On the surface of things, the facelifted Audi A4 is an entirely predictable product action, but what it symbolises could be far more momentous.
It’s highly probable that the design director role at any prestigious OEM carmaker comes with a reasonably well-remunerated package of monetary benefits. This being so, we can take a wild guess that Audi’s Marc Lichte is not therefore on tuppence ha’penny wages.
The money must be, one supposes, some consolation, because there certainly cannot be much by way of creative satisfaction Mr Lichte could derive from masterminding Ingolstadt’s current design direction. At this point of course, we really ought to take pause, since to employ ‘design direction’ in the current context could be construed as somewhat over-dignifying the matter.
As we have been at pains to highlight, a potentially ruinous crisis of confidence has engulfed the German prestige car giants, but the situation at Audi AG, while overshadowed for some time now by that at BMW, is if anything, of a greater magnitude.
Implicated in VW’s mendacity over vehicle emissions, its former CEO likely to be engaged in making numberplates – or whatever improving activities are encouraged within German corrective facilities – and its position as VW’s technological and profit centre now at serious risk from in-house opposition, the loss of prestige along the shores of the Danube is writ in bold capitals.
But as headwinds intensify against the German ‘big three’, the boardroom solution has been to up the ante – in technology, in choice but most of all, in appearance. Subtlety in design, the former leitmotif of ‘German Premium’, is for the birds. In order to stand out, one must now make as much visual noise as the market will tolerate. And while this has been achieved, it’s a brave man indeed who would essay forth a Rizla paper between Ingolstadt and Munich-Milbertshofen in the needless vulgarity stakes.
But if Harald Kruger deigns to play his stereogram at earsplitting volume, then Bram Schot is certainly not going to take such provocation lying down. And when the ambient noise is set to eleven, nobody hears anything. Achieving stand-out is the name of the premium game nowadays and certainly for the likes of Audi and BMW, this has entailed a degree of self-conscious over-design which would undoubtedly have placed their predecessors into a secure unit with an attack of the screaming vapours.
Until this week, Audi’s A4 was perhaps one of the more demure of the compact premium saloons on offer, but this state of affairs had become, in the words of Ingolstadt exterior designer, Amor Vaya, “a little boring”. Telling Autocar magazine how Audi’s designers wished to make a statement, Vaya employs highly original terms like “life and energy”, “richer and more expressive” to describe the design team’s efforts to shift the hitherto unassuming A4’s stylistic dial.
The current (and obviously now clearly discredited) B9-generation of the A4 was introduced in 2016, itself a reworked version of the previous B8 model’s MLP platform. For its mid-life refresh, one would have expected revisions at the front and rear, a revised cabin perhaps and some new powertrain options, but instead, Mr Lichte has truly spoiled us with what amounts to a virtual outer-body reskin – at least from the beltline down.
In execution terms, it’s applique styling applied with a trowel – subtle it certainly is not. Quattro-esque wheelarch blisters: Check. Sport-Quattro bonnet vents: Tick. Broader, more assertive grille: Present. Pointless fake grilles: Yep, it’s all there. The A4, tired of being everybody’s third choice has been out on the town and got itself some badass tattoos. Problem is, so has everyone else.
Aside from the visual banality of the revisions, and the degree to which Audi’s once enviable design heritage continues to be abased, none of this will make an iota of difference to how the A4 is perceived against that of its rivals from the Petuelring or Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, or arrest Audi’s fast-diminishing reputation, to say nothing of its commercial fortunes.
BMW is after all, shouting louder, whereas Mercedes has (for better or worse) left its lines and creases phase behind, positioning itself above the kindergarten fray of its squabbling Bavarian rivals.
Meanwhile at Auto-Union Strasse, it increasingly appears as though the gig might be up. VW after all, has other, more pressing concerns; detoxifying the mothership Volkswagen brand, forging industry-wide alliances over electrification and self-driving, and curbing the ambitions of Mladá Boleslav to concern itself with Audi’s woeful lack of leadership and creative direction. But across the wider industry, it’s becoming clear (and I’m not the first to observe this) that the very notion of German premium is itself becoming something of a busted flush.
After all, everybody knows how it’s done now and what’s more, just about everyone’s doing it and (for the most part) just as well. What’s more, the CEO’s of the German prestige carmakers must realise it. But what have Bram Schot, Harald Krüger and incoming Mercedes chief, Ola Kaellenius to offer in its stead? Empty gestures.
On current form, there are signs that it really could soon all be over, bar the shouting.