Design: What Goes Around Comes Around -Audi Revives The Baby Benz



LET ME describe an evolutionary loop I have been pondering, beginning with the Mercedes-Benz 190E. With sheer surfaces and geometric architecture derived from the C111 concepts, the 190E appeared in 1982 without precedent in either concept or aesthetic.  Its diminutative size took Mercedes into hitherto uncharetered territory, yet exquisite proportions kept in check by Bruno Sacco ensured the car looked as lithe and luxurious as his W126. The cut-off rear straight from the C111 ensured low drag, and applied the graphical layout found on the R107. Neatly, a thick black outline was used to lend a more modern look, and a chamfer on the lower edge of the bootlid helped disguise the height. 


So impressed were Ford that they brought one into the studio when they designed the four-door Sapphire saloon, based on the Sierra. (Let us pause for moment to recognize the irony that Ford, who insisted on the Sierra’s polarizing soft shape for minimized drag, should use the chiseled 190E for inspiration.) Look at the styling of the rear and note the molten facsimile of the Ford. Dismissed as copying, imitation of upmarket brands is standard practise for mainstream manufacturers. Ford is still doing it now attempting to ape Aston Martin, as they understand that the customers aspirations are not necessarily as limited as their budget.


But a premium brand copying a mainstream car is a little less common. In 1988 Audi began developing the first A4. Moving away from the banded horizontal tail-lamps that had appeared before the A-prefix, Audi used the Sierra estate when benchmarking for the A4 Avant, which appeared in 1995. Both put stacked lamps outside of the bootlid, within a soft corner and plenty of metal between it and the glass. The boot-lid descended into the bumper, and there was even a little chamfer running around the base of the screen.


The following year, the Audi A3 was introduced. Although the tail-lights gained a slanted top edge, the influence from the Sierra estate remained clear. Neatly, I always thought, that little chamfer had developed into a full-blown notch on the first A3 serving as a gentle reminder of the other saloons in the Audi range.


The 1990’s were a time, remember, when Nissan Primera’s, Opel Vectra’s and now Ford Mondeo’s offered either four- or five-door variations of the same model. It was crucial to Audi’s move upmarket that those slanty-backed 100s and 5000s were consigned to the past,nevermind their strong association with aerodynamics. Emulation of top-of-the-range saloons was key. Even Suzuki had a go with the Baleno which sought to emulate, rather fancifully, the E38 BMW 7-Series.


In the 2000’s, 4x4s ditched their wellies and donned trainers to become SUVs in Europe, whereas China still favoured saloons. And as the Audi A4 moved upstream, the A3 was afforded room to grow. The A4 is now (quick internet search) over 4.7m long, just 50mm shorter than the first A6, and the new Audi A3 has sprouted a boot and grown to 4.5m –about the same as the Audi 80 that the first A4 replaced.


I rather like the new A3 saloon. There has been one parked outside my flat recently, and I always shoot it a glance when passing. Black, five spoke alloy wheels, tan leather interior, and of course that lovely dashboard. There is a clever surfacing trick between the rear wheel-arch and the shoulder, where the fender double-backs on itself for both a wide shoulder and a wide arch. Look at a typical section of a car, and it is something of a staircase where each crease makes it ever wider. The A3 is more of a zig-zag, bringing the same drama to narrower restrictions. Of course the car is still too bloated, but that’s what you get for using front-wheel drive.

Audis have become rather too formulaic of late, so this kind of detail adds some much needed intrigue. It is the perfect example of a Goldilocks car. Not too big, not too small. Premium without seeming ostentatious. Discrete, but holds your gaze when you see one. Just like the Mercedes 190E.