What Audi’s Wild Skysphere Concept Reveals About The Future
Jaw will undoubtedly drop when Audi’s skysphere concept breaks cover at Monterey Car Week. The waist-high, two-seater’s lavish proportions, improbably swoopy nose, spaciously sleek interior portend a future where cutting edge technology, retro subtleties and autonomy merge.
The visual stunner speaks volumes to Audi’s ambitious vision for electrification and autonomy. But to fully understand how the brand is leveraging its exclusive platform, we took a deep firsthand dive into what might be one of the most complex concept cars unveiled in recent memory.
Skysphere is the first of three concept cars that spearhead the brand’s future product, according to Daniel Weissland, who serves as president of Audi‘s U.S. division. The second and third products, the grandsphere and citysphere, are expected to be more attainable crossover and city car-inspired ideas, respectively. “Especially when you’re a premium luxury progressive brand,” Weissland told Forbes Wheels, “you better start from top down, not bottom up.”
That said, skysphere is a conceptually and mechanically audacious attempt to embody two ideals: a comfortable grand tourer and a more agile sports car. Tipping a hat to the 1937 Horch 853 (the concept echoes the classic’s length and width but sits far lower to the ground), the skysphere’s design embodies the idea that while an autonomous future is coming, there will also be room for the driver to step in and take the wheel.
The concept’s party trick hides beneath its contoured body panels. At the push of a button, the 17-foot long roadster shrinks by nearly 10 inches, shortening the distance between its front and rear wheels while bringing the dashboard closer to the passengers and presenting an instrument cluster and steering wheel for the driver. It takes about 20 seconds for the transformation to occur, and once complete, the skysphere still looks dramatic, though perhaps 10% less over-the-top bonkers than in its fully extended form.
Gael Buyzn, head of Audi’s Design Loft in Malibu, California, describes the interior in the long-wheelbase configuration as being like a “stylish lounge,” pointing out eco-friendly microfiber, vegan leather and sustainably harvested eucalyptus materials. In the flesh, the cabin comes across as plushly finished, with velvety soft-touch materials and remarkably roomy proportions—enough to stretch out one’s legs and then some.
It’s also surprisingly sparse in form, one where expansive screens decorate the otherwise flush, clean spaces whose accents are limited to thin, delicately anodized aluminum trim along the door panels and window bevels. The transformation involves the passenger seat and the rear bulkhead moving while the driver seat remains static. Buyzn says the space was inspired by California, including the pale blue hue dubbed “agave” and the eucalyptus that are native to the region. There are overtures to Art Deco moderne, while the screens may offer entertainment options while the car drives itself.
When the wheelbase shortens and the skysphere switches to driver mode, a steering wheel with paddle shifters unfold from beneath the screen, extending to the driver and revealing driving gloves discreetly stowed within a clear case. While the interior loses the rigorous minimalism of the pure flatscreen dashboard found in the touring configuration, the steering wheel doesn’t necessarily spoil the space with clutter; it’s in the same design language, and therefore feels compatible with its surroundings.
When it does come time to take controls, this Audi departs from its Quattro edition by laying its power—465 horsepower and 553 pound-feet, to be precise—to only the rear wheels. While internal combustion cars typically focus on creating as close to 50/50 weight distribution between the front and back of the vehicle, the skysphere’s balance tilts heavily towards the tail, with 60% of the weight over the rear axle. And while the compressible wheelbase would make the car turn more effortlessly, it’s also complemented by four-wheel steering. “In this case, more is more,” suggests Buyzn.
As for the concept’s place in Audi history, the word “sphere” says a lot about where the brand is headed. While the company’s first 111 years focused on the drive—that is, cars focused on performance and luxury—the future might focus on the experience, i.e., the sphere surrounding the occupants within the cabin. Yes, the skysphere is visually striking on the outside. Still, it focuses a great deal of energy on the interior space to comfortably accommodate long-distance travel while being ready to focus attention towards the driver when necessary.
While the skysphere is unapologetically wild, Weissland insists it’s a study rooted in feasible ideas. “We’re not talking about futuristic concept cars which will never become reality,” he says, “we’re talking about entering the next generation of our portfolio.” He cites the e-tron GT and Q4 e-tron as examples; the production cars look remarkably similar to the concept cars they’re based on. “They’re not out of the blue; they’re pre-defining what’s possible. They’re reference points for the decision making.”
The upcoming grandsphere will be most rapidly transformed into a production car, arriving in showrooms as early as 2025. As for whether all of Audi’s lineup will follow this new vision, now might not be the time to hold one’s breath. “We have 70 derivates in 115 markets, and we’re a global player with 2 million products a year,” Weissland says. “That’s gigantic complexity with millions of customers, so it’s not flipping the switch. It’s a transformation taking place.”