Putting Out The Fire, Scattering The Ashes

Audi’s concept car for this year’s Shanghai motor show is an autonomous, electric homage to the brand’s legendary A2 model. Or so we’re told. 

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Audi AI:ME, photo (c) Audi AG

On the surface at least, there doesn’t appear to be much terribly wrong with Audi’s AI:ME concept car. It’s not an SUV for a start; its autonomous functions aren’t reflected by the lamest concept car trope of the past few years (swivelling seats), and it – supposedly – pays homage to no less than Audi’s bravest failure, the misunderstood A2.

However, as always, a surface is but a thin layer, whereas what lies beneath is an altogether more meaty matter. And the meat of this AI:ME is hardly scrumptious.

Take its overall appearance: It’s a rather generic EV compact concept car fare, to such an extent that nobody would bat an eyelid if it didn’t sport the four rings, but the signet of, say, Hyundai or one of the more accomplished Chinese marques on its non-bonnet. Obviously, Audi would claim that its intricate/overwrought headlight matrix, ‘textured’ front graphics and ‘quattroesque’ haunches above the wheels stand for New Audi the same way as clean graphics and fastidious attention to detail stood for old, Bauhaus Audi.

The difference between the two was though that the original A2 set itself apart from all other brands and encapsulated the qualities on which Audi’s then-design leadership relied: Severe stylistic coherence and representation of quality through design. Today, under current chief designer, Marc Lichte, Audi design simply blends into the overall mainstream of car design anno 2019.

AI:ME’s concrete pièces de résistance would clearly be the overall ‘dynamic’ stance that’s so obviously of the utmost importance in a city vehicle – 23-inch-wheels and a width of no less than 1.9 metres see to that. Not to mention the kink in the side windows, which not only adds significant manufacturing complexity, but also means the air conditioning fitted to AI:ME better be of the very reliable and powerful variety.

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The racer among city cars, photo (c) Audi AG

This feature eventually resolves into the most obvious nod to the Audi A2 found on AI:ME: a kicked read window, onto which a rear spoiler is fitted.

Notwithstanding the fact that AI:ME lacks the original car’s Kamm tail, or that its rear spoiler was fitted to the lower part of the A2’s rear window, it’s rather hard to fathom how this outright ‘sporty’ city car, with its huge wheels, aggressive graphics and pseudo-athletic stance could in any way ever be considered some kind spiritual successor to the austere, intellectual, upright A2.

Now that car certainly wasn’t without mannerisms (far from it), but its professed simplicity was a rather artful attempt at conveying sophistication. AI:ME, on the other hand, takes as many tropes currently en vogue as fit between its two wheels and dials them up to 11.

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Modern Family, photo (c) Audi AG

So above all else, AI:ME illustrates just how utterly astray the Audi brand is. The reason for this isn’t just the mediocrity of the concept car, but the fact that memories of Audi design in its prime are evoked by those needless, pointless, vacuous A2 references. For it shows just how the people in charge right now fail to grasp the stylistic qualities that turned Audi from purveyors of motor cars for retired geography teachers into the envy of the rest of the industry.

What is most impressive about all of this is how quickly hard-earned consistency and excellence in automotive design can be lost. What took decades to build is getting torn down within a few brief years.

Quite some achievement.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine //

35 thoughts on “Putting Out The Fire, Scattering The Ashes”

  1. A close friend recently asked what car I would choose for conversion to electric drive and without hesitation the answer was an A2.
    A perfect candidate that can be purchased dirt cheap as they are presently at their lowest value and inbuilt quality means surviving cars are showing minimal wear.
    Lose the recip and associated exhaust fuel tank and cooling systems and install electric drive up front. The A2 double floor storage in the rear is perfect for a battery pack with an additional void available under the raised front floor.
    Good aerodynamics and alloy construction fits perfectly with electrification, a “do it yourself “alternative to a BMW i3.

    1. That’s actually a brilliant idea. Moreover, if Audi had any respect for its own design history, it would do just that. The A2 still looks fresh and modern today and will continue to do so long after the design tropes that are currently crass signifiers of electric vehicles (e.g. blue exterior trim and lighting) have long fallen out of fashion.

  2. Dear Driven to Write. Sorry if you are receiving multiple posts – there is something not working for me and every time I try to post I get no feedback from WordPress saying the post has worked, been quarantined or whathaveyou. I really enjoy the site and get frustrated when I can’t take part in the vital and interesting discourse!

    1. Pt.1)
      There are quite a few people on YouTube who documenting their own homebrew Electric A2s, and I for one have to agree it would be a great prospect to own and run day-to-day

      I had a TDi 75 A2 for a few years (sadly written off by an altercation with a mini-cab taxi) and it was all the things you say – sophisticated, futuristic, sublime and of a high quality. It would have been my ‘forever’ car if it had not been destroyed. I still look at them on Autotrader, but feel less inclined towards TDis since Dieselgate, and think electric motivation would be just perfect. Audi did do an electric A2 concept in 2011 which is actually a really good example of seeing where things were starting to go wrong. It’s just like the Gen2 TT – it’s tries to stay true to the simplicity of the original but can’t help but add needless embellishments that water down or even throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    2. Pt.2)
      It’s a lot nicer than this new one but still loses the plot. They just needed to do an actual one (some rumours say the original did include some thinking for an electric version but it seems a little early to be true)

      Thinking about that peerless moment in about 2001 when the A2, A4, A6 and TT were all at a point of pretty much aesthetic perfection (ie before Audi put the fake slats on the A2 grill nee service hatch) is that it was a point where they were at maximum’ design – in the Dieter Rams sense – “Good design is when you can’t remove anything more” (i paraphrase). What I mean is they couldn’t really take any more away. What Audi should have done is stick to their guns in the way Apple do with small incremental changes over time with their product design that remove and refine, not clutter and embellish.

      A 2006 Macbook air looks very much the same as a 2019 one. The changes are mostly to do with lightness, thinness and changes to its surrounding infrastructure (no need for cd drive, advances in charging, battery tech and connectivity input ports etc etc)

      Your last line pretty much sums up my feelings. Audi were pretty much at the top of their game and weren’t brave enough to maintain this by keeping things clean and minimal. Their current line up is just awful.

    3. Huw: I’m sorry you appear to be having difficulty in attaching comments on the site. At present I have no concrete idea why these issues arise, but clearly there is something – either in your email address the WordPress doesn’t recognise or flags as suspect?, or perhaps it might have something to do with an unfamiliar IP address. I’m not very tech-savvy, so I’m merely guessing here. You are not alone in having difficulties – even regular commenters experience problems of a similar nature (and often are forced to employ multiple email addresses) while others have no issues whatsoever. Perhaps it’s a WordPress glitch. I simply do not know. We’re looking into it.

    4. Thanks. I made a new WordPress id, and I have a feeling it’s also to do with the length of my post, as I’ve been able to post it in 2 parts in the end. Sorry for the boring technical interruption – back to the cars! 🙂

    5. Huw: I don’t think the length of the post is a factor, given that others post comments which could in some instances stand as articles in their own right. The problem for us, is that it’s such a random occurrence, which makes establishing a pattern quite difficult. Anyway, no apology required. It’s good to have you along…

    6. Regarding the electrified A2, I seem to recall that this was a real possibility at the time of its conception. Mercedes too had explored electrifying the original A-Class – hence the double floor – in both instances. In my view the A2 was a masterpiece, sadly ten years too early for the market.

      Audi really has lost itself, hasn’t it? Not only is the styling even more of an Eton Mess since Mr. Lichte took over from W. Egger, but the marque’s position within the VAG mothership appears to have diminished as VW’s energies are almost entirely shifted to brand-VW’s reinvention as a squeaky-clean, snow-driven saviour of the planet.

      I recently observed a new A6 saloon parked alongside a current-era E-Class. The Audi struck me as unbearably fussy and crass, and while no fan of Sensual Purity am I, there was little doubt as to which of the two was the more visually accomplished.

  3. Hi Huw, you put it just perfectly when you asserted that Audi should have made “incremental changes over time with their product design that remove and refine, not clutter and embellish”.

    The “clutter and embellish” tendency is well illustrated by these comparative photos of two generations of A6; the C6 from 2004 and the current C8:

    The silhouette is very similar, but the current model has additional crease lines, notably the wheelarch “eyebrows” and the sharp crease just below the DLO that runs the whole length of the car. This leaves a narrow strip of bodywork close to the bonnet shut line, which looks weak. The front and rear fascias are fussy and overworked, lacking the confidently drawn simplicity of the earlier model.

  4. “Hello, Liquorice Tyres. 23 inch tyres you say and it’s NOT for a Q7 or 8? (Teeth sucking noise) you ‘avin’ a giraffe, mate? Oh, for that car lookin’ like an A2…gonna cost you, mate. take some time to get ’em in too, maybe a year or two…? Hello? Hello?”
    Audi’s are overwrought weapons with more creases than anything really deserves.

  5. Perhaps the issue for Audi design is Lamborghini, their wholly owned subsidiary since 2011. Look at the windscreen of this AI:ME, where have we seen that shape before? It seems the influence used to run in the opposite direction, the Murciélago is a case in point, being much tamer and restrained in it’s appearance than the Zagato designed Canto which was being developed to replace the Diablo before VAG took over. The Gallardo also exhibited a certain purity and restraint, harking back to Gandini’s relatively stark original Countach LP400, not the over-decorated later versions.

    Ducati and Ital Design were also recently brought under the Audi umbrella, we can probably agree that Ital has practically repudiated Giugiaro’s aesthetic and now turns out what appear to be second rate Lamborghini designs. It is as if the Lamborghini DNA is dominant and has now overwhelmed the lineage of two great houses of automotive design.

    Is this is Piech’s doing? Was his Phaeton a last gasp of restrained design sanity before all hell broke loose at VAG? At least Porsche design remains relatively clean.

    1. Piëch was very hands on regarding matters of design. The (Thomas Ingenlath-designed) Phaeton was very obviously his baby, but even the current Skoda Superb has his fingerprints on it, as it was Ferdl who overruled the rest of the executive board and decreed it better sport a clamshell bonnet. That clamshell arrangement had always been the designers’ preferred solution, but Skoda management had vetoed it on the grounds that it was too costly/premium a solution, which resulted in the prototype featuring a regular bonnet. In the end, Piëch turned to support the designers’ original vision without knowing about it.
      So even though he never received any training in the craft, one can assume that Piëch has some kind of instinctive grasp of car design.

      The only period during which he took a hands-off approach was after he stepped down as VAG CEO, when he left Bernd Pischetsrieder, Wolfgang Bernhard et al to their own devices. Once Winterkorn took over, Piëch returned too, so the models designed under de’ Silva would all have been signed off by Ferdl too.

      The cars currently unveiled have been created completely without his influence, as he left VAG four years ago.

    2. Hi, Christopher. That’s interesting stuff about the Superb’s clamshell bonnet. It’s actually a delightful design detail. When viewed from adult standing height, the bonnet to wing shut line is completely concealed because it looks just like an extension of the shadow line created by sharp bodyside crease:

      Lovely!

    3. …and so much more classically handsome than the current A6.

      (Comment posted in the wrong place above, sorry for confusion)

    4. Daniel,

      I won’t ever tire of repeating the claim that of the Superb wore a three-pointed star, everybody would celebrate Mercedes’ return to form with this new E-class. It’s just a very accomplished piece of design – just look at the Swabian’s clamshell bonnet history to see how easily this can go the wrong way…

    5. Agreed. The Superb is, well… do I really need to finish this sentence?

  6. A car brand’s design quality always appears to be subject to cycles. Highs are followed by lows are followed by highs and so forth. Are there any exceptions?

    Given that this is obviously not a high point for Audi, maybe it’s a reason to hope that the lows have reached such deep levels that history tells us: the trajectory will change again, maybe rather sooner than later?

    All the more important the acclaimed critics of the interweb are not afraid to voice their opinions loud and clear to slowly but surely bent the cycle on its next upward slope. “Audi, we can’t wait for you to become Audi again!”

    1. Unfortunately, Max, as long as Audi’ s sales are still strong, we dissenters are merely whistling in the wind. DTW is, after all, Still The World’s Least Influential Motoring Site. Moreover, cars are largely no longer designed with European customers’ tastes in mind.

    2. Excuse me Daniel – a minor correction. We work day and night to ensure that we remain TWLIAS in word and deed. Furthermore, we’ll take on anyone who dares threaten this hard-won accolade.

    3. Daniel, well argued indeed. The realist in me, 49%, agrees. The idealist in me, 51%, still believes that in the long run the good, and the conceptually pure and convincing will win over the bad, superficial bling bling. And the former is best articulated in the remote, unlikely, yet integral fringes of the universe, such as this beautiful set of automotive non-conformist opinion collected by DTW. So I don’t think Herr Butt’s and all the others words will be in vain. Eventually they will find their way, maybe even to in one way or another educate the tastes of the next generation of emerging market buyers? Who knows?

    4. Eóin, sorry, but I’m confused. May please I ask what I said that required even a minor correction?

    5. Less of a correction perhaps, more a robust reassertion. I apologise for all and any confusion.

    6. Ah, no problem, and thank you for clarifying, Eóin.

      I was worried I might have said something to cause offence, which be inexcusable, given DTW’s other claim to fame, as a beacon of good manners and civility in the unruly and uncouth wastelands of the Internet.

      By the way, I would be interested to hear what you and your esteemed colleagues think of the GLB concept. Grounds for hope, of am I clutching at straws?

    7. Heavens no. I would simply be horrified if anyone was to imagine our lack of influence was anything but the result of intense effort and vast expenditure on our part.

      We’ll cast a further eye over Shanghai before the week is out…

    8. Eóin, just to be very clear as well, by no means would I ever mean to undermine that integral DTW claim that I try to applaud with every letter I type into this comment box.

  7. Picking up on Eóin’s observation about the E-Class vs the A6, is the recently revealed GLB concept another small sign of hope that the worst may be over at Stuttgart? Here it is:

    Remove the off-roading addenda and extreme wheels and tyres, and you have a smooth, quite formal shape with little superfluous ornamentation. A friend of mine has recently bought a new E-Class saloon and it looks beautifully put together. Unfortunately, it has the “sports” nose cone rather than the more appropriate formal grille, which appears to be unavailable in the UK.

    Of course, the bonnet shut lines on the GLB are still a mess. When will M-B’s designers realise that this arrangement will never be satisfactory: the changing plane of the surrounding bodywork means the gap will always look uneven from a single vantage point, even if it’s perfectly regular. It’s the polar opposite of the clever solution on the Superb.

    1. About this this GLB thing, I just woke up from a two year nap, is off-roading illegal now?

    2. No, not at all, but it’s something you do in old Land-Rovers and Suzukis, not new Mercs!

  8. Depressingly, Audi has now facelifted the A4 in the style of the A6, with slashes above the wheelarches and an even more brash front end:

    It’s certainly more expressive now, the appropriate expression being “Yikes!!!”

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