► Audi SkySphere concept debuts
► Future design direction from Ingolstadt
► Level 4 autonomy with transforming interior
The 'C' in 'concept car' typically stands for crazy, cool or clever. Audi's SkySphere does however break this mould by being - in addition to all the above - utterly outrageous in appearance and content.
After all, there are not many design exercises which cram an adjustable wheelbase and two distinctly different personalities in one and the same piece of kit: a luxurious GT now and a 250mm-shorter sports car mere moments later.
Holy moly – will this ever be built?
Unlikely. Coupés and convertibles are on the decline in this SUV-dominated market, the variable wheelbase looks like a passive safety and certification nightmare, and an extrovert low-drag two-seater which measures between 4940 and 5190mm in length is bound to encounter serious social acceptance issues as soon as it joins real roads.
Like the Vision Maybach 6 coupe and roadster shown in Pebble in 2016 and 2017, the Audi SkySphere is so radically proportioned that it simply takes your breath away. Even though the loooong bonnet could easily provide shelter for an Auto Union V16-cylinder engine, this is 2021, so high voltage is the name of the only legal game. But when he took the wraps off his latest baby, the chief designer Marc Lichte did make a brief reference to the historic 1937/38 Horch 853 - not because of any retro look inspirations (there are none), but because of the truly daring XXXL dash-to-axle ratio, the outstanding all-round craftsmanship and the sensuous ambience relayed by a cocktail of wild shapes, grand surfaces and illuminated special effects. Make no mistake: this is a totally modern piece of street furniture. But its presence and impact do match those flamboyant Benzes, Duesenbergs, Horchs and Packards of the Great Gatsby era.
Just look at it!
The SkySphere was conceived in Malibu where Gael Buzyn of PB18 fame runs the Audi West Coast studio. Gael and his deputy Charles LeFranc created a car worthy of the Delage, Delahaye or even Voisin badge - if only those French art deco marques were still around.
The designers certainly broke with the tradition of the four rings in more ways than one. Gone are the questionable quattro blisters (just as well - this Audi is rear-wheel drive only), the ageing singleframe grille, the predictable light graphics, even the functional but not particularly sexy cabin layout. Gael explains the mission behind project PB21: 'In extended wheelbase form, the SkySphere is an opulent cruiser with the footprint of an A8 L. In short wheelbase guise, it's as nimble and agile as an RS5. It offers an instant choice between luxury lounge and sports car, and the transition from one mode to the other can be even completed on the move.'
This morphing process results in a significant change of stance (Sport is shorter, lower), a different light theme (Sport is more focused and aggressive) and a repackaged cabin (in Sport, the passenger seat moves back and the bespoke instrumentation is more driver-centric). The huge rear-hinged doors are power operated, as is the flex-type roll-out roof and the mechanism which moves the steering-wheel, the asymmetrically split panorama screen, the pedals and the centre console out of the way in case level 4 autonomous driving ever clears all bureaucratic hurdles.
'The grille is no longer a fixed item either,' explains Buzyn. 'Instead, any number of different graphics can be pre-programmed by re-grouping dozens of OLED triangles on a relatively tall impact-resistant screen which wraps round to the front wings.'
What's under the bodywork?
The most awesome Audi never to be built is powered by a 465kW (624bhp) e-motor which straddles the rear axle and drives the rear wheels. Fed by an 80kWh-plus battery, the sole propulsion unit (which ensures a 40:60 weight distribution) produces 553lb ft of instant torque - enough to propel the neo-targa in four seconds flat from 0-62mph.
Thanks to its relatively low kerb weight of 1800kg, the SkySphere can in GT mode travel over 300 miles between charge points. Inspired by the upcoming PPE platform, the engineers opted for a double wishbone layout all-round, a triple-chamber wheel-selective air suspension and a steer-by-wire system which turns all four wheels. Thanks to adaptive kinematics, ultrafast software and predictive navigation, the chassis can lift or lower individual wheels to respond to vagaries in the road surface fractionally before the vehicle encounters them. 'What doesn't cease to amaze me is the fact that SkySphere looks equally fetching in short- and long-wheelbase form,' Audi design boss, Mark Lichte said; 'a pity this eye-opening variability is too complex for production."
What about the interior?
What makes this show car so special is the almost antagonistic vehicle geometry and the reconfigurable interior. Audi therefore calls it an Experience Device which splits the premium segment into two tailormade facets. Supported by a seamless digital eco-system, this model and its two upcoming playmates (GrandSphere and UrbanSphere) offer various en-route entertainment options, a comprehensive social media interface, parking and charging aids, plus of course autonomous driving as a service. In Grand Touring mode, all occupants can take part in video conferences, stream films and music, enjoy guided tours of unknown areas and obtain preferred access to concerts or sporting events.
'To me, it´s the details which make the difference,' says a beaming Buzyn. 'Details like the touch controls in the door panels, the split frunk, the mix of speedster and shooting brake attributes, the full-width OLED taillights and the laser-beam headlamps, the rear diffusor which drops at speed to increase the downforce, the quiet sky ventilation bubble hidden in the headrests. And there is more, like a pair of gloves beneath the windscreen and a blanket behind the driver´s seat, the handcut crystal switchgear, and the blend of agave blue macrofibre trim complemented by eucalyptus wood with metallic insets.'
Not to mention the lateral gills which underline the five-second transformation from GT to Sport and vice versa, the smallest-ever camera-based door mirrors and the low-drag carbon-fibre 23in wheels.
Marc Lichte sums it up: 'The SkySphere offers the best of two worlds - visually, dynamically, ergonomically and in terms of practicality. It´s two dream cars in one, period.'
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