Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Audi’s Guided Missile: the A1

Working in Germany I was thrown in the deep end of perceived quality research, taking more macro shots of headlamps, instrument panels and door cards than I care to remember. Yet I’m happy to come right out and say it: perceived quality fascinates me.

Gear shifter from the new Audi A8 (click to enlarge with caution, you might wet yourself...)

The way the tricks we use – from the amazingly detailed design of touch zones in a car interior to a superbly detailed tail lamp enclosure – coalesce to convince consumers that a product that feels good must be good, no matter the integrity of the engineering underneath the skin is a delightful thing. Take a look at the gear shift above and you might get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Perceived quality’s a psychological game played by designers and engineers that reaps massive rewards for the companies that do it right. Just ask VW, who started on a head-long rush to improve the improve feel-good factor of everyday cars with a couple of otherwise unremarkable vehicles in ’96-’97.

Volkswagen Golf Mk IV

I still remember the column inches… no, miles generated by the Mk IV Golf and B5 Passat. Their flock-lined storage bins, silicone-damped grab handles and blue instrument lighting almost singlehandedly established VW as the mass-market quality king, no matter that the cars were as dull as ditchwater to drive and suffered some fairly serious reliability problems.

In an Icarian twist, so great was Volkswagen’s perceived quality success that they eventually fell victim to it. While interior quality standards continued to soar, bolstered by the almost-unbelievable feat of craftsmanship that is the Phaeton, something caused VW to take their eye off the ball – profitability, perhaps – and the wheels came off with a string of underwhelming products

When the Mk. V Golf came along, journos and consumers alike complained loudly about the dowdy, cheap-feeling interior. No matter that the car had a new, massively more expensive multi-link rear suspension that made it great to drive (unlike the Mk. IV), people were looking for – and failing to find – more soft-touch plastics, more cold-touch metals and simply more of what had made the Mk. IV so lovable on first touch.

Volkswagen Golf Mk V

Volkswagen Golf Mk VI

So stinging was the reaction that VW pushed forward the release of the Mk. VI, essentially a gussied-up, re-skinned Mk. V, just to keep sales on the boil. Despite, or rather because of a raft of largely  superficial changes, people started talking about VW quality again and the arrival of the new Polo last year confirmed that the company was very much back in the game.

In a segment where value is more often defined by the lowest price no matter the quality, the soft-touch plastics covering the entire door, the cold-to-touch door handles, the rubberised, bejeweled air direction controls and the fine tolerances all had me in a state of rare wonderment.

Yet the Polo’s time in the perceived quality sun is about to be cut short by it’s sister with a twist, the Audi A1.

And the twist is this: despite their shared mechanicals you’ll have to pony up (sorry…) only £10 grand to get into a beautifully finished 1.2l Polo, but you’ll need around £14 grand for the Polo-in-drag A1. Need I spell it out? Four grand. That’s epic money at this end of the market, no matter what your badge cachet is.

So what is it, apart from rather mundane, formulaic Audi styling and a turbo strapped to the common 1.2l three-pot  that will persuade people to pay that kind of supplement for the A1? You guessed it: perceived quality.

Audi A1

Volkswagen Polo

Comparing images of the two IPs, the once swoon-worthy Polo now looks dowdy and low-rent in a way I simply couldn’t credit this time last year.

Look at the way the A1s entire IP is one whole soft-touch molding. Now compare it to that of the Polo, which has a soft-touch top sitting on a hard lower half with a nasty flange covering the join.

Where the Polo suffers the indignity of a closure line around it’s passenger airbag, the passenger of the A1 sees nothing but an unbroken expanse of dash-top which, somewhat disappointingly, is leather textured but is far and away a more elegantly resolved surface.

Audi A1

There are no awkward parting lines in the A1s centre console, and the unique HMI panel is far better integrated into the surrounding forms, no matter that it necessitates a dicky folding screen on the dash top. A heavily sculpted spar beneath sprouts HVAC controls that wouldn’t look out of place in an R8, let alone the A1.

Volkswagen Polo

The HMI/HVAC controls in the Polo appears, by contrast, like a 90’s Sony – our should that be Sanyo? – stereo system.

But let’s leave the comparison with the Polo behind. It’s unfair to compare it to the A1 and I feel churlish taking aim at a car I still love.

Let’s step it up a notch and take a look at the pictures of the air vents below. One belongs to the A1, the other to the A1’s chief competitor, the Mini.

Audi A1

Mini Countryman

A1 vs Mini

One look at the Mini these days leads me to think that Fisher Price was brought in as the interior design consultancy. Audi has got BMW seriously trumped on perceived quality and the more I looked, the more evidence I found of a fanatical attention to detail.

Audi's WMD release

The vent was the first thing that blew my mind (satin aluminium, knurled knob, razor thin part lines), then I saw the stitched leather on the centre console. Everywhere you look, there’s perceived quality candy. My favourite touch, however, is that little lick of red light (it’s not paint, I checked…) peeking out from the gear-shift trigger. Clearly Audi thinks of the A1 as a WMD primed for release. And they’ve aimed it straight at BMW and their Mini.

Category: Design Strategy

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2 Responses

  1. Massimo says:

    GREAT article but remember that
    perceived quality is not actual quality (FAIL FREE)…see TOYOTA LEXUS example recently…
    in fact if i am not mistaken (but anybody feel free to share input) in most of the car company PQ is a cross-functional team that although in engineering, work under directive of input of marketing.

    QUALITY is extending a product or service deliverable with superiority;

    Product quality which is the nature and quantity of service/use intrinsically into a product ;

    Manufacturing quality conforming to the zero defect objective.

    I can see that lots of recall is happening right now…i am wondering if one of this would touch the German cars….

  2. Michael says:

    I’m interested in the perceived quality thing. In the past, I’ve subscribed to the philosophy that if designers take pride in some of the tiny details that some consumers will notice, then consumers make the leap that the rest of the product must also be finely detailed. I think the assumption is that most products, especially cars, are too complex to evaluate rationally and we must make some assumptions based on what we can see and feel. However, do we actually know if consumers think that way? Have you guys done a projects where this is proven out?

    From the sounds of what Drew and Massimo are saying, it sounds like this is true in the auto industry, but I’m working on some related projects and looking for validation in this idea…

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.