Under the Knife – No Advance

2004’s (B7) Audi A4 was a highly significant (re)design, if not entirely for the right reasons.

A distinct lack of Vorsprung. 2004 B7 series Audi A4. Image: dsf-my

The four rings of Ingolstadt were a long time in the ascendant, frequently taking one step forward and several backwards, before hitting a more assured stride. Indeed, according to former design director, Peter Schreyer, it was at one time considered an embarrassment to be employed at Ingolstadt’s design centre in the 1970s, so poor was Audi’s reputation at the time.

Matters advanced the following decade, But it wasn’t until the 1990s that Audi really hit its stylistic stride. The 1994 A8 was a statement of intent, its elegantly unadorned lines garnering justifiable admiration, but the 1997 announcement of the C6 series Audi A6 model really catapulted the carmaker into another stylistic dimension. A superbly realised symphony of time-honoured styling cues, honed and reduced to near-perfection, the A6 was German premium aspiration rendered with billet-like precision.

In fact, Audi however had barely got going, two years later debuting the rational-futurist A2, and the following year, the B6-series A4.

Virtually flawless. 2000 B6 series Audi A4. Image: dieselstation

The previous-generation (B5) A4, from a visual perspective at least was a tough act to follow, being beautifully crafted and elegantly styled – if disappointingly inert as a driving machine. Introduced in 2000, the B6, new from the ground up, was not only better to drive, but a close to flawless masterclass in German stylistic rectitude.

Audi’s design principles of the period were characterised by a strong, cohesive overall theme, honed through a process of reduction to an essential rightness. The Audis of this generation, overseen by Peter Schreyer are not celebrated enough in my view; they were a hairsbreadth away from masterpieces, if pre-Millennial minimalism is your taste. In form, stance and proportion one would really have to be up early to criticise. It is only in detail design that one could conceivably nitpick, but when design is this well realised, why would you?

Audi habitually came a breathless third in dynamic comparison tests against domestic rivals, but with the B6 series, the A4 was in real-world terms their equal, and made a lot of suitably well-heeled and discerning customers very satisfied indeed.

Audi A4. Image: Autoevolution

But nothing remains constant in the world, and the in the arena of automotive design, the work is only as good as the brief which guides it. In 2002, Walter de Silva took the helm as design director of the Audi Brand Group – (which also included Seat and Lamborghini). Inheriting Schreyer’s designs – both existing and upcoming, it appears that, as all design directors do, he applied his own vision to what his predecessor had left in hand.

Walter de Silva had made a name for himself at Alfa Romeo, overseeing a number of unequivocally excellent car designs, which were rightly hailed as having honoured the Biscione’s marque values while advancing its aesthetics. However, while it is possible to suggest that Audi’s design direction under Peter Schreyer was already heading somewhat in this direction, de Silva’s reign at Ingolstadt can be characterised by a move away from the studied restraint of the Schreyer era to one of applique, and the faintest beginnings of Audi’s slide into its current stylistic malaise.

The B7-series A4 is not only egregious for what was carried out, but all the more so because the A4 as was did not require alteration. There was also a faint whiff of dishonesty in that it was characterised as a new generation model in Ingolstadt’s naming system, but was quite obviously a nose and tail job. Realistically, it is of course a little more than that, since in effect no skin panel apart from the roof was carried over from the previous model, but the B6 roots nevertheless were abundantly clear.

The bulk of the alterations were concentrated at nose and tail. Forward, the nose was characterised by the so-called Nuvolari grille, first featured on the 2003 Nuvolari concept – de Silva’s stylistic calling card at Ingolstadt. This vertical arrangement was allegedly a work in progress under Schreyer’s leadership, but would become synonymous with the Italian. In fact it had made a quiet debut in the second-generation Audi A3 of the same year – or at the very least, a close facsimile of it.

2004 Audi A4 (B7). Image: dsf.my

The A4’s headlamps were reshaped along more expressive lines, reflected to some extent at the rear, where the contour-hugging ‘wrap-over’ tail-lamps were replaced by more angular, more contrived-looking units. Indeed contrivance seemed to be the leitmotif of the B7’s revisions, but perhaps the most significant, and in the final analysis, retrograde change was to the flanks.

The addition of a pronounced reverse fold body crease completely altered the character of the design, changing what was a muscular, pared-back, skilfully crafted piece of stylistic exactitude to something flaccid, visually truncated and fussy. In short, they ruined it.

The B6 was a classic example of less equalling more, whereas its B7 successor was its diametric opposite – call it a silent reproach to those who believe that change for changes sake is anything worth pursuing. Following the B7, Audi, from a purely stylistic perspective at least, never really looked back – more is the pity.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

34 thoughts on “Under the Knife – No Advance”

  1. I absolutely agree with you judgement oon the design changes, they’re simply awful and unnecessarily spoil a good design.
    The B7 is much more than a simple facelift. It introduced a range of new engines like common rail diesels (the B6 had pump jet fours and mechanical pump sixes) and it introduced a new and much more complex electronic platform predating that of the later B8. Compared to the B6 it also showed signs of massive decontenting and cost cutting. There were no more rotating cigarette lighters, no more foldable boot floor and under the bonnet the battery and ECU no longer lived under lids – all looks very similar to the Rover 75’s ‘drive’ program. As a compensation you got knurled aluminium rings around the radio’s volume control and the light switch. On the B7 also corrosion problems re-appeared because bodies were no longer fully galvanised.
    Given the choice I’d take a B6 over a B7 (or even B8 and B9) any time, not only but also for the looks.

  2. Good morning Eóin. The B7 really was an egregious destruction of a brilliant design. ‘Contrived’ is the perfect word to describe the changes made. The light units at both ends are horribly fussy and that side crease really upsets the formerly clean flanks, a change made at considerable expense for no good reason. And, of course, the B7 featured the first iteration of the ‘Big Gob’ grille on the A4, which continues to besmirch Audi designs to the present day.

    I remember at the time the B7 was introduced the reaction to the styling changes was quite lukewarm. I recall a reviewer commenting that it looked “fussier and more old-fashioned” than the B6 it replaced. Quite.

    1. Much like the W202 C-Class, which looked like the car the 190E replaced.

    2. Yes, Robertas, the W202 C-Class was a flaccid, frumpy and poorly defined shape after the brilliant W201 190E.

  3. Good morning Eoin. I the B6 cabriolet is worthy of a mention in dispatches with the styling so perfect IMO, that they didn’t dare alter it when the B7 was launched, apart from “that” grille!

  4. Reading this made me realise that Audi’s period of modern styling excellence lasted for a shorter period than I previously thought. If the C6 series A6 was its zenith (and how nice to be reminded of that masterpiece), it really didn’t take long for the rot to set in. On the other hand, viewed more positively, that the C6 A6, B6 A4, A2 and original TT should all have made it into production with such cohesive, modern, unadorned and pleasing designs is little short of a miracle.

  5. I’d like to add to the list of symptoms the elimination of the flush black covers in the lower part of front and back bumpers. The new painted bumpers added visual bulk due to their larger empty surfaces. The answer to the ensuing horror vacui has been ornate valances: lower side grilles, “diffusers”, fake exhausts, chrome and LED strips, and all the other warts that haven’t healed ever since. I don’t know if the B7 A4 was the original perpetrator, but certainly it was an influential one.

    1. The black colour was already lost at the B6’s minor facelift in 2003

  6. I don’t get the love for the B6 A4? I always saw it as visually inferior to the almost sublime B5. Above all, it always looked like an A6 that had been horizontally compressed, like they had compressed the file trying to shrink the A6 body over the A4 hardpoints.

  7. It looks a bit more bulky but still pretty clean. Looks aside, black/unpainted valances are also cheaper to replace and can hide uneven panel gaps (or impressions thereof).
    What could have been the reason for doing away with the black? Also in the Golf (5 -> 6), Polo (9N -> 9N3) and more.

    1. Early B6 valances weren’t unpainted, they had grey rubberised paint on them that was very scratch prone.

    1. What were they thinking? Shifting all the tooling from Bavaria to Catalonia in order to make just over 80,000 cars in five years. They’d have spent less selling a re-branded Passat or Superb.

      I’m sure that VAG expected the Exeo to do better than it did, but I suspect a tax reason, or a fat regional development grant.

    2. The Exeo was an attempt to right the SEAT ship after they foolishly bet the farm on monobox vehicles; the 2004 Altea, 2006 Altea XL, 2004 Toledo Mk3 and 2005 Leon Mk2. Too many similar and overlapping models meant the company urgently needed something different, larger and more conventional.

    1. I remember being rather excited by these design sketches for the Exeo published in Car Magazine in June 2008

      These were (and I was) a bit naive, given that the accompanying text stated the car would be heavily based on the superseded B7 generation A4.

  8. I never really cared for the B6 model – it somehow reminded Me of the TT (which I never liked). The way the tail lamps ‘bled’ into the top surface of the trunk was particularly unpleasant.The B7 looked so much better that I was sad when they replaced it.

  9. I prefer the Audi A4 B5 to the later variants especially the sublime B5 Avant RS4 estate model.

    Interestingly I saw a Bristol Blenheim 4 with Audi A4 B6 sedan tail lights in Richmond, London. Most unexpected.

  10. I am not sure of the respective launch dates, but da Silva’s unnecessary ‘feature line’ along the flanks of the B7 seemed to me to be introducing the theme that was more fully developed in the similar “bone lines” of the Audi A5.
    However, the unnecessary-ness of the feature line on the A4 that you describe in this post was just a preview of the even more unnecessary ‘expression’ that da Silva introduced to the huge detriment of Audi styling. It was clearly a response and re-hash of Bangle’s flame surfacing and has led us to the last ten years where each model from the ‘big 3’ is as interchangeable, wilful and stylistically irrelevant as the next.

    1. Monkey Tennis: The bone line you mention is referred to in Audi PR-speak as the ‘Tornado Line’, for reasons unknown but are clearly unrelated to the meteorological phenomenon, and became an applique fixture on Audis until recently, when it was decided that it was maybe a little passé to have a single uninterrupted line – better to have several unrelated ones. ‘With these lines and creases, Mr. Lichte, you are really spoiling us’.

      Interestingly, the Seat Altea and Toledo were also created under the guidance of Mr de Silva, and while product planning was clearly not in his remit, the designs as realised form part of his palmarés, like it or not. Even at the time, it did seem a rather quixotic gambit.

  11. It´s the 80 and then the B5-version of the A4 that work the best for me. Even today´s B6 is off-the boil, good as it is. I am beginning to trace the outline of the period when I became alienated from most contemporary design. It seems to be around the turn of the millennium and that´s a shocking indictment of my ossification. Another thing the B6 shows up is the fact car design has slowed down like the snail in Zeno´s paradox. Or perhaps it has stopped making what one could call progress. Progress is a positive change in some direction e.g if there´s a undesired state, progress is the change away from undesired state. You can´t call the design work of the period ´00 to 05, say, an unwanted state. Change from this state is therefore as likely to be deleterious as beneficial. Case in point: the BMW 218 I was in the other day. The exterior isn´t the obvious answer to a problem; the interior is busy and generic. The inside and outside of the B5 very much answered the question of what one might do to exploit contemporary engineering methods to make a better car than the one before it that was still true to basic design principles. Google showed me the current A4 and it´s not clearly an Audi other than because it has huge badges that insist in this.

    (Small side point: I´ve lately seen recent Fords e.g. the last Mondeo with de-enamalled badges. I am puzzled future-proof enamel was not used as it has been for decades and decades. Has anyone else seen this? It makes me a bit sad that good bits of design become anonymised, as if the maker is trying to cover their tracks by making the name fall off an old product).

  12. The Exeo must be one of the more recent mash-up/curiosity/misfires of the annals of car design. It is a little like the Skoda Superb that was an elongated Passat (B5, I think) though far worse since the B5 Superb came in at a time when Skoda was still a fluid concept. The Exeo thoroghly muddies the Seat water and came across as being akin to the badge engineering horrors one might have seen in the US in the 70s and 80s. I suppose the dealers wanted it for the purposes of keeping customers in the fold. Or did they even know what to do with it. Imagine if Jaguar dealers were given a five door hatchback with a long wheelbase and just one diesel engine to sell in between the XE and XF…. it´s that confusing.

    1. Hi Richard. The difference is that SEAT had nothing like the A4/Exeo in its range at that time, just a series of Monobox/MPV designs that were all too similar to each other.
      This was particularly so with the Altea XL and Toledo, which shared the same wheelbase at 2,580mm and only differed in overall length by 10mm, the Toledo at 4,460mm and the Altea XL 4,470mm. The (lack of) product planning that caused this overlap is extraordinary.

      (The Toledo is the first one above, by the way.)

      The Exeo was a quick and dirty fix to give the company a conventional D-segment saloon and estate to sell. Its origins were all too obvious (unlike the Mk1 Superb) so it wasn’t a success. The strategic mistake wasn’t the Exeo, per se, but the poor planning decisions behind rest of SEAT’s range

    2. Indeed, Seat’s bet on the mono volume didn’t pay off at all. The Exeo was, if memory serves, the first measure undertaken by incoming CEO James Miura, whom VAG had poached from Mazda. Muir’s tenure at Martorell proved to be short-lived, however.

  13. For Europe the Exeo is almost one of a kind for VAG, with a superannuated body handed down to one of the sub-VW brands. Usually this happened to China, Latin America, and Africa. The closest parallel I can think of was the first Toledo, based on the Golf Mk.2 platform, just as the Mk.3 arrived, but its substructure was quite different.

    Perhaps one of the DTW commentariat closer to the Exeo’s domestic market can explain what it was for. SEAT gave up big saloons by dropping the 132 in 1982 long time before libre importación. I’m thinking low-end big car functions like taxis and government fleet purchases.

  14. Ah yes…

    From the strange time when SEAT took a break from being the putative Spanish Alfa Romeo to try out being the Spanish Renault instead.

    1. SEAT’s mid-noughties model muddle is partly explained by the market’s rejection of the 2004 bustle-backed Toledo. The 2006 Altea XL was an attempt to produce a more visually appealing alternative, and really should have replaced the Toledo which, strangely, remained on the market until 2009.

  15. The most laisez-faire VAG badge engineering I can think of are 90s VW Caddys and Polos, which were actually ‘real’ VW Polo, a rebadged SEAT Ibiza or even Skǒda Felicia Pickup with a VW front clip, depending on the model you chose…

    Actual Polo

    Caddy (Actually a Skǒda Felicia Pickup)

    ‘Classic’ (booted, sedan Polo – actually a SEAT Ibiza

    Caddy Van



    1. That’s nothing compared to the VW Taro which was a Toyota HiLux with VW badges:

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