Gallery: Audi Steals the Show in Chicago

With both BMW and Mercedes-Benz sending their regrets to the Chicago Auto Show—as they did in Detroit—Audi was the lone purveyor of German luxury/performance (Porsche, which was present, is really in its own sports category).  Audi took full advantage of the opportunity to showcase almost its full line-up, no small feat for a brand that has been adding models almost annually.

While the trend of sitting out auto shows is likely to continue, they’re still an experiential way for automakers to present their brands, and Audi is exceptional at doing so. Audi presented its first totally new display in Chicago in years. No matter where you stepped up onto the elevated platform, you were conscious of crossing a threshold into the Audi brand environment.

The cars were arranged on immaculate gray and white flooring in an orderly grid under bright rectangular “halos.” The four rings logo was everywhere to be seen, and techy matrix displays overhead cycled through a variety of messages based on the theme “progress is . . .” Audi Sport models were placed front and center to remind you that Audi measures progress in 0-60 times, too, and a trick setup with accelerator pedals treated you to the “Sound of Speed.”

If you were color shopping for your next Audi in Chicago, hope you were looking for gray because the display served as a virtual color chart of the shades of Audi gray (side note: it’s remarkable how many other cars today are sporting non-metallic gray tones, pioneered years ago by Audi with Nardo gray). Altogether, a very classy and cohesive presentation of the Audi brand.

Of course, anytime Audi brings an R8 it acts as something of a scene-stealer, and that was certainly the case in Chicago. Here it was a V10 Spyder painted in an understated matte white, sharply contrasting with carbon fiber accents. But Audi’s newest models offered formidable competition to the R8.

Among these were the A6 and A7, just now making their way onto roads. They’re some of the first new Audis totally styled by Marc Lichte, head of Audi design since 2014. When Lichte first came on board, he talked about evolving the Singleframe grille and also emphasizing Audi’s quattro heritage with more pronounced wheel housings at all four corners, and it is evident that he is fulfilling his design brief. 

From a personal perspective, the new A6 sets the benchmark for Audi sedan styling. Its lines are elegant and fluid with obvious sinew over the wheel openings to suggest power and purpose. High on the A6’s side an inverted crease fades smoothly around the rear of the car (it’s one of those Audi details that rewards close-up examination). Audi seems to take an almost perverse delight in executing evermore difficult sheet metal bends. Deeply sculpted lower door panels mix light and shadow, and combine with an asymmetrical bottom sill between the wheels to trace out a subtle parabola in the A6’s mid-section.

At the front of the A6, the grille crouches wide and low and showcases the next evolution of the Singleframe, which advances Audi’s long-running design without becoming grandiose or grotesque. Overall, the A6 has shaken off a somewhat staid appearance to show new energy and grace.

The A7 is all new, too, and it’s more than an A6 with a fastback profile. Dwell on the details, and you’ll see distinctive styling differences from the A6 across the hood and along the sides of the car. The surfaces are smoother, simpler, perhaps to draw attention to the racy sportback. In the C-pillar area, the sheet metal rises with a subtle kink at the corner of the side window to meet an inverted crease flowing from the roof arc. Just lovely.

Despite the significant changes from the previous A6/A7 generation, they’re still instantaneously recognizable, a measure of Audi’s typically careful approach when updating classic models. Not so with the interior, where Audi has made a sea change in MMI functionality. Gone is the click wheel interface, replaced (finally, some might say) by touch screens. Audi has designed an intelligent solution, dividing up the functions between two screens stacked one above the other and angled slightly toward the driver. The top screen, framed in aluminum and shaped like the Audi grille, controls the infotainment and vehicle settings, while the lower one, set into the console, manages the interior climate. A separate pod behind the steering wheel houses the latest version of Audi’s digital cockpit. Audi’s tiered approach to dash design adds a luxurious and welcome dimensionality to otherwise flat screens and preserves an overall cockpit-like feel.

Audi’s new approach shines. Literally. The glossy touch screens, along with decorative panels of piano black trim, create a large expanse of fingerprint- and reflection-prone surfaces. However, compared with the instrument panel in the A4/A5 series, which is only a few years old but still based on click wheel functionality, this new design feels like more than a generational leap. 

Audi’s latest design language for its sedans successfully reasserts traditional Audi elegance imbued with a new muscular stance. In the SUVs and crossovers, however, Audi performance and luxury have to reconcile themselves with the Brutalist conventions of the segment. It’s kind of like wearing a tool belt with your Guccis. Tall grilles, jacked-up suspensions, sheer body mass, and protective cladding are simply not the stuff of classically beautiful automotive design. Audi signature styling elements are still present—fender blisters, prominent creases and sculpted body flanks—but crossovers fulfill a more complicated mission than sedans and pure design is likely not at the top of the priority list for buyers. 

Despite these contradictory forces, the Q8 does the best job of pulling it off.

The even-numbered designation means the Q8 is part of a new series of Audi SUVs with sleeker, less utilitarian styling. It is also the flagship of the Audi SUV class. The sharply raked rear window with spoiler is your first cue of its sporting intent. And, indeed, the Q8’s lines are more athletic, especially for a relatively large vehicle (10” longer than a Q5). In the Year One package, a blacked-out grille and surround—along with  gloss black window trim and great-looking wheels—make for a handsome presentation. But enough with the faux exhaust outlets (SUVs and sedans are both guilty), ok, Audi? It’s a styling lapse uncharacteristic of the brand.

Audi’s first battery electric vehicle, the e-tron, premieres with styling that’s more akin to the Q8 than to the Q7, no doubt to underscore the enlightenment of our coming all-electric future. Its lines aren’t quite so rakish as the Q8’s, but the resemblance is there and the casual observer has to look closely to tell them apart. On both vehicles, the wheel arches and door sill panels are painted body color rather than matte black as is the usual custom on SUVs, which lightens the body mass and distances them from their truck-like counterparts. 

The two vehicles also benefit greatly from lowered suspensions, which reduce the ugly gap between their massive tires and wheel arches. And, the e-tron greets you with an actual grille instead of the blank stare of some other electric vehicles. In fact, with the exception of a few trim details that are unique to the e-tron, Audi has endeavored to make the e-tron seem very familiar—normal, even, if you will—both inside and out. It doesn’t scream different! Electric! Weird!

The idea of “progress” has been an enduring tenet of Audi’s branding. The Chicago stand even spelled it out, with the LED signs displaying, “progress is . . . quattro,” and “progress is . . . Audi Sport.” But the signs left space for visitors to come to their own conclusions and fill in the blanks themselves about what progress meant. There certainly was no shortage of ways at the Audi display in Chicago to define it. Even if most of them were painted gray.

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