Audi has given the first glimpse of its next generation design language with the unveiling of the Skysphere concept, which hints at a future electric roadster.
The new machine, revealed at the Monterey Car Week in Pebble Beach, California, is the first of three ‘sphere’ EV concepts that the German manufacturer will present over the coming months.
The Grandsphere, which previews the forthcoming ‘Landjet’ A8 successor, will be shown at September’s Munich motor show and the Urbansphere will come in 2022. The Skysphere is an electric two-door convertible that was developed around the principles of Level 4 autonomy, which means the car can drive unaided on roads equipped with the necessary infrastructure.
Gael Buzyn, the head of Audi’s Malibu design studio, led the work on the concept. He said it was designed to offer a “redefinition of grand touring”. The concept has a variable wheelbase, which works by extending the bodywork ahead of the A-pillar to offer two different driving experiences: one as an autonomous luxury grand tourer, the other a more focused sports car.
Exterior design and styling
The Skysphere is designed as a pure-electric vehicle but maintains an extended front bonnet reminiscent of traditional grand touring machines. Buzyn said this was to add a “classic sense of prestige”. He added: “An electric powertrain gives us a lot of freedom, so we can do a lot of [different] things, but that wasn’t the exercise here.”
The development of the concept was led by Audi’s design studio in California, with the bulk of the design work completed in digital form.
A key inspiration for the dimensions and proportions of the Skysphere was a version of the Horch 853 roadster that was produced in the late 1930s by one of the four firms that merged to form Auto Union.
While its dimensions are retro, the Skysphere’s design is forward-looking and serves to closely preview the next-generation of Audi’s ‘progressive luxury’ design language. It retains Audi’s single-frame grille. Instead of providing cooling air to an engine radiator, however, the surface of the grille is made from white LEDs that can display moving light sequences, including functional systems such as indicators. Another LED panel runs the width of the car’s rear.
The Skysphere is 5190mm long in its extended form, sits on large, 23in wheels and weighs around 1800kg.
The ‘engine bay’ is used to house the electric drive components, including the charger and converter, while the boot has been designed to accommodate two custom-designed golf bags. Like most bespoke electric cars, the concept features short overhangs, with the wheels pushed as far as possible towards the corners.
In Sport driving mode, the wheelbase is shortened to 4940mm and the ground clearance reduced by 10mm to offer a more engaging driving experience. The extra length is created through an extendable section in front of the A-pillar.
Inside the Skysphere
Audi is promoting interior design as a key priority for its ‘sphere’ concepts in order to showcase the possibilities enabled by autonomous vehicles. In the case of the Skysphere, Audi has created an interior that is designed to offer both grand tourer levels of comfort in autonomous mode and a more driver-focused experience when called for. Buzyn said the aim was to offer a feeling of space that previously wasn’t possible in a convertible.
The interior design is inspired by 1930s art-deco architecture. The seats are upholstered in sustainably produced microfibre and are designed to offer comfort comparable to those in a first-class cabin on a plane, and in autonomous mode the steering wheel and pedals retract into the dashboard. The interior trim is finished in eucalyptus wood and authentically produced imitation leather.
The dashboard is dominated by a futuristic touch-sensitive surface that measures 1415mm wide and 180mm high, and which is used for all of the vehicle controls and infotainment systems.
When the driver-focused Sport mode is selected, the instrument panel adjusts the controls and screens to best suit the driver.
Technology and powertrain
Audi insisted that, as a pure concept, the Skysphere isn’t based on a specific production car platform, although it likely showcases some of the possibilities of the Volkswagen Group’s forthcoming SSP architecture.
The Skysphere is powered by a 465kW electric motor, that’s mounted on the rear axle and sends all of its power to the rear wheels. It delivers 750Nm and can achieve 0-100km/h in a claimed 4.0sec.
The battery modules are mostly sited behind the cabin in order to optimise the centre of gravity, although further modules are placed in a central tunnel between the seats. Audi said battery capacity “is expected” to exceed 80kWh, enabling a theoretical range of 500 kilometres on the WLTP cycle. There are double wishbone axles at both ends of the car, with a steer-by-wire steering system that enables different ratios and settings to be programmed easily.
The Skysphere also features the latest version of Audi’s adaptive air suspension system, which uses three independent air chambers and is key to offering the versatility of handling required for both sports and autonomous modes.
Skysphere hints at future electric grand tourer
While Audi insisted that there are currently no production plans for the machine, the firm did say a vehicle like the Skysphere concept “will become a platform for experiences that expand horizons beyond the mere ride in just a few years”.
Audi has previously used the Monterey Car Week event to showcase performance-based concepts that have yet to reach production, such as the AI:Race (also known as the PB18 E-tron) that was revealed in 2018 and showcased a potential electric R8 successor.
But while the Skysphere is officially a pure concept, the flexible SSP architecture being developed by the Volkswagen Group would allow for a similar GT. That would also fit with plans to push Audi further into the premium market.
The current priority will be the A8 successor that will be closely previewed by the Grandsphere concept, while the Urbansphere is set to preview an autonomous SUV that is also likely to reach production as part of Audi’s new-era product line-up.
Q&A: Gael Buzyn, Skysphere design lead
What was the brief for the Skysphere?
“There were no real requirements. I call it a blank cheque: we were free to express our vision of an answer for Level 4 autonomy. The PB18 E-tron inspired us a little in the sense we created a very specific experience with that car, which was the future of the supercar. Here we wanted to explore the future of the grand tourer.”
Why a grand tourer?
“Grand tourers aim to offer the best of what the car world has to offer: the greatest luxury, the highest performance and the most beautiful styling. But how do you combine all those assets in one vehicle? Grand tourers often offer a compromised experience, and we wanted to show what an electric one could do.”
Could this be a TT successor?
“I’ll take that as a compliment. The TT is an icon, and I hope this can become one too. But this is a concept, and it’s much larger than the TT.”
Is this aimed at winning over new premium customers?
“We always look to new customers, but this will also appeal to current customers. It’s more about an experience that has been forgotten: a more glamorous, romantic way to use an automobile that was more a thing of the ’30s and ’50s. This is at the heart of lots of customers.”
Key recent Audi concepts
2017 Aicon: Providing an early hint of Audi’s plans for an autonomous-capable model family from 2025, the Aicon featured a lounge-style interior, could park itself remotely and offered a theoretical range of 800 kilometres.
2019 AI:ME: Like the ‘sphere’ concepts, the AI:ME examined how advanced autonomy will change car design, but here with more of a focus on shared urban mobility. Roughly similar in size to the existing A3, the AI:ME prioritised manoeuvrability and interior space.
2018 PB 18 E-tron: The PB 18 concept remains the closest Audi has come to producing a bona fide electric supercar. It was said to pack 570kW, far eclipsing the current V10-powered R8, but company bosses have yet to give the green light for a production version.
2021 A6 E-tron: The A6 E-tron, as the name suggests, will make production in 2023 as the EV equivalent of today’s A6. Autonomy is less of a focus, but it maintains an emphasis on efficiency and interior roominess.