Audi's Design Drive

The German luxury brand's executive design director discusses how design is helping the company catch up to BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the U.S.

For the past two years, Audi of America has been staging a comeback in the U.S. Perennially a brand that has lagged behind its German luxury counterparts, BMW (BMWG) and Mercedes-Benz (DAI), particularly within the lucrative American car market, Audi has been busy playing catch-up.

And it seems to be working. So far this year, sales of the company's tony cars are up 10% over 2006. At the current pace, Audi should sell about 90,000 vehicles by the end of 2007, an increase from previous years, but still far behind its European competitors and Toyota Motor's (TM) Lexus Div., which regularly sells more than three times that figure annually. To continue closing the gap, Audi has been bringing new models to market, including the Q7 SUV, R8 supercar, and A5 coupe. The new vehicles may be in different segments, but they all have one thing in common: an aggressive new design language, the beginnings of which were established in 2004.

Claus Potthoff, Audi's executive design director, in Santa Monica, Calif., recently spoke with staff writer Matt Vella about the company's design-driven charge against the competition, how design is helping the bottom line, and what makes an Audi an Audi.

Generally, what is your design philosophy for Audi? What is a contemporary Audi supposed to be?

One of the most important things [for Audi] is quality: visible, appreciable quality. We've had that before, as we do now. What's new, I think, is the range of products as well as how we execute [our cars: there's] more overall sportiness on the exterior and, inside, we're adopting a driver-oriented dashboard. Audi bodies are adopting more fluent lines, more surface transitions. Before the lines were very geometric. It was also a great design language, but now to get a more sporty appeal we have to move in a more emotional direction. The trick is to make it an evolution, keeping the heritage in the shapes and the lines.

In the U.S., Audi is trying to catch up in sales and perceived reputation with the other German luxury brands, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. How does design further that effort?

We've come a long way. It started 15 years ago with moving the brand into the premium space. Now design has become even more important. It's a part of communicating everything that's in the car, the philosophy, the technology, the brand. All these things are conflated into the shape of the car. For instance, car design that is made up of very precise lines shows competent, high-quality production.

What we've done in the past four years is make the front end of our vehicles more dominant. Before, Audis suffered from a lack of being easily and instantly recognizable on the road. So the idea, beginning with the A8 sedan in 2004, was to adopt a very strong identity, beginning with the front grille.

You've recently introduced a slew of new models, including the Q7 SUV and the R8 supercar, and the company has aggressive plans for more new vehicles. What are the design challenges involved in such rapid expansion?

It's important to find design criteria common to all Audis and yet develop differing designs for different vehicles. For example, with the R8 supercar, the front grille and headlights were treated completely differently from our other vehicles. The vehicle's grille has different proportions, and we also moved the Audi rings onto the hood, a first. But it's a mix. If you design cars too specifically different, the brand loses power. The balance is between showing the brand in each car and making sure that each car is unique.

The Q7 SUV, which came out in 2006, was a first for Audi. The market for luxury SUVs is very crowded and yet the model has sold very well, becoming the brand's second-most popular vehicle in the U.S. What part did design play in its success?

We spent a lot of our development time on that car discussing how to treat it. It's hard to bring something very new to market, especially when we have to fill the gaps [we have] in our lineup compared to other premium brands. With the Q7, we weren't…creating a new product segment, but by creating a stretched, long body and making the front end really powerful, it became a very striking vehicle.

The rear treatment also makes it very special. The lift gate in the back wraps around the car's edges, giving its lines a unique simplicity. The car just looks very strong on the road because it has quite a different proportion than other midsize SUVs—and that makes it recognizable as something new and different.

What creative influences outside of car design are relevant to Audi's style?

I personally like very much designers that have a clean and strong design language. Marc Newsom, for example: I like how he treats things. And Philippe Starck, too, but more for the way he designs objects that can trick an eye. He focuses on doing things outside of predefined borders and boundaries. He's very open to creative thinking, which is really great.

What design elements will become more important to distinguish Audis from other luxury vehicles?

Two things: our front-end grille and light technology. We're moving to more LED head and tail lamps. It's wonderful technology for design, because you can create a character for a vehicle that's very easy to recognize. On the R8 and the upcoming version of the A4 sedan, the details on the head and tail lamps are like little pieces of art. Another very Audi detail is [the] rounded roof line we started 10 years ago and we've decided to keep, especially on the larger cars.

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