Thursday, 3 December 2009

Audi design, cautionary not revolutionary

The new Audi A8 was unveiled three days ago on Monday 30th of December 2009.

There has been two generations of the A8 until Sunday gone. The original 'D2' replaced the V8 model in 1994. The D2 was the start of the revolution that put Audi on the modern automotive map. Finally elbowing up to the BMW and Mercedes levels of prestige. This was especially the case in the UK where Audi sales and it image has constantly been on the up since this year.

The D2 was a flagship in design and importantly for the Ingolstadt company it was a showcase for their new Audi Space Frame (ASF). The ASF was an aluminium space-frame and monocoque structure. The use of aluminium in this way was a huge leap forward, not just for Audi but for the automotive industry as a whole. The D2 highlighted Audi's ambition to be at the forefront of technology and design. A fresh take on the BMW and Mercedes formula with a better result.

To look at the original D2 A8 from 1994, the car has aged. Yet it still has an air of quality and integrity that contemporary 7 series and S-class fail to match.

In 2002, Audi brought the flagship up to date with the new design language Audi had used on the coupe-like A6, the original TT and the A2. The car was a completely new vehicle, the D3. Everything was designed to be better than the original, to improve as much as technology would allow.

The D3, although facelifted in 2004 to add the Auto Union inspired grille, the car hasn't dated. Yes the design may only be seven years old but the rival designs from their competitors, time has not been so kind. Audi did subtle like no other. Subtly was a quality that owners of large cars wanted. It was an age where money was hidden and not worn. Where labels were on the inside and not diamond encrusted on a belt buckle. People who really had money kept it quiet. Audi became the marque to own, the complete opposite to vulgar.

The D3is a hard act to follow. It's only true weakness was it's dynamic edge on the track and ride quality. Although it is not a needed trait, a sporty drive would be a good return for what can sometimes be a hard ride. The S8 with it's large capacity engine and harder than the normal A8's already hard ride, was meant to take the A8 to another level, to another type of driver.

The S prefix on Audi models are the work of the Quattro AG, the sport division of Audi. Suspension, braking and other hardware are replaced by uprated parts designed to handle the larger engine and its higher performance. The resulting changes alters the character of the cars to produce a quick and dynamic model range, running in parallel to the A prefixed models. Above the S sits the RS prefixed models. These cars are based on the S cars but have unique body panels and have a number of parts made of exotic materials. Engines in the RS models are the most powerful Audi make and are hand built in limited numbers. RS cars become collector's items as the limited run normally produce small numbers of cars, selling at very high prices.

Although there is not a RS 8 model, There is a W12 engined long-wheel-based A8. This is a special car with a number of unique features and trim options. This car, along with the S8 variant showcases the ability the A8 has of creating different types of executive car from the same basic design.

The W12, A8 and S8 all share the D3's ASF construction and one of the best interiors seen on a production car. The interior was a beautiful execution of simplicity and elegance. The jewel was the MMI interface, which reduced the number of buttons needed to do the large amount of tasks the D3 was capable of. The MMI could control everything from the radio to the suspension settings via a colour LCD screen and a mouse like control dial surrounded by six multi tasking buttons. Later cars benefited from a state of the art Bang and Olufsen speaker and amp set and a higher resolution screen. Build quality, another strength Audi has prided itself on, was the best they could produce. The A8 interior was the high of understated luxury.

The D3: the pinnacle of Audi's values and its design language.

Now, in 2009, Audi has deemed it time to replace the D3 with a model that will highlight the companies future direction for the brand.

Enter the D4. Audi are so proud of the new flagship that they have delayed the sale of the A8 for 12 even though the show car unveiled is production ready now.

The D4, in my opinion is a huge let down.

The 1994 D2 was new dawn for Audi and showed their ability to use new cutting edge technology in construction.

The 2002 D3 was a continuation of core design values and a refinement of the unique Audi design language. The interior was where the D3 moved the game on. The layout of the dashboard and use of technology to control the car and it's interaction with the driver was light-years further on than not only the D2 but the competition.

The D4 has not bought anything new or improved over the out going D4. Although there are no parts carried over from the D3, the basic interior layout is the same. Everything has been redesigned but without a new direction. A make over for the sake of it rather than a move forward. The exterior has been simplified but to the detriment of  the presence the D2 and the D3 had. What the new D4 looks like is large 2008 A4 rather than the other way round. The halo effect hasn't worked the way it has on previous Audi models and the way the S-Class improves the image of the C-Class.

The D4is a showcase for Audi. It highlights how it has become a company about sales numbers and not about the core values it has held important since it's rebirth 15 years ago.
The more numbers, the more variants Audi makes, the more diluted the current language has become. It really gives the impression that there were only two people. They could work on four models but now Audi has created more niches, the more over worked the two designers became. Now, when it comes to the replacing the A8, the two where distracted by a new font and logo redesign. Considering this is the 100th year of the company, it priorities do seem to be misaligned. A new font and a new shade to the four rings is the accountants' way of having fun. Audi has become too retrained. Losing the concept of subtle and replacing it with the false god of cautionary conservatism.

With the constant changes of personnel in the design department, the boardroom and within the VW group as the parent organisation, it is obviously going to be difficult to continue in exactly the same vein, but when you set out your stable with pillars built on design, interior quality and innovation, a continuity of staff is exactly what is needed. Audi as a company is suffering from a problem with potentially all car companies could suffer; the time it takes for a complete car range to get into production can be as long as a designer's whole career or worse, the designer could be head-hunted my a rival.
Remember the legendary designer Paul Bracq only designed one generation of Mercedes before he left. Admittedly they did include the Pagoda SL and the 500 Pullman.

The  original TT was the work of J Mays, now of Ford. The A2's Luc Donckerwolke also designed the Skoda Fabia at the same time as the small Audi. He went on to design the Lamborghini Gallardo before taking up the post as SEAT's head of design. The A5 Audi coupe was the last Audi penned by Alfa 156 Designer Walter DeSilva. At his short time at Ingolstadt, he created the second (and disapointing) TT, the 2005 A6 and the 2008 A4, with its droopy rear. Both DeSilva and Donckerwolke are credited with the only truly successful new Audi of this current crop; the R8.

Audi's design department is now under the penmanship of Wolfgang Egger, now Walter DeSilva's head of the entire VW Group's design direction. Egger has famously put out a video of him sketching the then unreleased A5 5-door SportBack hatchback. He has also delivered the Sportback concept with it's five sided grille and is the basis of the upcoming A7 (a larger A5 hatch). The new grille was meant to be on the A8 but it has been so diluted in production that it bares no real link to the concept's.

Let us hope that Wolfgang Egger has the strength to resurrect the Audi brand, which with only 15 years since it's modern rebirth, is now coasting. Audi's recent efforts, it is clear they are resting on their laurels. If Egger can move Audi forward, he would then be needed to stay for more than one model generation otherwise in six to seven years time, I'll be thinking the same as I am now; why has it all gone wrong at Ingolstadt.

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