I've decided to devote today's column to a topic we all know and love: automotive styling. Now, you may not be aware of this, but I happen to be something of an expert on automotive styling, thanks to my time at Porsche. "The 911 could use a little freshening," I would say to my co-workers, as I walked through the hallowed halls of our offices in Stuttgart. "Are you supposed to be here?" they would reply. It was an excellent time, and there are a lot of things that I really miss about it, namely the tradition, and the passion, and the camaraderie, and the health insurance.
Anyway: back to styling. Regular readers will note that I tend to avoid writing about styling, except when it's absolutely necessary, like that time I did a column on how the Lexus corporate grille could, at any moment, sprout fangs and begin eating defenseless schoolchildren. That was a public service announcement, really.
The reason for my avoidance is that styling is highly subjective. For instance: I might one day mention that the new Maserati Ghibli is rather ugly. To most car people, this sounds like a totally normal opinion that a person might have, especially if that person has eyes. But some angry reader, some Ghibli enthusiast, might see this opinion and become violently mad, to the point where he sends me an e-mail about how he plans to break into my house and bash me over the head with a Maserati Ghibli scale model as I sleep. Maybe then I'll change my mind about the Ghibli's styling, what with the brain damage.
So I generally try to avoid this sort of thing. But today's column breaks the mold, because we're going to talk about a subject that really needs some more attention. And that topic is: Audi sedans.
I don't know if you're aware of this, but Audi is currently offering three different sedans in this country: the A4, the A6, and the A8. This is actually a fairly conservative lineup compared to, say, arch-rival BMW. BMW offers a sedan version of everything it sells, including several coupes. There are even hatchbacky sedan versions of cars that are already sedans. It won't be long before BMW changes its slogan from "The Ultimate Driving Machine" to "We Make a Sedan Version of Your Color Printer."
But back to Audi. The reason I think you might not be aware that Audi currently offers three different sedans is that Audi's sedan lineup looks, to a casual observer, oh, maybe a little dull. What I mean here is that if Audi's sedan lineup were a baseball game, it would be the kind that ends 3-1, and all the runs were scored by the fourth inning. The A7 would be the seventh-inning stretch, when the mascot comes out and sprays water on the grounds crew.
I came to this conclusion yesterday when I encountered an A4 in traffic. What happened was, I got up behind the A4, which I think you will all agree is a fairly common occurrence if you live in the kind of place that has a lot of a) college sororities, or b) PR firms. So I did what any red-blooded American male would in this situation, which is that I cut a bunch of people off to get a better look at the driver. Oh, sure, I was in my Nissan Cube, but I was fully prepared to tell her that I also have a Ferrari.
But then something happened: I looked inside and it wasn't an attractive woman behind the wheel. It was an old man! So I did a double-take, and he did a double-take, probably because some guy in a Nissan Cube was staring at him, and that's when I discovered that I was actually looking at an A8. That's right, folks: I mistook an A4, noted conveyance for window-mounted sorority decals, for a full-size Audi A8 luxury sedan.
So I went home to do some research, and that's when I discovered something: the A4, A6, and A8 now look almost entirely identical. It's true. In fact, the image at the top of this article might just be different trim levels of the A6; you wouldn't know.
Now, I admit that there are two distinguishing features that you can use to tell apart the Audi sedans. One is LEDs. The A4 has roughly seven, while the A8 could guide damaged ships to the mainland. Seriously: if the spotlight with the bat signal ever goes out, the people of Gotham City could still summon Batman using an A8 and some well-trimmed post-it notes.
The other distinguishing feature is, of course, the people who drive them. All of that is still the same. A8 buyers are still men in their 60s. A4 owners remain women in their 20s. And A6 people are still middle-aged guys who get employee pricing because they know someone at the Audi dealer, or else they would've bought a 5-Series.
But aside from that, you can't tell the Audi sedans apart – and that's a serious problem. For an illustration of why it's such an issue, I present to you the case of Grover, an 84-year-old rich guy that I just made up. Grover lives in Palm Beach. "Not West Palm Beach," he reminds me.
When Grover goes to the Mercedes dealer, he discovers that the S-Class looks nothing like a C-Class. It's big. It's opulent. It's beautiful. "It's got the presence of five C-Classes," Grover remarks. (This makes no sense, and Grover's caretakers assure me his children have started the process of taking away his driver's license.)
Meanwhile, when Grover goes to the Lexus dealer, he discovers the LS460 looks nothing like an IS. One is a sport sedan, Grover thinks, while the other looks like the kind of state limo they'd use in a country that isn't as good as ours. (Grover is a military veteran. Just ask him.)
But when Grover goes to the Audi dealer, he's dumbfounded. "Why would I pay $90,000 for a top-of-the-line car that looks just like the $35,000 base model?" Grover asks. "I'm sorry, sir," the salesman responds. "Did you say your name was … Grover?"
But Grover raises a good point, and I don't mean the one where he says there wouldn't be any Communism if "that asshole Truman" had left MacArthur in command. I mean he's right that Audi has succeeded in making its sedans little more than shoe sizes. Right now, you can choose between small, medium, and large, with little differentiation in between – and that's not much of an incentive for wealthy shoppers to spring for a high-dollar A6 or A8.
Instead, you'd think most people would go with something else; something different; something that tells everyone else that they've spent big money on a new car. Definitely not a Maserati Ghibli, though. Those are ugly.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.