I’ve often thought that automotive concepts should not just be a ‘little out there’, but they should really push the bounds of design. Don’t hold back. Make them mind-blowing and don’t worry for a nanosecond if any of the wizardry being harnessed could someday cross over to assembly lines.
Let the engineers and product planners and their executive bosses worry about that stuff. You designers just sit down and create something that will leave our mouths agape. Blow us away.
I think Audi has just done that with its latest concept, a car so incredible that I’m a little worried I won’t be able to do it justice here with my mere words. Thank goodness there are photos.
A disclaimer before I begin: because of the pandemic, the media sneak preview for the Skysphere (lower-cased by Audi but capitalized moving forward here) was conducted online, so I haven’t seen it in person. What follows is based on information supplied by Audi public relations.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
What is the Skysphere concept?
Conceived and designed at Audi’s digital design studio in Malibu, California, the Skysphere concept is an electric-powered two-door convertible roadster, the first in a series of new concepts that preview future Audi design intent.
Audi says Skysphere is part of its vision for the “progressive luxury segment of the future,” that won’t just be about driving. Instead, Skysphere will serve as a “platform for captivating experiences,” with reimagined digital interior and an autonomous mode.
Two driving experiences
Thanks to its variable length, the Skysphere is like having two cars in one. The two modes, sport and grand touring, are differentiated by adjustable wheelbase and overall length. The adjusting is accomplished through body and frame components that slide into one another that can extend the car’s overall length by 250 mm (9.8 inches), and the ride height by 10 mm (0.4 inches).
With the touch of a button, the driver can switch between two distinct experiences. With sport, the Skysphere is 4.94 meters (16.2 feet) long, with the driver in full control of Skysphere in its e-roadster mode. Audi says the shorter wheelbase and rear-wheel steering in this mode makes Skysphere more agile for dynamic driving.
In grand touring, the wheelbase and length extend to make the Skysphere a 5.19-metre (17 feet) autonomous GT, where passengers can be chauffeured around with more room to stretch out in the cabin thanks to retractable steering wheel and pedals that are pulled into an ‘invisible’ area, away from occupants.
The drive system
Skysphere is powered by a fully electrified powertrain that utilizes an electric motor that delivers power to the rear axle, along with a battery pack located behind the passenger compartment for better weight distribution. In terms of the front / rear split, about 60 per cent is over the rear axle. Battery capacity is expected to be more than 80 kWh and will deliver a 500-plus km range in GT mode, based on the WLTP standard, according to Audi.
As for output, Audi says the system produces 465 kW (624 hp) of power and 750 Nm (553 lb-ft) of torque against a weight of 1,800 kg. The company says the skysphere will cover zero-100 km/h in four seconds.
On the chassis front, the Skysphere is underpinned by a double wishbone set up in the front and rear built from cast aluminum. Adaptive air suspension is included here with three independent chambers that can be deactivated by the driver to deliver a sportier ride. Audi has also spun up some tech wizardry whereby the car’s navigation system and active chassis work in concert to individually raise and lower wheels (really) to compensate for undulating, uneven tarmac. Incidentally, those wheels you’re looking at are 23-inchers that ride on 285/30 tires which were chosen for their reduced rolling resistance.
As for the steering, the Skysphere uses a steer-by-wire set-up that controls the front and rear wheels. The driver can select different steering ratios that can alter the effort significantly, from razor sharp to relaxed that can aid in parking in tight confines. Audi also claims the Skysphere’s rear-axle steering, and adaptive wheelbase reduce its turning radius.
Serving as inspiration for the Skysphere is the 853 Roadster, a car built in the 1930s by Horch, a forerunner company that would eventually become Audi. Like the Horch 853, the Skysphere has a long front end and compact cabin with similar dimensions, in terms of length and width, but the 853 is much taller (1.77 metres / 5.8 feet) than the new concept (1.23 metres / 4 feet).
The Skysphere features short overhangs, with a rear end that was shaped in a wind tunnel. Its streamlined design has a large glass surface area, but its rear cargo compartment can carry two overnight bags. Speaking of bags, Audi designed a set of two especially for the Skysphere.
Up front, the brand’s Singleframe grille has been reimagined and features an illuminated Audi four-ring logo along with white LED elements that are functional and serve as animations when the car is opened and closed. The lights also dim and produce a rhythmic, pulsating effect. When the wheelbase is changed, the front and rear LEDs cycle through a ‘dynamic sequence,’ according to Audi.
In case you’re curious, yes, the lighting signature changes when the mode switches from Sport to GT, including the elements around the Singleframe grille.
A couple of other design items are worth noting here. First, are the side rocker panels which extend into the rear wheel arch and slide back and forth under fixed doors to alter the Skysphere’s length. As a means of comparison to current Audi production cars, at its longest (GT) the Skysphere’s wheelbase is roughly the same as that of the A8 L, and at its shortest (sport) is about the same as the RS 5.
The other item is just one of those cool concept car-type details: rear-hinged doors that open wide.
Bottom line: the Skysphere is gorgeous, but you probably already knew that.
As mentioned, the Skysphere has autonomous driving capability, so its cabin, like its exterior is a tale of two modes. Incidentally, Audi says the ‘sphere’ designation reflects the company’s decision to put the experiential space the surrounds passengers at the centre of its upcoming designs. Among these are the upcoming grandsphere and urbansphere.
At any rate, in autonomous mode (Level 4), the Skysphere’s pedals and steering wheel retract and fold away from the driver for a more spacious cabin environment.
In terms of details, Audi drew inspiration from the ‘Art Deco universe’ when designing the Skysphere’s cabin. This means seating that has the look of designer furnishings and are finished in microfibre fabric. Other sustainable materials used include eucalyptus wood and synthetic leather.
On the tech side, the Skysphere boasts large touchscreens (56 inches wide, 7.1 inches high) on the dash and centre console to govern the car’s operation and multimedia system. In autonomous GT mode, Audi says these screens can be used for Internet browsing, video conferencing or streaming movies. A high-end sound system is also part of the package, and Audi claims that it delivers concert hall-level audio quality, with speakers hidden behind door panels and in the interior wall of the cabin.
In short, the Skysphere is a stunning tour de force, not only as a concept, but as representation of future design intent and technical innovation that could be applied to future Audi production cars in several interesting ways. My mind spins at the thought, to be honest.
And there’s more to come. After the Skysphere makes its official world debut at the 2021 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on Friday, August 13 Audi will begin gearing up for the reveal of the grandsphere at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show in September and the urbansphere unveiling, which is slated for the first half of 2022.
If you’re a fan of automotive concepts, as I am, these reveals should be on your radar.