FROM JULIA Roberts’s revealing outfit in Pretty Woman to shops with a strict invitation-only door policy, Rodeo Drive has seen most things. It is a notorious hotspot of Beverly Hills excess, but even here, in this rarefied world, the Audi Prologue, a one-of-a-kind concept car that made its debut at the LA motor show, commands attention.
Parked beside the sidewalk, it draws cameraphones from designer handbags like the shop windows’ diamond displays draw platinum credit cards.
For a fleeting moment I feel like Hollywood royalty. My entourage – two police cars and an Audi outrider – shuffle uncomfortably as crowds gather. The Prologue is the first car from Audi’s new design director, Marc Lichte, who has decided to put an end to Audi’s collection of Russian dolls: from now on, each model will have its own identity.
It might also hint at a new flagship coupé to take on the Bentley Continental GT and Mercedes S-class coupé. It’s one of the few types of car missing from Audi’s range, which is due to expand to 60 models by the end of the decade.
Parked in the Californian sunshine, the Prologue looks a million dollars, which is just as well, given that it cost at least $10m to build. Everything about this car is bespoke, which is why its keepers insist that journalists who want to drive it must wear a paper onesie over their clothes, to stop dye from jeans staining the soft leather used to trim the seats.
The cockpit is almost entirely devoid of conventional buttons. Instead, the driver and passenger control the interfaces by touching and swiping screens
A touch-sensitive button on the door turns from red to green and the door opens to reveal a touchscreen display that takes such systems to a new extreme. The cockpit is almost entirely devoid of conventional buttons. Instead, the driver and passenger control the interfaces by touching and swiping a set of screens. Lichte admits he was impressed by the use of a large touchscreen in the Tesla Model S and reckons the technology helps to create a feeling of space inside.
Audi is particularly proud of the organic light-emitting diode (Oled) screen on the centre console, which pivots and bends when the car is started. The technology was developed by Samsung and could become a production reality.
The screens in the concept car are only dummies but that’s because the team ran out of time – the Audi Prologue was completed only five days before its LA debut. The rest of the cabin is a familiar blend of leather and aluminium.
Touching a starter button on the centre console brings to life a new 4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine. It develops 597bhp and 553 lb ft of torque. As this car isn’t intended to be road-legal, there’s just a straight-through exhaust pipe with a delicious V8 burble, like that of a TVR. It sounds brilliant.
In the future, saloon and coupé models will have a shallower, wider front grille than the Q SUV models. Lichte says this is to highlight the brand’s sporting credentials. Audi’s signature quattro four-wheel-drive system will also be alluded to by subtly flared wheelarches, while the redesigned tail lamps and wraparound red bar are a nod to the original quattro. The lights at the rear are LED, while those at the front use laser technology, a hi-tech feature that will become increasingly common.
The concept’s body is crafted from carbon fibre, which saves weight and can be moulded into much more extravagant shapes than steel or aluminium. It’s expensive and difficult to use in mass production, but don’t be surprised to see Audi’s flagship models made from carbon in the future.
The Prologue is based on the underpinnings of an Audi A8 but is 40mm shorter than the luxury saloon. It has giant 22in wheels and combines four-wheel drive with four-wheel steering. The rear wheels will turn by up to five degrees to make the car easier to manoeuvre at low speeds and more agile on a country road. It’s nothing new – Japanese car makers used it extensively in the late 1980s and 1990s – but is arguably more useful as cars have grown. The concept was also fitted with an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Our cruise around the streets of Beverly Hills was really about seeing this car in its natural environment – amid the traffic. Even the designers admitted this was the first time they’d seen it in the “real” world and were nervous about how it would be received. They need not have worried.
I’ve been lucky enough to drive a huge array of supercars over the past 15 years, but few have generated this much of a stir. Police escort or not, driving a one-off car with useless wing mirrors in LA traffic created a feeling of trepidation. Crashing it would cause a YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons.
The concept had an electrical gremlin that compromised the throttle response. I had to pump the pedal to make progress, which was neither cool nor smooth. The steering, though, was reassuringly light and the suspension surprisingly supple. Our convoy cruised past some of the multimillion-dollar mansions that characterise Beverly Hills and it was easy to imagine this coupé parked on their manicured drives.
Audi is one of the great success stories of the past two decades and its momentum shows no sign of diminishing. We would expect to see the A9 inspired by the Prologue in showrooms as early as 2017, roughly a year after the next-generation A8.
By then, Pretty Woman will be 27 years old and if they a sequel gets off the ground, an A9 might be the perfect choice for an ageing Richard Gere.
The future according to Audi
Audi Prologue specifications
- Price: £100,000 (estimated)
- Engine: 4-litre, V8, bi-turbo petrol
- Power: 597bhp
- Torque: 553 lb ft
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3.7sec (estimated)
- Top speed: 155mph
- Fuel: 32.8mpg
- CO2: 199g/km (estimated)
- Release date: To be confirmed