CAR interviews Audi design chief Marc Lichte: Audi’s style future

Published: 20 November 2014

Marc Lichte has been busy. In the eight months he’s been in charge of Audi design he’s designed replacements for the A6, A7 and A8, worked on a number of intriguing new projects, from an all-electric car to a Q8, a coupe-like SUV, and found the time to rustle up the standout car of the Los Angeles motor show, the Prologue. We pinned him and his sketchpad down for a chat.

How did Prologue come about?

‘Usually with a concept car you are very lucky if the production car looks the same. Normally it goes into production and everyone is disappointed. Prologue is different. We did the A8 successor first, which is due out in 2016, then the A7 and A6, and the essence of all these three cars is in Prologue. This is a teaser. Almost every element will be seen in future production cars.

‘I started at Audi in February but three months earlier I’d been asked to start thinking about an A8 proposal. On my third day the five proposals were considered, and they chose our car. It wasn’t perfect but it was a clear direction. So we start working on it, and the A6 and A7 in parallel, and after eight months the designs are frozen by the board.’

What are Prologue’s key elements?

‘The proportions are more sporty; longer wheelbase, wider track, lower cabin. You’ll also notice that in profile the front is almost vertical. When you combine this with a really fast back, as we have done, you create the sense of a car rushing forward. The grille is also important. It is still a single frame but it is a lot more horizontal, for a sporty, progressive look.

‘This car also emphasises Quattro – Audi is Quattro. We have lowered the shoulder line, between the wheels, which gives us the space for these muscles above the front and rear wheels, emphasising the four-wheel drive. But Quattro is also a proportion. Let me explain. With a front-wheel-drive car you have a long bonnet and cab-forward proportions. On a rear-wheel-drive car you have a short front overhang and cab-backward proportions. Most designers are fighting to give their cars the proportions of a rear-wheel-drive car. They really want the length here between the A-post and front wheel – what we call the prestige gap. But at Audi we’re not. We have a longer front overhang and cab more or less in the middle for a balanced proportion.

In the future every Audi will emphasise Quattro, and the future A7 will do this even more strongly than the show car. The A8 will be a little more quiet. Quattro is more than a powertrain. It is a big differentiator from our rivals, Mercedes and BMW.’

Audi prologue concept car

What is your favourite part of the car?

‘My favourite part of the car is the rear view. I love that the line along the bottom of the rear screen is the same line as the shoulders of the car as they fall away on either side. This does not happen by chance! It is very difficult to control. I love this perspective. And I think this line is a strong element. It will feature on the bigger cars. Maybe it doesn’t make sense on A1.

‘I also like the solution we came up with for the boot and C-posts. The C-posts look like flying buttresses but they aren’t. There was a very clear reason for this. We wanted an angled rear in profile, like a Riva speedboat, and a fast C-post, but if you do that you end up with a very small boot opening. One option was to put the hinges up on the roof but that wasn’t practical on a luxury car. So we came up with his idea of a rear screen that gives us the biggest possible boot aperture. It’s the aesthetic and the technical combined. The glazing is not like Citroen. Only the very corners are negative, the rest of the screen is positive – it is something very different.’

What are the key themes of the interior?

‘I’m very interested in interiors but for most of my career I have only done exteriors – at VW I was head of exterior design. When I started at Audi I was really happy because Audi is the benchmark in interior design, especially in terms of materials. But the competitors are getting better, so we have to do something different. My vision was a different architecture. I like to express the width of the car, the sense of space in what is a luxury car. Each line is horizontal, to stretch the length of the dashboard.

We also use the touchscreen. Tesla did a very good job introducing this but to me it wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing solution. So we have integrated our touch displays into the architecture. And the lower displays are driver orientated, which is sporty – another Audi value. The materials are more authentic, with natural leather that isn’t so uniformly perfect but to me is more new-premium.’

Audi Prologue interior

Audi has been criticised for a lack of differentiation between models, and for a conservative approach to design in general…

‘I think it was right that Audi took small steps. It was an important step in 2004 when Walter da Silva came up with the single-frame grille and gave Audi a face that was on a level with BMW and Mercedes. Before that Audi had no face. It was an important step but people needed time to get used to it. And now that everybody knows that this is Audi, now is the time to take a bigger step.

‘We must differentiate more within the range. I promise you that in future an A8 will look very different to an A6. The big difference will be in the proportions – a similar design language, very different proportions. The single-frame grille will link them but their grilles won’t necessarily be all the same shape. Right now I’m working on the A1 replacement and we’re doing something really radical. We’re also working on a Q8. Still a single-frame grille but very different. The design for the Q8 is frozen. It has been signed off.’

What else are you working on?

‘I like the idea of a TT family. With the Sportback concept we showed in Paris we are trying to find out what is the perfect sister to the coupe and and spyder. The Quattro as a car is still alive too. The next one you see will be a production car… hopefully. We basically re-started this project because when I saw the concepts I thought the potential was there to be more radical.

But honestly one of my favourite projects is the battery electric vehicle. Audi is doing something really intelligent and clever with this. It’s a pure electric vehicle. Tesla did a normal looking car because that was the right thing to do in the beginning, to not scare people away. But now is the time to do something different. With an electric vehicle you are not constrained in the normal way. If you start with a blank piece of paper you come out with something very different.’

Click here to read our story on the Audi Prologue concept at the 2014 LA motor show

Audi Prologue concept LA show 2014

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three