Autumn 2021

Audi Grandsphere  

With a cockpit-like interior and acres of space, the Audi Grandsphere concept draws on ideas first-class flight to present a luxurious executive limousine

A vision for the future of a level 4 autonomous luxury saloon was shown at the inaugural edition of the IAA in Munich in September of this year, the second of three concept cars Audi created to showcase its future design direction. While the Skysphere, shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August, might be the flashier model with its supercar looks and length-changing wheelbase, the Grandsphere is closer to what we imagine an executive limousine could be in a few years when the car itself is the chauffeur. 
In the design brief, head of design Marc Lichte told his team: “It should be first class and definitely not business class.” Those who have not been able to appreciate the differences firsthand might not be aware that while business class passengers are furiously typing away to send those last work emails after cramming themselves like a sardine into narrow-lie-flat cubicles and wriggling into thin polyester socks, their bosses are up front lounging in their four-windows-long mini-suite in matching pajamas and dining on caviar and vodka at the beginning of a four-course meal. (To be fair, sometimes the caviar is the cheaper stuff from China. But still.)

Thus, the interior team set to work on capturing the essence of this traveler – the one who sits in a quiet lounge – or entire private terminal –while a dedicated immigrations agent stamps her passport without the fuss of any queue, and she is then whisked away to the tarmac where a waiting Mercedes S-Class or Porsche Panamera drives her straight to the plane. Meanwhile, mere business class passengers jockey for position at the gate, nearly falling over one another to board first. 

“First class can sound pretty cliché, and in the beginning we were looking at pictures of an airplane in the first-class cabin,” interior designer Maksymilian Nawka tells us. “But then we found this picture from the cockpit with the pilots and the sunset, and we thought, ‘Isn’t this better than flying first class? Isn’t it better to fly the plane by yourself?’ So, in this case the idea was born where we combined these two worlds.”

Any aviation geek will tell you that a visit to the cockpit is awesome, but you would not want to sit there for 12 hours. So that combination bit became crucial. The “sphere” in the name of Audi’s concept cars refers to a world or environment that is built from the inside-out, with the exterior following the interior design. In the case of the Grandsphere, interior designers shifted the paradigm of the typical luxury saloon and put the best seats in front. “The challenge was to create basically a lounge, a room, and just architecture, no “chichi,” just some very defined lines in between surface,” Nawka says.

"We have real knobs on the doors that can touch and move with your hands, like an expensive watch. We wanted to bring this joy of use bring back into the car"

“The challenge was to create a lounge, a room, and just architecture, with some very defined lines in between just surface,” Nawka says. Central to the design theme is the horizontally lined wood that wraps around the entire cabin. In a drastic departure from most luxury cars that feature the largest possible display screens, the Grandsphere is about digital detox. Much how we have observed first-class passengers unplug from the world while middle managers in business frantically clack away on their keyboards, there is no looming LCD or OLED inside the Grandsphere cabin. Instead, vital information is projected directly on to the wood IP. “For me this is a really nice example of how material becomes function and how function is part of the architecture,” Nawka says. “This is exactly this Bauhaus thinking we always have in the DNA of Audi. You can still update it bring it from century to century and into this new age.”  But, he adds, it took a lot of trial and error with different surfaces and woods to achieve a crystal-clear picture. “Honestly, it was better than we expected,” he says of the end result. “We did a lot of mockups but in the end, it was like magic.”

Wool and synthetic textiles cover the Grandsphere interior surfaces – the entire car is leather free.  The centre console features a bar complete with glass, water dispenser, and ice cube box. There is also a plant, which to us feels in a similar vein to Lufthansa’s red roses placed around the first-class cabin. HVAC controls are moved to the doors, where Nawka points out the rotary control knob, which allows for a tactile experience. “We have real knobs on the doors that can touch and move with your hands, like an expensive watch. This is something from the past that we wanted to bring back into the car, this joy of use.” 

Contoured front seats use organic, streamlined shapes that look more akin to an Eames lounge chair than a bulky airplane seat, with a high degree of comfort. “We knew we had to design a seat that looks great and holds you in the car, but we also wanted to have some softer, more human and natural feelings -- some surfaces you really like to touch,” Nawka says. “And for me, a typical Audi is touch surfaces. So, our idea was, the seat is part of the design, but at the same time it needed to be comfortable because it’s the place where you’re going to spend the most time.” As with the Skysphere concept, the Grandsphere has a retractable steering wheel that disappears when in autonomous mode, and the front seats can decline up to 60 degrees. The rear bench seat, although not the focus of the car, is executed simply and elegantly.

The focus shift in the cabin also helped to inform the exterior design. “The front two seats became the first-class row, so for the exterior we could do something in the rear where we could sacrifice a little bit of space,” exterior designer Amar Vaya tells us of the car’s fast, GT-like silhouette. Vaya also focused on the idea of Quattro, Audi’s all-wheel-drive system, visually denoted on Audi’s vehicles by musculature above the fenders, (which Audi calls blisters). “The muscles have the biggest visual impacts from the exterior point of view,” Vaya says. Those are connected by one clean line that runs all the way around the car without being interrupted by the rings or the lights. “Its only task is to tie the four muscles together,” he explains. “And you can so easily tie that in with traditional Audi cues like how the shut lines are so nicely ordered and placed in the most logical places.” Vaya says he wanted to clean up the front end, to give the lamps their own identity and space to breathe, and for the signature four rings have an uninterrupted position.

"We wanted to have these grand proportions and this really emotional car but maximise the interior space. And we did"

The wide front grille is a new take on Audi’s singleframe design, but instead of cooling an engine, the design is used to hide the cameras and sensors needed for autonomous driving systems. “We didn’t want to get rid of it because we want to keep our brand identity, so we created a structure that’s jewelry-like, but it has a new purpose and it’s got a reason to be there.” Although the interior and exterior were done at the same time, Nawka jokes that they didn’t believe they’d fit together the first time they saw them side-by-side. “When we first saw the interior and exterior in the studio as two separate models next to each other, we didn’t believe that the interior would fit into the exterior,” he remembers. “It was kind of funny, we were like, ‘How are we supposed to put a massive interior into a GT car?’ We wanted to have these grand proportions and this really emotional car but maximise the interior space. And we did.

Designers won’t say exactly which features will make it on to future production cars, but the simpler, streamlined shapes and lounge-like shapes and materials are likely to show up in some form or another. Meanwhile, Audi is slated to show its third “sphere” concept, the Urbansphere, “sometime next year,” purported to be at the Beijing auto show in April of next year – although we would rather see it sooner, perhaps at CES in January. 

As for the bits that make it go, the Grandsphere is powered by two electric motors (one on each axle) that produce out about 720 hp and 708 lb.-ft. of torque. An 800-volt charging system can charge the car from 5 percent to 8- percent in 25 minutes, and Audi touts the Grandsphere’s range at about 466 miles. An active suspension system controls each wheel independently, promising a smoother ride. And while it might not induce the awe of a 747-8 firing on four engines each with 66,500 lbs. of thrust, its carbon footprint is infinitesimally smaller, and another step toward Audi fulfilling its promise to end ICE vehicles and go all-electric by 2026. As for Nawka, he confides, “It’s the best thing I ever did – and maybe the best thing I will have ever done.”

Head of design: Marc Lichte

Interior designer: Maksymilian Nawka

Head of colour and trim: Norbert Weber

Colour and trim designer: Ann Catherine Lang

Project started / completed: Autumn 2020/September 2021

Launch: September 2021

Dimensions (mm):

Length: 5350 

Width: 2000

Height: 1390

Wheelbase: 3190