Last week German luxury brand Audi—noted purveyor of automobiles with the reliability of a heroin-addicted parent—revealed the all-new Audi A5. And the automotive enthusiast world eagerly looked on, and examined the design, and feasted their eyes on the A5’s sensual curves. And then they asked: That’s it?
This is a trend we’ve seen quite a bit from Audi recently. They have been redesigning cars using a strategy wherein the only people who know that the cars have been redesigned are a.) the designers themselves, and b.) people on the Audi forums who know all the Audi colors by heart.
“Bruh,” they say. “Did you see the new A5 in Toilet Seat White?” “No way, bruh,” another replies. “That was Contact Solution Bottle White.” And then they get into a fight that ends with one of them saying the other’s car isn’t stanced enough.
It all started, I think, with the new Q7. Although the new Q7 looks different from the old Q7, it doesn’t look massively different. This is the exact opposite of rivals like, say, the old Range Rover Sport and the new Range Rover Sport. The new Range Rover Sport looks like a nice, new, modern luxury sport-utility vehicle, while the old one looks like something you might find illegally blocking the fire lane outside Walmart.
Then there was the new TT. Have you seen one of these yet? Of course you haven’t, because this entire segment is dead, in the sense that Mercedes recently changed the name of the SLK, and the main concern, when car enthusiasts found out this was happening, was to ask: You still make the SLK?
But I saw a new TT a couple of weeks ago, and my main takeaway was that it looks just like the old TT, although now it has different tail lights. I hope they did not spend all the redesign money on different tail lights. This would be like if congress gave your state $47 million to build a highway, and then you spent $42 million on an environmental study to determine whether your highway was affecting some native wild animal, such as the Small Ankled Prairie Dog, and $5 million on road lines.
But the worst offender, by far, is the new A4. Under the skin, the new A4 is totally changed: new features, new interior, updated engine, blah blah blah. I saw a “new” 2017 A4 in my parking garage the other day, and do you know how I could be absolutely sure it was the latest model? Because I looked inside and I saw the gear lever. This is a problem.
Not only am I a professional automotive journalist who has been pantslessly reporting on the car industry for five years now, but I am also a former Audi A4 owner! And I had to check the gear lever to figure out whether I was looking at last year’s A4 or the “all-new,” “totally redesigned,” “completely revamped,” “fully reengineered” 2017 model.
Things were a little different when I saw the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class. You know how I was able to tell the new C-Class from the old C-Class? Because literally every single line on the car is different. Every single panel, every single angle, every single shape. The new A4 and the old A4 is like the difference between gelato and ice cream. The new C-Class and the old C-Class is like the difference between gelato and mayonnaise.
And don’t even get me started on the R8. I excitedly waited 10 years for this thing, this car that initially debuted to wild fanfare for its daring, cutting-edge design, and the newest model’s most exciting detail is that the grille is now shaped like a stop sign.
So what I’m wondering is, why the hell are Audi’s redesigns so damn subtle?
If you’re in the car business, redesigns are tremendously important for your products, because they’re a huge driver of sales. I’ll give you an example. In January 2015, right before the new Volvo XC90 went on sale, the Volvo XC90 sales total was 38. That’s a national figure. Thirty-eight units. In February 2015, the number jumped to 60, before plummeting in March 2015 to 13. I swear these numbers are true.
You know how many XC90s Volvo sold last month, once they started really getting on dealer lots? Three thousand. It’s like some out-of-the-way Greek island that nobody has ever heard of, and then Rick Steves goes there, and three months later every American with a fanny pack shows up, trying to figure out why the restaurants won’t accept U.S. dollars.
And this is what you can expect when you have a good, thorough, noticeable update, because it’s what American luxury buyers want: bold redesigns. They lease (rather than purchase) luxury cars so often that every three or four years they want to show off something shiny and brand new to make the neighbors jealous.
But instead, Audi has given us the exact opposite: a bad, mild, barely perceptible redesign. Their latest redesigns are not updates that will make people see a new A4 and say “Ohhhh, look, a new A4!” They are updates that will make people see a new A4 and say, “Wasn’t I supposed to pick something up at the store?”
I’m tired of these minor redesigns because I know that Audi—who has designed some seriously beautiful cars over the years—is capable of much, much more. Until that happens, I will keep checking the gear levers.