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