Sometimes overlooked as a #3 in the German luxury car wars, Audi is making a determined push to get noticed. Over the past half-year alone, it's lapped the Hockenheim with a driverless car, discussed plans for introducing one of the market's first autonomous cars and shined lasers into the future. Now, it's provided a sneak peek at the future of its design in the form of the Prologue concept, and that future looks as bright as its laser headlights.
The Prologue concept represents a sort of coming out party for Marc Lichte, who started his job as Audi design chief earlier this year. Lichte let Audi's past and present ferment in his creative mind before putting that mind to work on its future.
"When he moved to Audi, Marc Lichte launched a design offensive," explains Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi board member. "His clear philosophy and precise understanding of Audi DNA let him develop a design strategy that is opening up entirely new perspectives for us. It is progressive and highly emotional; it expresses the technological competence and quality claim of the brand perfectly. The Audi prologue is its first proponent – it is a 'signature car' for Audi."
We're not sure we give the affirmative nod to Lichte's classification of the Prologue as the "sportiest car in the luxury segment," but it definitely has a strong, sporty look. At 5.1 m (16.7 ft), the two-door is shorter than the current-generation A8, but it has the large, weighty presence of a flagship thanks to the extended flow of the powerful hood. That gently highlighted hood rests behind a strong, stretched hexagonal grille with squinting laser-matrix headlamps and recessed diamond-shaped air intakes at the flanks. In a lower front styling layer, left and right spoilers work with a larger central blade to tie the look into the world of motor sport.
The Prologue's profile starts with its rear-pushed, near-fastback cabin, but Audi really brings it to life with a series of subtle styling points and add-ons below the belt-line. Taking inspiration from the Ur-quattro of the 1980s, the muscular shoulders above all four wheels are designed as a visual reminder of the quattro AWD at work on the other side of those 22s. A concave sculpting on the lower door ties into the front intakes, while the black apron provides a visual link with the front spoilers.
In a styling point taken from the world of yachting, the rear fascia is angled slightly forward, which adds to the car's fastback feel – save for the small plateau of the separated trunk lid, the roof dives straight down into the rear. A set of 3D LED taillights stretch clean across the entire width of the rear-end. The brake light is set deep in that lighting wingspan, and according to Audi's description, the design "makes the light appear to move towards the observer" during braking. Below the bumper, the large rear diffuser grabs the baton from the side aprons, making for a full lower-body aerodynamics wraparound. A pair of trapezoid-shaped exhaust tips are embedded in that diffuser.
The car wasn't necessarily the most impressive piece of bodywork at the LA Auto Show, but after looking it over more closely with a set of Audi notations in hand, we see that Lichte and Audi have done a masterful job of creating a sporty, muscular design that has all the presence and subtle detail of a true luxury flagship coupe. They've created style and intrigue without going overboard into the realm of fantastical. The design needs very little reworking to get into production-ready form.
The smart subtlety of the exterior doesn't quite carry over into the cabin, where Audi shows a bit less reserve in playing with new features. After opening one of the doors by way of its electromechanical touch sensor, the first thing one notices is the absence of the traditional wood- and leather-faced dashboard. It's been replaced by a thin, central three-unit touchscreen that stretches the width of the dash.
The displays to the right and left of the steering wheel make lighting/assistance system and media controls readily available to the driver. The third display puts media controls at the passenger's fingertips and also allows the passenger to exchange information with the driver, swiping a GPS route over, for instance. The center console houses a fourth display, a flexible, retractable OLED touch display that provides control of AC/heat and other vehicle settings and serves as a template for handwriting input.
The digital makeover extends to the multi-layer iteration of Audi's virtual cockpit gauge cluster. Audi's multi-layer design gives the digital display depth and helps deliver a lot of information logically, with the presentation of information changing based upon the driving mode selected. For instance, in Sport mode, the top layer of drive information includes data on engine rpm, temperatures and charge pressure.
The advanced digital information center is part of Audi's new direction in merging car architecture and operation into one seamless unit. Another aspect of this strategy is the "butler" software that recognizes each occupant by his or her smartphone and automatically adjusts climate and seat settings to his or her preferences. The Prologue's computer system also makes music and route recommendations and allows all the passengers' smartphones to be charged and integrated into the infotainment system. The sound system includes a deployable rear "sound spoiler" to enhance the audio quality.
Beyond its high-tech equipment, the interior is designed to be spacious and elegant, offering four soft "passion" and nubuck leather bucket seats. Pieces of aluminum trim feature a contrast of polished and matte surfaces, and open-grained, silver-gray elm wood veneers add an entirely separate form of contrast. White LED light conductors help define the lines and surfaces of the cabin.
It's rare that we'd focus on this much of the car without even a mention of its engine, but the Prologue's plot is really written around exterior design and interior technology, more so than powertrain. However, it's no slug, either. With the help of the eight-speed Tiptronic transmission and quattro permanent AWD, the 605-hp (451 kW) 4.0-liter TFSI V8 engine pushes the car from 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) in as little as 3.7 seconds. Audi's 48-volt electrical subsystem, which also made an appearance in Audi's electric turbo design, helps the car wander an estimated 27.4 miles on each gallon (8.6 L/100 km). Available torque tops out at 516 lb-ft (700 Nm), but an overboost mode with about 15 seconds of run time spikes that twist to 553 lb-ft (750 Nm).
The Prologue's substantial power is channeled into sharp, drive style-specific handling by way of an adaptive air sport suspension system and a dynamic all-wheel steering system with five degrees of rear wheel rotation – a touch more than the three degrees or so available on Porsches like the 918 Spyder and 911 Turbo S. Carbon ceramic brakes bring those 600 horses to a quick stop.
In LA, Audi focused more on the production future of the Prologue's design language and technologies, stopping short of confirming the rumor that the concept is actually a preview of an A9 flagship coupe. One way or the other, the Prologue promises to have a big impact on Audi's future lineup.