Nov 21, 2009 9
Living in Germany, I became increasingly perturbed by the proliferation of LED daylight running lamps on Audis of all shapes and sizes. Always on, always glaring – sometimes painfully so – and always screaming “look at me, look at me!” like the cleaning lady in TittyTittyBangBang, I would pray that I was driving slow enough to force an overtaking maneuver (not too challenging given the 90 asthmatic horsepower I was – sometimes literally - pedaling back then).
From the luminous slashes on the A3 and Q5, which simultaneously manage to make the cars appear cross-eyed, centre-heavy and like an automotive tribute to Dame Edna Everage to the baseball-player warpaint on the R8, these glaring light signatures made me long for the Audi of years gone by when the brand stood for discretion and quiet sophistication.
The same devolution of Audi’s trademark understatement has also become evident in their tail lamps. Bare-bulbed LEDs now blink in their psychotically digital way, forming shapes that would make Edward Scissorhands feel completely à l’aise. To sit behind an LED besmirched Q5 is an exercise in keeping my blood to a low simmer.
I’ve wondered wheather I’m alone in my fall-out with Audi on the basis of it’s new found crassitude, yet given some recent consumer research that was presented at BMW’s university day at their US headquarters, I wonder if some prospective customers might soon recoil in much the same way I have.
The key takeaway from a presentation, given by Madeleine Hochstein of DYG Inc., is that luxury, at least by that name, is dead. Would luxury by any other name smell as sweet? If we start talking in terms of premium, then yes. There’s clearly a battle of semantics going on here but the research behind it, conducted since the financial shit/fan interface that was late 2008, holds some fascinating insights, particularly for the design teams of premium brands.
Take in the fact that 49% of U.S. adults earning $100-$150,000 are now describing themselves as thrifty, up 12% from 2005. Or that the proportion of people earning over $150,000 who would describe themselves as humble has grown from 31% in 2006 to 50% in 2009. Those same people are now increasingly shopping with social, political or environmental concerns as drivers for their purchases, the percentage swelling from 44% to 63% from 2008 to 2009. Surely these figures represent a pretty substantial shift away from the me-ism of the last decade.
Stepping away from the numbers for a minute, Hochstein talks about the emergence of a responsibility revolution which will see some significant, and permanent, shifts in consumer self perception. No longer will premium consumers galavant through life with a sense of entitlement. They are learning that rewards must be worked for and when those rewards come around, excess is passé. Premium consumers are now looking to brands and products that speak of ethical values.
Then comes the kicker, the single point, hammered home in terms we automotive designers can easily get our heads around: Luxury is being recast. Gone will be the preponderance of price, size or brand name as we transition to “to muted, almost secret signals to others “in the know” – about design, engineering, sustainability and fuel breakthroughs, ethical company behavior.” We’re now dealing with premium, a taste world where products have to clearly demonstrate their worth and communicate what Hochstein calls “…dog whistle taste”.
Which brings me neatly back to Audi’s LED eyeware. Is it the embodiment of Hochstein’s dog whistle taste? What about that dramatic, double-decker grille? Does it communicate ultrasonic signals about the fuel-sipping technology sited just behind? Come on, together they’re about as subtle as a Russian hooker at an Oxfordshire church tea. And if recent Audi concepts like the A7 Sportback and the truly ghoulish eTron are anything to go by, there’s plenty more of this particular brand of Bavarian bling to come.
Which means BMW must be feeling rather smug right now.
After the visual orgy that was the original Z4, X3, X5, 5er, 6er and 7er, the crowd in Munich have toned things right back to the point where some members of the automotive press have bemoaned the lack of drama in the newest 3s and 7s. Fear not, the drama is still there, you just have to know where to look, surely the very definition of dog whistle taste. I now get the same feeling of awe with the new 7 that I used to get with Audi A8s and while it’s not a reaction of the jaw dropping variety, there’s a deep satisfaction gained from the quiet, internal realisation that I’m looking upon something seriously… well… cool. One look at a 7er tail lamp will let you know that BMW has subtlety down for, despite being LED powered, they emit a warm glow through a set of beautifully resolved light pipes.
As I finish this piece, I wonder what the future holds for Audi’s increasingly expressive design language. And then I remember the VW Phaeton, the car that replaced the A8 in the under-the-radar cool stakes, and the fact that it’s due for rebirth in the next couple of years. I’ve no doubt that the Volkswagen group will be able to nail the impending premium bandwagon, just probably not with Audi as it stands today.