The Audi Concept Design Studio is a curious place. Small and unassuming, almost hidden away in a quiet residential district in Munich, it is altogether more relaxed than the HQ in Ingolstadt, where a larger team prepares cars for production. Like an artist's atelier or an inventor's workshop, the studio is the creative hub where a modest team of designers sketch away at Audis of the future.
'The Munich idea foundry is like a satellite that provokes and thus stimulates the potential for innovation,' says studio head Steve Lewis, as he guides us through a large, open-plan area for designing concept cars and a vast room for modelling clay.
This is the first time outsiders have been allowed access to this hidden spot; until recently, there wasn't even an Audi badge on the gate to identify it. The space has been 'tidied' in preparation for the visit - car companies are extremely private about their future projects.
What Audi is keen to reveal is the latest Crosslane Coupé concept car, and its relevance to the marque's future. First displayed a few of months ago at the Mondial de l'Automobile in Paris, the 'study car' not only sets the tone for future Q-family models, it embodies a new phase for all-round Audi design.
First and foremost, the company is keen to make greater design differentiation between its A, R and Q models, This will eliminate the danger of creating identikit cars, the sort of thing larger companies have been criticised for by a customer base with increasing visually literacy.
Then there's a desire to show off more of the technical aspects of each design - almost revealing what lies beneath the surface - and to have a more cohesive feel between the exterior and interior of a car.
The Crosslane manifests all this. At its heart is a pioneering 'multimaterial' space frame, a structure that combines carbon-fibre, aluminium and other metals for exceptional lightness and strength. Such composite components weren't technically feasible a few years ago, and Audi has made great strides in bringing new materials and processes to market.
The space frame is made visible at various points around the show car: in the single-frame grille; through intakes in the engine hood; at the sills when opening the door; at the A-pillar; and as a load-bearing element in a functional carbon strip in the cockpit. A production car might not strip off quite so explicitly, but head designer Wolfgang Egger believes that automotive design is ready for a change. 'We need something new without breaking with tradition,' he says. Hence placing a greater emphasis on the creative process to find ways of showing off new technology like the space frame.
For instance, headlamps will become more graphic and technical like the Crosslane's, with its sober front end, almost the antithesis of the current trend to build cars with elaborate 'facial expressions'. Says Egger: 'It's the Bauhaus thinking: a reduction of elements.'
What will characterise the next generation of Q SUVs is a three-dimensional single-frame sculptural grille, which will give them a powerful, robust presence similar to the Crosslane's.
The concept is also a good example of how Audi will integrate its interiors and exteriors seamlessly, making it easier to distinguish models by their interiors. Karl-Heinz Rothfuss, Audi's head of interiors, explains that on the Crosslane 'the cabin opens in the direction of travel and continues as an unbroken line in the engine hood'. Clean surfaces and fewer control elements streamline the driving experience. 'Our refined strategy at Audi design emphasises clarity and a focus on the essentials,' says Egger.
The new approach to creativity aligns the three segments of automotive design - interior, exterior, and colour and trim - much more closely. It's the happy consequence of Audi's next generation of designers working so closely together behind these nondescript gates in Munich,