Empty Gesture

On the surface of things, the facelifted Audi A4 is an entirely predictable product action, but what it symbolises could be far more momentous.

(c) Autocar

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.

Continuous body creases – so passé darling. (c) The Drive

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

38 thoughts on “Empty Gesture”

  1. In the interests of good tastes, can we blur out parts of the A4 images, please? I have been put off my breakfast.
    The news value of this article does not trump the requirements of decency and good taste so obscuring the images would have been appropriate here.
    For those who did study the images, the little grille over the grille is deliciously redundant, a cherry on the cherry on top. I suppose that detail was a form of ironic commentary?

  2. Is it a mark of desperation on Audi’s part that these revisions are uniquely extensive for a mid-term refresh? I cannot recall any other Audi model refresh that involved major revisions to the metalwork*. Normally, it’s just new lights and bumpers either end, at a fraction of the cost of this overhaul. In any event, the result is execrable.

    * The pert and pretty B3 generation 80 had a major rework, primarily to enlarge its very small boot. It was treated as a new model and received the designation B4.

    1. It is a long standing Audi tradition to heavily facelift the 80/A4 after half its model life to align it with the new design dogma established by the bigger 100/A6 that is presented at that time.
      It already happened decades ago:

      Audi 80 B1 pre facelift:

      post facelift:

      Audi 80 B2 pre faclift

      post facelift

      Now the A4 has definitely disappeared from my already short short list, leaving the Giulia and XE as only possibilties.
      The Giulia is a no go because of the dealers and the XE because of its shoddy quality.
      I think I’ll hurry to get a B9 even if I really don’t like it.

    2. Audi A4 B5 Pre-facelift:

      Post-facelift (front unchanged apart from headlight graphics):

    3. Audi A4 B6 Pre-facelift:

      Post-facelift (front gets “big gob” grille):

    4. Thank you for all these examples. It does seem that Audi has oscillated between minor refresh and more substantial revisions at facelift time… although I do think we are in a new era now.

      I so wanted a B5 when they came out – a very fetching looking thing, especially in that greeny blue colour.

      The B6 facelift was hideous and perhaps the moment when things started to go wrong. Here comes the big grille!

      The latest version is reputedly a good car, albeit a very staid design. I actually don’t mind them bringing a bit more ’emotion’ to it, but a braver, more interesting interpretation of Audi design would ditch all the ornamentation and show faith in high quality surfacing and finish.

    5. The B9 facelift is unique in that it involves major changes to the flanks, including the door skins. All previous facelifts have been nose and tail jobs, with the centre section of the car unchanged. Actually, the B6 facelift was, like the 80 B3 and B4, considered sufficiently extensive to warrant a new model designation, B7. Perhaps this is because Audi changed the centre section very subtly, adding an “overbite” to the waistline crease and (oddly) enlarging the fuel filler flap. (What I labelled incorrectly B7 above, was actually the B8, pre and post-facelift.)

      By Audi standards, the new facelift is certainly extensive enough to warrant a new model designation.

    6. The B7 must’ve been one of the most thorough facelifts of all time.

      Just like the similarly comprehensive Focus 2’s redesign, only the roof’s sheet metal would’ve remained the same – and in either case, the advent of a new ‘form language’ was the reason for these drastic measures. In the Ford’s case, it was, of course, ‘Kinetic design’, whereas the A4 was supposed to exude the new, more ‘expressive’ flair Walter de’ Silva had brought to Ingolstadt, as first shown in the shape of the Nuvolari concept car.

      I wasn’t a big fan of the more ’emotional’ style WdS introduced (although that approach was no accident, but everybody’s stated intention), yet with hindsight, my criticism feels a bit petty-minded…

    7. Also for me, the B7 facelift clearly marks the turning point for Audi. I liked that car a lot, as I did the A6 of the same era and of course the A2.

    8. Audi’s B6 basically was a B5 with quality problems ironed out and a new rear suspension. B7 was a B6 with new electronic infrastructure predating that of the B8. B9 is a B8 with changes to the front of the platform and uglified light units.
      German car makers like to change half the car at mid life crisis time like giving it new engines or new electronics so they can test new components on a proven platform.
      Compare that to Fiat’s former approach of creating cars that are nearly completely new like Nuova 500, 124, 128 and therefore have to stay in production very long until they are no more competitive.

  3. I have said before that we need to rethink our established views on model generations and ‘mid-life’ revisions.

    For the past couple of decades or so, the real progress in car design has been in platform engineering. This is now approaching the end: modern platforms are about as strong and adaptable as they are going to get, and precious R&D resources are being diverted towards electrification and autonomous driving. If ICE cars (as predicted) start losing sales volume and market share, investing in an all new ICE platform will become less viable.

    So if more new models use carryover platforms we are likely to see more of this kind of thorough facelift in future. Its purpose is to convince potential customers that the A4 is ‘new’ and invite them to take a closer look.

  4. When asked about his then-new employer’s most formative models, Herr Lichte mentioned the first-generation TT (I’ll admit: somewhat inevitably), but also the Audi 90 IMSA GTO race car and the first-generation A8.

    I took that list of cars as a promise – or, more precisely, a good sign insofar as the newly appointed custodian of Audi’s considerable stylistic fortunes truly seemed to understand the brand. After his predecessor had, at best, administered Audi’s design department, rather than truly led it, I was looking forward to a return to form.

    And yet the production cars shown since he made that statement of intent couldn’t be any farther removed from the core values of Audi design, which entails certain questions. Such as whether Lichte truly doesn’t see the chasm between ‘his’ cars and aforementioned role model designs. Or whether he is either unwilling or unable to fight for ‘his’ vision of what Audi design should be about and like.

    Either way, even in the general context of misery that makes up so much of German car design these days (excluding the decent efforts of the fine people working at Zuffenhausen & Weissach), Audi’s loss of direction is simply dramatic. If they are to survive in any meaningful way and shape, they need no less than another Ferdinand Piech at the helm.

    Now where’s a misanthropic genius when you need one…?

  5. Once again DTW rides their favorite hobby horse… There is no point in reading your articles anymore if you see a Bimmer, Benz or Audi in a photo. You know what the article is about.

    1. Maybe you should add a ‘recent’ somewhere. Otherwise it might all get a bit confusing.

    2. Freerk: I assume from the tone of your comment that you are unhappy about the article in some way. Perhaps you would be so kind as to elaborate further because as matters stand the comment comes across as somewhat oblique, which makes it difficult to frame an appropriate response.

    3. It is true DTW is a bit critical of Audi & Co. Still, the point needs to be made. I can buck the trend by saying one or two newish BMWs and Mercedes have looked alright to me lately and I am among the few defenders in these parts of the GT cars. DTW´s critical tendency might also reflect the fact they are worth being critical of and every time they show something new it demands the same response. We´ll have another ashtray article along soon, I expect.

  6. I think the new A4 has a slightly lowered trunk lid, so the rear visibility might be better.

    I guess we should be grateful for small mercies.

  7. “[…] one must now make as much visual noise as the market will tolerate.”

    It’s not only visual noise I’m afraid, but proper noise as well. I see (and hear) more and more RS, M and AMG type ‘racers’ driving around with execrable noise coming out of their exhausts. I just recently had an argument with a gentleman (hm…) who harshly accelerated his RS3 through our residential area, accompanied by loud engine noise and plenty of fake misfires. I’m still not sure if I should believe it, but he said his car was totally factory original.

    For me this is another sign of these companies having lost their orientation. Just a few years ago they’d probably have been afraid of being associated with this kind of tampering on engines and exhausts.

    1. I was once lent an S5 convertible for half a day in Italy (just for convenience’s sake – we’d put our luggage in the boot and return the car to its owner, before being driven to the airport in it). Before returning it, we wanted to grab a bite for breakfast in a nearby village. Piloting the Audi through the narrow and echoing streets turned into a nightmare, as even the slightest of throttle inputs would elicit an astoundingly inappropriate bang/farting noise. Eventually, we decided to park away from the town square where we intended to have breakfast and walk – the car was that embarrassing.

    2. Apparently embarrassment is a rare gift today – given how many of these cars are around and at what time of day they are moved with more than just slight throttle inputs…

  8. Thank you, all of you, for the articles as well as the comments. What a treasure trove of knowledge. (Yes including the XJ series, which I’d come back to read some time in the future over a lovely bottle of whisky!)

    Re: Freerk’s comment, as humans we all have our biases and no one person can be truly impartial, and I believe people who frequent this site do seem to have a tendency bask in the past (present company included). I’m primarily stuck in the 80s-90s-00s, these years’ catalogue of cars being my favourite. One might be elitist to say that we’re looking for a bit of a more dignified appearance and designs of substance when it comes to automobiles, but as is plainly evident to all, what “we” would consider as grotesque and distasteful, tens to hundreds of millions of individuals take no issue whatsoever. We might even be a congregation of obscure eccentrics for most people. Long story short though, I sincerely wish the three prestige brands cycle back to less flashy designs so that future articles and comments here would be positive in nature

    Phew. As an aside – looks like rear haunches are becoming a design trope these days. Personally I love them. Any thoughts you guys?

    1. Might I suggest you experimenally try adding a good bianco vermouth to your whiskey? I did this on the off-chance and the flavours marry very well. I call this mix Rob Roy #4. You can vary the proportions. I began with half and half but possibly a 2:1 whiskey/vermouth would be good, enough sweetness to bring out the honey/vanilla notes in the scotch.
      About Mercedes/Audi/BMW, I am mulling over an audit of each of the brands to see where they are acceptable and where they are less so. This could take a while and also be a bit superficial but might be worth the effort.
      About being stuck in the past, mea culpa also. The 80s and 90s were when I grew up and yes, those cars have most appeal for me. That said there are newer designs I enjoy on various levels. Not enough time has past for me to get to really know them. At present, I am warming to Peugeot´s current output and am beginning to uprate their “prestige” level. Volvo are doing a lot of good work; and after a doldrum, Ford are showing signs of something interesting in the surfacing department which is setting them apart (the new Focus and Fiesta). And Renault have a consistent line of cars too, with the Espace being a fine statement of modern luxury.

    2. Richard, I always had the impression of me being amongst the youngest individuals here, by a long stretch, no less. That’s def a surprise to me. I thought the first -08 generation of cars from Peugeot were “alright”, against the backdrop of whimsical Japanese and brash American vehicles in its price bracket, or the monotony from VW. I thought those cars (and the second -08 generation) had a bit of that weird, stylish yet somehow fashionable French flair & a little of that left-of-center sensibilities. Disclaimer: I’m a mini-Francophile at heart. We don’t have many vehicles from GMC-Opel prowling the roads where I come from, but I’ve been repeatedly smitten by two generations of Insignias on PRC roads during my time there. I can imagine the -08 Peugeots being a touch too whimsical in comparison to the rest of the Opel range.

      On Daimler/BMW/Ingolstadt, I fear the response you’d get from the general populace everywhere is that they’re all “acceptable”. With the badging of a pointed star, blue properly or quad ring, they’re all acceptable. At least that my cynical outlook – guess we shall see?

      I might give the vermouth blend a go one day 🙂

    3. Richard is wise beyond his years, hence your confusion, Millions.

    4. Daniel, much better. Especially after the tapers of the tail light edges have been adjusted to suit the new lines.

    1. Jacomo, were you sad to see them go from the W212 facelift? Well, it was more ornamentation than an actual haunch but nevertheless a haunch it still was

    2. Hi Millions. As you said, the W212 “Ponton” haunches were a bit half-hearted, but at least the historical reference was clear. When they were facelifted away, Mercedes only redid the rear door skin, so was left with a redundant crease in the rear quarter panel. The cack-handed solution was to allow this crease to continue and fade out on the new door skin, below the main crease through the door handles:

      Given that the company spent a reported €1bn on this facelift, you think it could have run to a new rear quarter panel, deleted the lower crease, and and continued the main crease through the door handles all the way to the upper edge of the rear light unit. ( I might have a go at mocking this up.)

      In any event, here’s how do so Mercedes-Benz haunches properly:

    3. I thought the W212 was a fairly awful looking thing, and the Ponton arches were the sort of thing that designers sketch in the first couple of weeks of a project, before rejecting the idea because it doesn’t really work.

      In that case, the facelift was actually an improvement.

    4. I agree with Daniel. These confused double lines on the rear door and rear three quarter panel annoy whenever I see them, which is very often as Berlin’s W212 population is alive and kicking.

      A lonely line fading into nothingness… Seems like two people were drawing the car independently. One started from the front, the other started from the back. They intended to meet in the middle. But well, they didn’t:

      – “Oops… Shall we start over, Dieter?”
      – “Nah, never mind, Gordon. It’ll do. Let’s waste no time and put this thing on the roads by the millions a-s-a-p. In the end, who cares? We’ve put the “best or nothing-principle” in our slogan now, so we have the freedom to cut some corners in product planning…”
      – “I just love working with you, Dieter. That getting-things-done-mindset is what makes us such a good team…”
      – “Thanks Gordon, I know a cowboy when I see one…”

      Though I find the Ponton reference silly, I prefer the “original” look over the “Wagnerized” one.

    5. Here’s how I think the W212 should have been facelifted (in the right place this time):

      What do you think?

    6. Much much better, I think!

      (Could somebody offer a body-kit to retrofit W212 with this alternative facelift? And while at it, please offer a solution to hide the hideous clock on the dashboard alongside it…)

    7. Well gentleman, perhaps it’s because of me not being a particular fan of products from Stuttgart, more often than not I’m just mostly apathetic to their output (in purely aesthetic terms). I certainly don’t share the negativity. We wouldn’t be getting anymore VH/HA from the glory days of yore, and Stuttgart has decided to thread down this fashionable, somewhat voluptuous, increasingly ostentatious rabbit hole. So I suppose it is what it is, just yet another contemporary Mercedes. Like the iPhone, I believe people buy into the franchise not so much the product. Max, that’s a very comical situation and might damn well have been the case! Maybe they wanted to remove the decorative haunch but to restyle the rear three quarter would push a facelift way too far, so in order to maintain a semblance an ugly compromise came to be.

    1. Haha, that’s cheeky! I wasn’t expecting that ending.

      On the subject of retirement, having done it (twice!) I would thoroughly recommend it.

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