New A8 will launch Lichte’s Audi design strategy

Lichte’s sketches of rooflines of future Audi vehicles. A is for sedans and Q is for crossovers/SUVs.

FRANKFURT — Audi’s all-new A8 flagship sedan, due in 2017, will launch a new styling direction for the brand, says design chief Marc Lichte. Indeed, he says it will be Audi’s most significant design statement since Walter de Silva created the single frame grille in 2004.

Since shifting to Audi from the Volkswagen brand in February 2014, Lichte’s studio has been busy. The team has completed “seven or eight” designs that are in the product pipeline, including new generations of the A6, A7 and A8, and the new Q8 sporty midsize crossover.

They reflect a styling language that will emphasize clean, simple surfaces, like those seen on Audi’s recent series of Prologue concepts. Proportions will emphasize Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive architecture, with taut sheet metal creating a visual “muscle” above each of the four wheels, Lichte said.

Lichte, 46, said another major theme will be distinct roofline concepts — one for sedans and another for crossovers — that draw inspiration from the TT coupe and e-tron quattro concept.

“I think I came on board at exactly the right time because Audi has to make a bigger step in design,” he said. “It makes sense to introduce a new design top down.”

It all started before Lichte arrived at Audi. While at Volkswagen brand, where he was in charge of exterior design, Lichte says he was approached by Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and Audi technical development boss Ulrich Hackenberg. They asked him to take a crack at designing the next-generation A8, a project already well underway in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Lichte called some friends at Audi — in marketing and other departments — and assembled them into a small team. After working on the project in “a secret place” at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Lichte’s team crafted not only an A8 design, but a clean-sheet design strategy for the next several years of Audi vehicles.

Lichte’s design won out over four other proposals from Audi designers. And he soon was named chief designer for the brand. He presented his vision to Audi’s management board shortly after moving over from VW and was given a green light.

“We created a very simple design strategy,” he said. “Audi as a brand is sporty, progressive and high-value. But our main competitors, BMW and Mercedes, are high-value as well and sporty.

“So what’s the difference? Audi has to be progressive. Honestly, that is what I think Audi has lost a little bit in the last 10 years.”

Emphasizing the Quattro awd architecture is a key aspect of the new design language. The e-tron quattro concept’s sheet metal features strong creases above each of the wheels that fade quickly into the side panels. That “muscle” sitting above the wheels will appear on other vehicles, Lichte says.

“To differentiate Audi, we have to stress all four wheels,” he said.

Another major theme is the roofline. Sedans will have a fast, long, sloping roofline with a thin C-pillar and narrow greenhouse. Lichte says the shape is inspired by the TT’s half-teardrop greenhouse.

Audi’s future SUVs and crossovers will be notable for their strong C- or D-pillars, which will be thicker and angled forward to create a perception of strength, another idea seen on the e-tron quattro concept.

Each vehicle will have its own interpretation but will follow those two broad themes.

“These are the two rooflines you will see on Audi in the future, and that’s it,” Lichte said. “If you do something in between, you’re already entering into the territory of what maybe BMW is doing or Mercedes, and I want to have a clear differentiation.”

Other “progressive” aspects of the design language will be seen in the detail work. Lichte says his team will continue to push the lighting envelope with new 3-D daytime running lights — especially on the next-generation A7. The lights gain depth from the design of their housing and from the light they project, he said.

Lichte says Audi also will “visualize” aerodynamics. As an example, he cited the hard-edged lip sitting above the taillights on the e-tron quattro — a feature developed in a wind tunnel to reduce drag and that also serves as a “character” detail.

He says the time is right for his top-down design overhaul. The single frame grille created by de Silva — then Audi’s head of design, now VW Group styling chief — gave Audi its first recognizable face when it appeared in 2004, connecting its vehicles and standing out from the iconic grilles of BMW and Mercedes.

“This was an amazing step because ever since this time, Audi has had a face. Before, there was a TT and different cars, but never really a face,” Lichte said. “But now, after 10 years, because everybody knows this is Audi, now is the time to take a bigger step.”

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