1997’s A6 saw Audi choosing bravery over stylistic torpidude. A lesson they could do well to re-learn.
By the early 1990s, Audi appeared to have run out of steam as the successes of the previous decade began to fade. Having lit up the automotive firmament with technological marvels such as the Ursprünglich Quattro coupe and the aero-influenced C3 100 / 200 series, the early ’90s saw the four rings of Ingolstadt comparatively becalmed.
Consolidation was the operative word, the feeling along the Danube being that enough had been done to take BMW and Mercedes on their own terms. Shock and awe then, seemed no longer a requirement. But while much had been achieved image-wise, Audi’s products still presented a notably uneven proposition by comparison to fellow Bavarian and Swabian rivals.
Stylistically too, Audi’s designers appeared to have turned the thermostat down, with models like the ultra-conservative C4 100 / A6 of 1990 winning out over more avant garde proposals. But the centre would not hold and as the new decade arrived, change was once more afoot. Following the completion of the advanced and elegantly styled aluminium-bodied A8, Audi was faced with a choice for the next generation A6, scheduled for 1997. Should they once again play it safe or take a gamble?
In 1992 Ingolstadt management was presented with three full-sized clays to establish the visual identity of their vital midliner. Fortunately for its stylist (and for us) the most radical of these proposals was selected. The car’s designer was Claus Potthoff, graduate of the prestigious Pforzheim Technical College, the alma mater of many a car designer over the years, including fellow graduate, (and current Volvo design chief) Thomas Inganlath.
Potthoff subsequently joined Mercedes-Benz, working under the eminent Dr. Johann Tomforde at Sindelfingen on advanced design projects, before being headhunted by Audi’s Hartmut Warkuss in 1991. With his C5 proposal frozen for production in 1994, its debut was three years later at the 1997 Geneva motor show.
Based on a stretched variant of the B5-series Passat platform, the C5 employed a more sophisticated chassis with aluminium chosen for its suspension arms and links. Mostly however, it was standard Audi fare: Longitudinally mounted engines, from a VW-sourced 1.8 litre turbo four at the lower end, to Ingolstadt’s own five valve 2.8 litre V6. Four-wheel drive was available with most engine sizes. Later on, a 4.2 litre V8 filled out the engine range in high performance S6 and RS6 models with Quattro (naturally) as standard.
But while the mechanical specification offered few surprises, the A6’s styling certainly did. While previous mid-line Audis retained a distinct three volume silhouette, the C5 adopted a more fastback appearance, with a shallower rear pillar sweeping gracefully to a short boot. Surfacing was minimalist in the extreme with carefully calibrated radii and flush detailing; the uninterrupted slope of the bootlid being a particularly effective and highly distinctive feature.
Decoration too was kept to a minimum, with thin slivers of bushed steel accentuating the soft, yet extremely disciplined forms. Inside too, Audi moved the game on. While not radical in form, the beautifully finished cabin featured more brushed aluminium amid the high quality plastics instead of the more accepted wood and chrome. Others would follow. Visually then, the A6 was a stunner. But it appears not everyone agreed.
Speaking to Automotive News’ Greg Kable in 1997, Potthoff was philosophical about the car’s mixed reception. “I don’t expect everyone to heap praise on the A6. When you set out to provoke emotions through a particular design, you cannot hope to please everyone. If we brought the car to market and it was immediately accepted, I would be terribly worried.”
He needn’t have been concerned. The A6 proved a success and visually at least, made arch-rival BMW’s class-leading E39 5-Series all of a sudden appear like yesterday’s car. Comparison with Mercedes’ W210 E-Class or Jaguar’s S-Type however, placed matters in the sharpest relief; the A6, in saloon or equally accomplished 5-door Avant bodystyles showing up Sindelfinen and Whitley’s creative myopia in the most humiliatingly decisive fashion. UK auto journalist Paul Horrell described the Audi as “almost unbearably desirable: a shape that’s avant-garde yet almost anal in its elegant restraint.”
The saving grace for Audi’s rivals were habitual Ingolstadt demerits of over-servoed brakes, an unsettled ride quality and nose-heavy understeer traits – at least in front-drive form. Car magazine found the smallest engined 1.8 Quattro Turbo to be the dynamic sweet spot, less weight forward of the front axle lending it a wieldiness the larger engined versions lacked.
It also marked Ingolstadt’s first foray into the SUV market with the well executed and influential Allroad model. Subaru had got there first of course with the 1994 Legacy Outback, but the A6 brought the highriding, tough-looking aesthetic into the prestige segment.
The C5 codified the A6 silhouette, breaking a stylistic tradition stretching back to the 1967 NSU Ro80 and set the mark for Ingolstadt’s most stylistically cohesive and utterly desirable generation of cars ever. But while the A6’s successors may have adopted its silhouette, they did so in far less arresting fashion. So much so that today’s iteration has become a virtually invisible piece of street furniture, shortly to be replaced.
Twenty years on from the C5’s debut, Audi once again find themselves once more in the stylistic doldrums. Tainted by parent, VW’s emission woes and worryingly bereft of how to move the Ingolstadt aesthetic forward, Audi’s Marc Lichte really ought to go to the back of the cupboard, dust down that bottle of bravery pills and perhaps pop a couple. What possible harm could it do?