Adding something, losing a lot: Audi’s preference for styling over design considered

The 2014 Audi Prologue points the way to Audi losing its way.

2014 Audi Prologue. Pure styling. Image: boldrides.com
2014 Audi Prologue. Pure styling. Image: boldrides.com

One of the most satisfying aspects of Mercedes’ design for many decades was that styling served to make engineering and production needs aesthetically acceptable. This meant the vehicles had an inherent correctness that makes their 60s to 80s cars look good today. Audi also cleaved to this formula though you´d have to look at a photo since

1972 Audi 100. This design still looks good. The quality of construction and production methods dominate. Image: carbase.com
1972 Audi 100. This design still looks good. Two things stand out – the quality of construction and the correctness of the details.
Image: carbase.com

these cars are quite rare now. The pattern was already in place for the Audi 100 of 1972. The 1982 100 saloon is striking for its freshness. I had to double-check the year of production. It could just as easily been a 1989 design. What you will note is the tight fit between the shutlines, graphics and sculpture. It´s what I call harmonic.

1982 Audi 100. Image: Autoviva.com
1982 Audi 100. Image: Autoviva.com

Unfortunately, Audi have changed direction. I am not sure why as their formula of contemporary classicism, the purest industrial design, has served them very well.

2007 Audi A5 with feature lines marked in red. Image: Autoevolution.
2007 Audi A5 with feature lines marked in red. Image: Autoevolution.

The Audi A5 of 2007 foreshadowed Audi´s turn towards styling for its own sake. The car has a sinuous feature line down the flank. Such an organic shape, though discrete, is markedly different in principle from Audi´s custom of the simplest lines at all times. Given that the rest of the car is calm and orderly, the feature line can be excused as a grace note. It is made pleasant and acceptable as a mild contrast to the rationalism prevalent elsewhere. I think it would be excessive to say it looks incorrect. I don´t want to overstate my lack of warmth towards this feature. The A5 is as very pleasant and stylish car overall which is to say that were I given sufficient funds and a garage, I´d be happy to have one.

Other small changes to Audi´s design principles are in the small scale sculpture. The Q3 of 2011 has a less pronounced feature line compared to the A5 but it has more sculpting so as to create a shadow on the lower side and a highlight on the upper side. That´s pure styling. You could delete the feature from the car and it would be none the worse for it.

2014 Audi Prologue. Image: boldride.com
2014 Audi Prologue. Image: boldride.com

Moving to 2014, Audi showed the Prologue concept car which is notable for its Citroen-esque interior (compare it to a GS of 1971) and the manner in which styling now dominates over rational design on the exterior. The explanation is that “yacht-inspired styling” is now re-shaping the brand. As is now obligatory, Mark Lichte, Audi´s chief designer says he is  “is eager to push Audi’s exterior designs in a sportier, more progressive realm”.  How is this  increased sportiness and progressiveness manifested? There is the extremely marked bright-work around the side glass and, more importantly, a blizzard of feature lines down the side. The shutline from rear bumper to body is not aligned to the crease above it. Heresy. Note the way the central line under the side glass is discontinuous with the ones over the front and rear wheels. Pure fashion.  Ford did this on the Mk3 Focus and it doesn´t look good there either. For Ford this kind of styling is part of their usual approach to design and is not pleasing but not jarring either. Ford are a pragmatic firm.

My contention is that Audi´s shift from austere, rational design to more overt styling is a false path. The Prologue is, in itself, a professional bit of work but it buys attention at the expense of a tradition that has served Audi very well for decades. The Prologue adds styling but loses the valuable Audi-ness that is one of the reasons people like and buy these cars. Audi have managed the tricky art of renewing their models but not at the cost of making their outgoing cars look dated. What will Audi do next is the question. Adding capricious styling might draw looks and make some sales now. This direction has no obvious way forward, however. The next models will look different in some other way – and that´s how Ford, Renault, Fiat and others proceed. That should not be Audi´s path.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

6 thoughts on “Adding something, losing a lot: Audi’s preference for styling over design considered”

  1. I know it’s a difficult business to be a Design Chief. Someone asks you what you’re doing and you can’t just mumble “drawing cars, innit”. But really. ‘Yacht Inspired Design’. A yacht is nothing like a car. The only thing that ‘yacht inspired’ rather than ‘food-processor inspired’ suggests is expense and exclusivity. The last car I remember the designer saying was specifically ‘yacht-inspired’ was the Ssanyong Rodius with its ‘flying bridge’. And if I want a car from a ‘sportier … realm’, I’ll get a Porsche. I too liked the A5 but found something slightly un-nerving, even undignified, about that wobbly feature line. It just didn’t look right for an Audi. Viewed from inside, some makers find it hard to grasp exactly why they are viewed so well from outside.

  2. The circle is complete. Chris Bangle shook up BMW’s styling language to great success (arguable in styling terms, inarguable in sales terms). Mercedes looked on with envy. Then Gorden Wagener shakes up Mercedes’ styling language to great success. Are Audi’s designers looking on with envy?

  3. I think it’s true that words like ‘restrained’ and ‘elegant’ aren’t really positives these days. Even writing this I feel like an old geezer in the 60s railing against velvet flared loon pants and saying “and what’s wrong with a nice Saville Row 3-piece I have to ask?”

    So I can see why Audi feel they can’t keep playing the ‘Bauhaus’ card and need to make a statement. Personally I think that most of Bangle’s work will stand the test of time, whereas I can’t get Mercedes at all – but an awful lot of people do apparently.

  4. Audi is leaving the clear and sober geman industrial style (in a way Braun made his hifi-systems or Leica or Loewe stands for) in order to please non-european customers. The chinese market is so much bigger than old Europe, so Audi tries to win customers in China and simultaneously not to loose many of them in Europe. And it seems to work.
    I don´t like this new path too, but it is a much better way than the Mercedes way with senseless sculptured side-lines like the A-class or the bling-bling-styled GLE-class. The Mercedes path is somewhere between America, China and near the middle of nowhere…

  5. The Prologue is only a symptom, or rather a new piece in the puzzle of Audi losing track. It started with the introduction of the “singleframe” grille (and its subsequent growth). What is the last remarkable Audi design? The first TT was very good, the A2 great. But after that? The A7 maybe – but then, there is this grille…
    The new design direction only seems to emphasize the worst parts of the last decade’s cars (and leaving the good parts behind).

    Disclaimer: The recent A3 saloon ist better than I’d like to admit.

  6. After I wrote this I saw another A3, pretty much conforming to the ideal of a neat, tidy sport saloon. It’s easy to criticise but harder to praise: the A3 is very, very good. It just makes you wonder why they’d move away from a formula that yielded such fine results.

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