The Italian Behind Audi's Radical Look

Check out the big aggressive mouth on the grille of Audi's new A8 luxury sedan -- the one with the V-12 engine. It has some Audi purists quaking. They're afraid the pugnacious new face could presage a wholesale change in the auto maker's famously understated, rational look, dominated for a decade by disciplined form and clean lines. But designers and car fanatics around the world are dazzled by the radical design accent. "We're about to see some surprises at Audi," says Ken Okuyama, head of the transportation design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

No wonder: There's an Italian behind the wheel. Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piëch promoted Walter Maria de'Silva in 2002 to oversee design for the Audi group, including the Seat and Lamborghini brands, but above all to inject more pizzazz into Audi's minimalist design. De'Silva's stylish makeover of Alfa Romeo's cars in the mid-1990s -- the 147 compact and 156 sedan -- turned around Alfa's fortunes and caught Piëch's eye. VW lured him to Seat in 1999, where he transformed a tired brand into one of Europe's sportiest mass-market marques.

For his biggest challenge ever, de'Silva has gone back to the drafting board once again. With Audi's midsize A6 sedan to be unveiled in March, de'Silva aims to seize the lead from BMW and Mercedes-Benz in design. "It will be a total change. We will maintain Audi's DNA, but we will create more emotion, more sculpture," says the 52-year-old designer.

De'Silva hopes a more expressive design and styling will help Audi steal market share from Germany's luxury kingpins. Not that anything is wrong with Audi's reduced form-follows-function look. It translates Audi's high-performance engineering into perfectly proportioned cars that say "power and handling," period. Designs such as the TT sports coupe have triggered a host of imitators. Audi's rigorous lines and exquisite, high-quality interiors were vital to helping Audi double sales since 1997, to $28 billion. Now the carmaker sells more vehicles in Europe than its arch rival BMW. The dilemma, says de'Silva, is that every look risks going stale: "Audi has to move toward the future," says the Lecco-born designer, who sketches one to two hours a day. "We want to be a leader, not a follower."

That's the reasoning behind the startlingly expressive face on the A8. For the V-12 version, de'Silva scrapped the traditional horizontal face and designed an enormous chrome rim around an imposing vertical-shaped grille. It's seen as a direct challenge to BMW's makeover under designer Chris Bangle, who has given lots more muscle to the Bimmer. The face of the A8 now sports "a gaping mouth that is chewing up the road," says Christoph Stürmer, senior auto analyst at Global Insight in Frankfurt. "The idea is wonderful. It makes the styling of competitors look old-fashioned."

Other clues to where de'Silva intends to take Audi can be gleaned from the Nuvolari coupe concept car unveiled last year: the provocative vertical grille, a more dynamic shape, more sculptured surfaces. "It's more sexy," says de'Silva, who calls the Nuvolari "a manifesto" of Audi's new design direction.

The eye-catching combination of German minimalism and Italian flair has got designers from Los Angeles to Tokyo riveted on Audi's next move. "De'Silva is one of the best designers in Europe. He's able to get emotion into cars and make them desirable. He's the hottest property in the industry," says James Kelly, professor of transportation design at Pforzheim University in Germany. "He will be more emotional, but he won't throw Audi's heritage out the window." It could be the start of something beautiful.

By Gail Edmondson in Ingolstadt

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