as shown at the Paris Motor Show 2010, and design director Michael Mauer discussing the 918 Spyder clean car at the Geneva Motor Show 2010.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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