It's just a year since Walter Maria de'Silva took over responsibility for design at the Audi brand group, but already he's making his presence felt. A tweak here, a curve there seems to be all that's necessary for the likeable Italian to put his personal stamp on a car.
I managed to snaffle half an hour of the good man's time at the end of the second press day at the Geneva Motor Show. Even though the poor chap had chalked up 16 hours of interviews, he still managed to radiate a freshness and enthusiasm for the subject that almost made me believe I'd been smart enough to ask him something he hadn't already heard 30 times in 48 hours (I said almost).
The topic of discussion was the Nuvolari quattro GT Coupe concept, widely acclaimed as one of the show's highlights. It was billed as a signpost to the future direction of Audi design. So what I wanted to know from de'Silva was...how? (See? I told you I had an original line of questioning!)
He started by outlining the basic structure of the Nuvolari: "We have moved the greenhouse," he explained, "and we have paid a lot of attention to the front and rear overhangs, as well as to the relationships between the wheels, screen and body. These proportions are very important for the architecture."
A designer once told me that he could identify a car brand simply from these basic proportions, without any further styling cues. And, with the Nuvolari, de'Silva and his team have sought to create an architecture that brings something new to the brand, without detracting from its fundamental Audi identity. And if you take a closer look, you can see where these changes have taken place.
The Nuvolari has drawn a lot of styling cues from the TT. Indeed, many commentators are billing it as the coupe's big brother. However, a comparison of the side views of both cars illustrates one of the most obvious changes in proportion. The already short front overhang of the TT has been shortened even further on the Nuvolari, and the greenhouse sits noticeably further back. Compare the two. While the line of the A-pillar of the TT runs through the center of the front wheel, the Nuvolari's is much closer to the rim. Likewise, the C-pillar line runs out well behind the rear wheel arch, unlike the TT's. This helps to create a more dynamic and slightly more aggressive stance, giving it a look more normally associated with rear-wheel-drive cars.
But the point de'Silva wanted to emphasize as most significant for future Audis was its front end. This is the new face of Audi.
"The large grille is an important emotional part, because it relates back to our heritage," said de'Silva, referring to the Grand Prix-winning Auto Unions of the 1930s. "But also the other elements are significant, such as the headlights and the intakes on either side of the grille," he continued.
The grille is indeed a massive element, with the visual emphasis lying on the power of the engine behind it. "In future, we will be paying a great deal of attention to the proportion of the grille and how we apply it to the other models in the range," commented de'Silva.
As is so often the case with designers, who are incapable of talking for any length of time without putting pen to paper, de'Silva was no exception. A piece of A4 and a BMW biro borrowed from me were enough to set him off on a visual journey through the history of Audi grilles.