While in Geneva, Switzerland at the Geneva Motor Show, Fourtitude editors had the chance to join a group interview with Audi’s new head of design Marc Lichte. Tasked with ushering in a whole new generation of design, Lichte has his work cut out for him. Quite obviously though, he’s already hard at work in the total transformation. During our conversation we touched on many projects and have included a transcription of the discussion below.
Question (Q): How much of a challenge is it for you to come into a brand with such a strong design history, but at such a transitional time. How difficult is it to come in with so many eyes on everything you do?
Marc Lichte: Honestly, I think the timing was very good. The first car that I designed with my team from a white piece of paper is the next generation A8, so it made sense to introduce a new design generation from the top down.
Since 2004 when Audi adopted the singleframe (grille), the brand became a strong face and it took 10 years to develop this design evolution that everybody all over the world knows this face. But, after ten years and one or one and a half generation of cars, it is now the time to do a bigger step.
That’s why it fits perfectly with the timing. A8 will be the first car, with a top down strategy of new design.
What are the big changes you see that are necessary to make over what is there now?
Before I started designing the cars, I did a very simple design strategy. It is very simple because at Audi the core brand values are progressive, sportiness and sophistication. We emphasized these three core brand values in the design. Second, Audi stands for Vorsprung durch Technik, will visualize this in our design of exterior and exterior, this progressive technology.
For example, quattro, Audi is a quattro brand and in each Audi we will emphasize quattro. That means we will stress all four wheels – on an A8, less on an A1 or A7, but each future Audi will stress this, because I think it is a big differentiation to make with our main competitors. They have rear-wheel drive with different proportions where they always stress the back. We are not. We are quattro. This is something that I like to point out.
Can you take us through some of the finer points of the new R8 design?
The thing with the R8, the first generation was from the beginning a very iconic car. I think it makes sense if you do a successor of this, if the car is that unique and strong and iconic, to do an evolution so that the car is in proportion. It’s better. It is a little bit lower, a little bit longer. The proportions are better.
In the shape, it is more precise… a little bit more edgy, so the car looks a little bit more self confident.
Why choose to go away from the side blade? That was a such a signature element of the old car.
It is very easy to explain. The side blade was vertical. On a sports car, I like to stress the length. If you stress the length the car will look lower. So that’s why we did it in two pieces. The bottom one is in the direction of the horizontal line and the top one is as well. So that is the reason the car looks a lot lower than the first generation.
So the new R8 is evolutionary. Was there any discussion to make it a more radical change with the second generation?
First of all, I have to say, I did not work on this car. The design phase was 2 ½ years ago, but I would do it exactly like this car because, with the first generation, the R8 was already that unique. I think it makes sense with the successor to do a more evolutionary step.
In the next generation, we have to do a bigger step. However, I think it was important to do this step because everybody loves the R8. It is still a beautiful car. It is timeless. Therefore we did this step, one of evolution.
Can you walk us through the design of the prologue?
With the prologue coupe, we presented our new design philosophy. With the prologue Avant, we show how emotional functional cars will look in the future at Audi. This car is a clear teaser for our next Avant generation, and what I’m really proud about is, that at our competitors, they develop two cars. They develop a station wagon with a high roof and a very vertical rear, and they develop shooting brakes, so the shooting brake is very dynamic, but not very functional because the station wagon is functional. We combine both with this concept.
The roof is completely horizontal. Because of this we create space in the interior. We add this with a really, really fast D-pillar. So, we create the dynamic of a shooting brake with this post, and we create the space with the roof. So, we combine both in one car. Because there will be less volume because I am faster (with the C-pillar) and so we extend the back.
Overall, the car gets a very unique and sporty character. You will really see this in our future Avant design generations. It is a very clear teaser.
In 1983, Audi presented the first Avant with the third generation Audi 100, and this D-pillar is inspired by that. Since this car, there was this dynamic approach with a station wagon. Before it, there wasn’t. There were only five-door functional cars. But, the competitors are getting better and better, so with this concept we will make a big step.
Did you say the back will be extended on the Avant?
A little bit. If we talk about the successor to the A6 Avant, if I do this D-pillar that fast, then we will have less space inside. That is why I have to find a way where I can add volume. We added just a little bit in the overhang.
As this Avant gets more of a dynamic and sporting look, does this present more of a challenge for you when you go to design a Sportback like the A7?
Honestly, the Sportback A7 is an unbelievably nice car still. It is timeless I have to say. Last year we designed a successor, and it goes a different way. It will be a lot more emotional and a lot more sporty, because Sportback and Avant are two different concepts.
You mentioned of the prologue coupé that it was not as complete a package as what the other cars represented. Is this Avant more of a representation of what is to come?
The prologue Avant is a very clear teaser for our next generation Avant. Maybe the A6, we will see, but it is very clear. It is a very concrete teaser… the interior by the way as well.
Everybody always talks about exterior, but I am very proud about the interior because when I was at Volkswagen I was in charge of exterior design. I had never done an interior in my life, but this is good because you are open minded. So, when I started at Audi, we thought about a new philosophy of interior.
With this prologue we present a new generation of interiors and this will go into production with the new generation A8. So, there are almost no buttons anymore, and all the displays are integrated into the architecture.
This is a big step, because in two or three generations, cars will probably not have screens anymore. Everything will be projected. So, I don’t want to laugh about this area later when I look back and see what we did with digital screens.
A screen should not be stressing the aesthetic of the interior. We have to integrate them in the architecture, almost invisible. This is a concept you will see in production with the new A8.
So you mean something like the screen that goes across the passenger side?
On the driver’s side as well. On the center console as well. The displays are integrated into the architecture. They’re not added and destroying the aesthetic. No, they are integrated, with almost no buttons anymore.
We’ve seen the TT concept applied across more types of cars than just the coupé or the Roadster. Can you address what’s going on with TT?
Last year we presented a few concepts. Honestly, we are very sure that it is finally decided that we will have a third member in our TT family. It could be the TT Sportback, or it could be the TT offroad concept. We’ll see. It has not yet been decided, but there will be a third member.
Can you talk a little bit about SUVs and the differences in philosophy between SUVs and cars?
We already have a very successful Q family with the Q7, Q5 and Q3. This family will grow. There will be a Q1, a very iconic and unique car. And, it is not a secret that there will be a Q8 as well. The design has been finalized. It is a very attractive car.
Is that an opportunity to design a family look for the Q family? Your predecessor had mentioned developing family looks for the Q family, the R and TT family, and the A family. Is that still a priority?
In the future, we will differentiate in between the A row, the Q row and the R. We will differentiate very visibly with the graphic of the singleframe (grille). With the TT offroad concept we showed in Shanghai, you already got a look at how the singleframe design will look for Q models.
In between our Q row, we will differentiate the proportions as well. The Q8 will be more dynamic and extreme than the Q3 successor for example.
Can you talk a bit about the visual changes between the regular R8 and the R8 e-tron.
Yes, with the R8 e-tron, it is the first car that will present our typical e-tron daytime running light signature. It is very unique, a horizontal bar and then it is extended in a vertical line. You’ll see this on the R8 e-tron and on the Audi prologue Avant as well.
The wheels are one inch smaller, and we added silver color printed on the tire so it gets a very unique style because of this. It looks even sportier than the big wheels on the R8. It is something very unique.
Does this mean we’ve gone as far as we can go by making wheels bigger, bigger and bigger?
You are right. This wheel looks huge, but it is not. It is an inch smaller than the biggest wheel on the R8. It looks bigger because we print this very thin stripe on the tire.
The whole car is more aerodynamic than the R8. The air intakes are closed, the side blade is very aerodynamic and the back is as well. It is modified in the wind tunnel.
How much do you consider your racecars like the R18 when you go to design cars? In the design I see a little bit of the R10 in the side of the R8.
Honestly when our race department develops new racecars, we do proposal models first. We start with this. With the R18 we did this as well. We did a design proposal combined with the technical partners doing their own development, but we influence the racecars a lot. That is why there is some connection between the R8 and the racecars. We are linked.
Back to SUVs, what about the notion of doing a coupe type SUV?
When we talk about Q8, it could be. It could go in this direction, but I have to say the competitors do shooting brakes that look very aerodynamic but are not really functional because the roof is that low. Our competitors do a coupe roof as well. I think Audi will do it a different way – super emotional, but also functional. We will find our own direction. It will be different from the competitors.
Is your prologue Avant that direction?
It is a direction. This is the teaser for our next generation of Avants, but it shows how we combine a shooting brake aesthetic with functionality. So it is somehow a direction, but the Q8 will do it in a different way…. very unique.
When did you arrive at Audi?
I arrived in Feburary of last year, and I got the chance… the first car we designed was the A8 successor. I got the chance to work on this car already at VW. I spent three months working on that car. I arrived at Audi, and on my second day, which was the 5th of February, there was a presentation for the A8 final decision. There were five models and the board chose the model I did in Wolfsburg. So there was a clear direction from this beginning.
That’s why we did so many cars in one year. It is somehow unbelievable, but we have design freeze for A8, A7, A6, A6 Avant, Q8, Q1, all in one year. This happened because we had a very clear strategy. The board liked the direction and then step-by-step we did the cars.
It was a busy year I have to say.
What were some of your bigger challenges the first year… personally?
In the first year, the biggest challenge was that everybody was expecting a new design direction. At Audi it is not easy because Audi is the design brand. Everybody knows it.
If you are that successful, it is always difficult to do a bigger step. You know, as a designer, we have to design a new car, the successor, when a car is in the market, super successful. We then have to say “no, for the successor Mr. Stadler or Mr. Hackenberg, I want to go a different direction.”
Someone might say, “come on this works”, but this is a mistake. If a car is in production for six or seven years, and you do a redesign of it, then you add another six or seven. So then that is one design for fifteen years. You always have to do a bigger step. That is what I did… and it works.
I am looking forward to presenting the production cars to you. We are close with the show car, but I am really looking forward to presenting these cars.
It seems like, even though Audi is design brand, that there is this readiness to embrace an evolution or a change by current owners. That puts a lot of weight on your shoulders.
Yes, but it is my job. I did the same at VW. VW gets lots of pressure from its competitors. So I said to Mr. Winterkorn, VW needs to do the next step in design. We did it. I like this. It is my job.
It is easy. There is a really strong image. Everything is there, but you have to do the step. I have a big team, and I influence them a little bit. You have to convince the board that there is a very clear design strategy. That is the most important thing.
Today, when I present cars to the board, they have this strategy in mind.
Is there a body style of vehicle that lends itself to your aesthetic and that you prefer to design… like sports cars, SUVs?
I love challenges, so everything. Honestly, the Audi prologue Avant is something that I really like. You combine functionality with this super emotional aesthetic, but I like to design SUVs as well, sportscars. Q1 was a pleasure as well. It will be a very iconic car, small. We will see.
What past Audi designs do you look to in establishing where you want to go with the brand?
There are a few. As you know, Audi did an unbelievable development over the last 25 years. There was a clear vision. Mr. Piech said Audi will become a competitor for Mercedes and BMW. The reasons for the success is that Audi did everything a different way – designwise, technical wise. At the others you have rear-wheel drive. Audi has all-wheel drive. They produce a car in steel. We produce a car in aluminum. Because of this, this technology creates a different design. I have a lot of examples, like the third generation Audi 100, the aerodynamic car. It created a completely different style. There was the Sport quattro, with this emphasis on quattro wheels. TT, for example, is an absolutely unique car. If you look at the first generation TT, it was different than all other designs in the world.
This is Audi… to do it in a different way.
The Sport quattro seems like a car that Audi would like to bring back in a modern way, but so far has had a difficult time deciding on how to do that. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Honestly, I think the Sport quattro will fit perfectly within the brand. Perfect.
Maybe I’m working on it.