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Audi sees the light with A8

Lean production: An early sketch of the new Audi A8 shows the low and lean intent of the designers.

Luxo limo goes low-rider in new lean and lithe Audi A8

3 Dec 2009

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in MIAMI

GOING from big and bulky to lithe and lean to reflect the advanced lightweight technology within – while still appearing premium and spacious – was the driving force behind the style of the latest Audi A8.

This is according to head of design Stefan Sielaff, speaking to GoAuto at the lavish unveiling of Audi’s rival for the Mercedes S-class and BMW 7 Series at the Audi-sponsored Design Miami arts fair in Florida.

Like all A8s since the original D2 of 1993 – and the preceding 1988 D1 V8 nearly did before Audi got cold feet, according to one senior company engineer – the latest D4 series flagship employs aluminium space-frame technology that results in a body weighing up to 40 per cent less than some steel-bodied rivals.

This time around, the latest A8 goes further by featuring a variety of new alloy and other composites for a significantly stiffer yet lighter body. Similar materials now form a much larger part of the suspension and axle designs too.

To reflect all this, as well as assuage growing consumer distaste towards profligate design, Mr Sielaff and his team went for a leaner and longer coupe-like silhouette.

Achieving a lower-than-expected bonnet and boot line – which includes a 10mm indentation crease on the former to further accentuate the low look – was a real win for the design team.

It was also one of Mr Sielaff’s hardest tasks – especially as increasingly stringent pedestrian impact requirements normally dictate a tall nose treatment while optimum aerodynamic flow usually calls for high boot decks.

7 center imageFrom top: A8 aluminium space-frame technology and design sketches. Bottom: Audi head of design Stefan Sielaff.

With the help and co-operation of Audi’s engine managers, he explained, an extensive (and expensive) redesign of the coming V12 resulted in order for the unit to fit underneath.

“The lowness of the bonnet is really extraordinary … especially compared to our competitors. And it cost us some money as a running change,” Mr Sielaff said.

Yet painstaking aerodynamic detailing has created a best-in-class drag co-efficiency rating of 0.26 (D3: 0.31) anyway while Audi expects the A8 to be a leader in pedestrian-impact tests due to the development of the shorter engine blocks within – a five-star ENCAP rating is even on the cards.

Mr Sielaff said it took five years from conception to production Job One, with the design frozen about two years ago.

But the need to build on the premium essence of the previous D3 model without making it appear heavy or bulky at the same time proved to be another challenge, he said.

The solution was to accentuate the shoulder line to act as a sort of muscular weight pressing down on the car.

This is the crease that runs from under the single-frame grille (a necessary if controversial Audi styling device) up the front edge of the car and then across the bottom of the window line, before splitting to frame the rather A4-esque rear.

To emphasise that ‘pressing down’ look the door handles were lowered well clear of the Tornado Line (as Audi puts it) it also lines them up with the tail-lights if you look at the car from a rear three-quarter angle.

Mr Sielaff revealed that there was some suggestion from within his department that the A8 lose the C-pillar window, but after experimenting without one, his boss (Volkswagen Group design manager) Walter de’ Silva decreed the window sacrosanct on any Audi of this size.

“That is not Audi!” he cried, mimicking Mr de’ Silva.

Laughing at the suggestion that it would have probably resulted in a BMW Hofmeister kink, he added that not having the extra window would have made it virtually impossible to achieve the desired coupe effect.

The designer pointed out that the existing daylight opening design also acted as a vital visual connector to the old car to that end the D3’s narrow rear corner treatment that sees it run vertically from the leading edge of the boot and side of the tail-lights down through to the bottom of the bumper has again appeared.

Nevertheless, despite all the restrained subtlety and sobriety of the D4, Mr Sielaff nominates the LED-ridden headlight and tail-light treatments as one of his favourite things on the A8, since they act as both a flamboyant flourish to set the car apart, and as an opportunity to reiterate the big Audi’s lightness in both senses of the word.

“The lights are now really the A8’s personal signature,” he said.

Mr Sielaff is also unabashedly proud of the Tornado Line.

“It is extremely difficult to achieve this in aluminium.

“You need really good people to help create this at the factory.” Mr Sielaff is confident that the A8’s low and long coupe-like lines will inspire other designers to follow suit as they explore ways of communicating improved efficiencies in future car design.

“Elegance is really the next subject (of car design),” he said.

“Despite the fact that (the previous A8) was very simple, very clean and very bold, elegance is very important for us in order for the new A8 to reflect luxury.”

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