When Marc Lichte took over Audi's design department in February 2014, a sense of stability returned to an operation that had suffered from considerable friction -- and a new styling direction.
From 2007 to 2012, Audi design was led by a delicate arrangement involving two men, Wolfgang Egger and Stefan Sielaff. Sielaff later moved to Volkswagen Group's Bentley brand and Egger, Lichte's predecessor, went to Italdesign Giugiaro, an Audi subsidiary.
Egger, a protege of former VW Group design chief Walter de' Silva, pushed for a more angular styling language while at Audi that was visible in the Q7 and the third-generation TT. Other models, such as the A4 and A5, barely differ from their predecessor.
Lichte, 47, built his reputation at Volkswagen, where he headed one of the brand's two exterior design studios. His portfolio includes a number of successful VW models, including the Golf (from the fifth generation onward), the Passat, and future models such as the upcoming second-generation CC.
Lichte was interviewed by Jens Meiners, a correspondent at Automotive News, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe.
Q: What will be the first Audi to appear that was entirely designed under your leadership?
A: When I took over at Audi in February 2014, I had three months to prepare for the move. I used them to create a design strategy and, in parallel, a proposal for the new A8. We went through the regular design process and competition, but my proposal was chosen over four other models. So the next A8 will be the first Audi that was designed according to my philosophy. From there onwards there will be new models coming out at a fast pace. I was also able to leave my mark on the front end of the Q2 in order to create a bit more differentiation.
You've announced a design leap for the interior. Why so soon? Audi had just launched a new interior styling language with the A4, A5 and Q7.
The next step is motivated by the concept of smartphones, of a touch-screen user interface. I see a trend toward this kind of interface in future cars, and it is absolutely clear that we will pursue touch screens. We have developed our future interface as a perfectly integrated evolution of the A4's interior; we dropped a few hints with the Prologue [concept]. But I promise you that the series production models will be even more forceful.
Where do you see Audi in relation to its classic rivals, BMW and Mercedes-Benz?
Our brand is defined by premium, sportiness and progressiveness. In the competitive set, premium quality is a given. Like Audi, BMW is sporty, and so is Mercedes-Benz by now. The differentiator is progressiveness; Audi will be extremely progressive and thus clearly differentiated from the competition. And that includes both overall proportion and every detail.
Is German-ness a factor for Audi?
My foremost teacher at VW was Hartmut Warkuss (the designer of the first Audi 80). I am still in dialogue with him. Our basic design philosophy is still clearly influenced by Bauhaus aesthetics. But today, we also emphasize a strong character, desirability. Our cars are sexy.
Do future Audi models need to be more differentiated from each other?
We have defined a styling language for the A, Q and R models, with a distinct face and each with a distinct lateral section. All of them will visualize quattro all-wheel drive but in their specific way. And even within the three groups, the models will be clearly differentiated. Each model will have its own identity.
You mentioned an R family, even though there is currently only the R8. Will this approach include RS and RSQ models?
They will be very clearly differentiated from the A and Q models, but I don't want to go into detail right now.
What about electrics?
They will get their own identity as well. They will look distinct and even more progressive than conventionally powered Audis. Out first model, which we previewed with the e-tron quattro concept, will have the Q face but with a different grille treatment, different surfaces, different lighting units and extremely good aerodynamics. The series production car will be clearly more radical than the concept car.
How do you approach autonomous driving?
It is a very high priority for me. We are working on concepts up to Level 5 driverless autonomous vehicles, and there we are talking about entirely new architectures. Our work goes way beyond two-dimensional sketches today. I'd like to say that we have come quite far.
Are Audi's studios being reorganized?
We have redefined the Munich studio. It will focus on conceptual work. We have a presence in China, and we will maintain a presence in the Los Angeles area, which I consider to be the global hot spot No. 1 in terms of design. Meanwhile, Italdesign will continue to play a role as a generator of ideas and proposals.