Audi’s new “urban mobility concept” previews a future where cars become a “well-being sphere” for relaxation, leisure or productivity
In Europe and the US, large executive limos like the Mercedes S-Class are the kings when it comes to luxury business travel. But in Asia, where cities are more congested, you’re far more likely to see high-ranking execs being chauffeured in the back of a converted MPV.
Asian cars like the Toyota Alphard/Vellfire, Lexus LM and Hyundai Staria have largely had this potentially lucrative sector of the market to themselves thus far, but now Audi wants in on the action too. Say hello to the Audi Urbansphere.
The Urbansphere is the third in Audi’s line of “Sphere” concept cars, which seek to explore how future models can be more than just A-to-B transport. Thanks to electric propulsion and autonomous driving capabilities, Audi envisions that in our hectic, traffic-filled cities, cars will soon become a third “bubble” or “sphere” we’d choose to spend time in, after home and work.
Unlike the Skysphere (above, right), which is a shape-shifting drop-top grand tourer cum sports car, and the Gransphere (above, left), which is a more traditional luxury saloon, the Urbansphere is essentially a living room on wheels. Accordingly, the Urbansphere was designed from the inside out, with the packaging and exterior needs taking a back seat to the interior space and the “human needs of customers”.
Measuring 5.51m long by 2.01m wide by 1.78m tall, with a 3.4m wheelbase, the Urbansphere is the biggest Audi ever made. Such generous dimensions meant the designers had plenty of room to play with to design the perfect mobile "living space", which was informed by participation and feedback from the company's Chinese customer base. Instead of squeezing in seven or eight seats like most MPVs, there are only four here, with massive space for everyone.
The Urbansphere experience begins even before you get in. A "red carpet" of light beckons you toward the car, where suicide doors and no B-pillar allow for a more dignified entry. The seats themselves are more like what you’d find in business class travel, and give passengers more interaction options than we’re used to.
Feeling sociable? Then the seats can swivel towards each other to facilitate conversation, or passengers can watch a movie together on a transparent wide-format OLED cinema screen that folds down from the ceiling. Thirsty? Then just reach for the centre console between the seats, complete with water dispenser and glasses, although presumably you could swap the water out for a different kind of libation…
If you want to be left alone though, then you can activate the privacy collar that pivots out from behind the headrest, recline the seat, and focus on the individual screen on the seat in front, as well as the speakers integrated into each headrest. Audi says you’ll be able to hook up your favourite music or video streaming services to your car, and could even “make personalized and exclusive options available in the future, such as concerts, cultural events, or even sporting events.”
Up front, you might be forgiven for thinking at first you were in an observation gallery: no steering wheel, no instruments, no touchscreens, nothing but a great view out the windscreen, and a blank swathe of wood panelling in front of you. But start the car up, and that wooden wall becomes a screen onto which the driving and infotainment displays get projected.
Activate manual driving mode and the steering wheel comes out, with the front projection being split for the driver and passenger. And instead of jabbing at a screen, all of it can be controlled either with the ring-and-button controller located on each door, or a combination of eye tracking and gesture control.
Speaking of driving, the Urbansphere is built on Audi’s next-gen Premium Platform Electric (PPE), which has also been confirmed will underpin the next Audi A6. Two electric motors - one on each axle - power the car, providing 295kW (395hp) and 690Nm of torque. The battery is rated at “above 120kW” which gives a maximum range of 750km, and has 270kW charging capability, which can give 300km worth of juice in just 10 minutes if you have access to a charger powerful enough. The whole shebang rides on air suspension and 24-inch wheels.
Finally, the car’s exterior. There’s not a lot that can be said or done to style up an MPV shape, although the Urbansphere does have a sleek profile that isn’t unrealistic. Much more intriguing though are the lights. With no engine and no air intake requirements, the signature Audi singleframe grille has been repurposed into what the company calls a giant “Light Canvas”. Same goes for the tailgate too.
Not only do the dynamic light elements amp up the wow factor of seeing one on the road, but they can be used to communicate more effectively with other road users too.
Of course, being a concept, the Urbansphere won’t make it to production. But Audi is keen on some of its ideas making their way to future cars, depending on customer feedback. As it puts it, “the Sphere concepts are visions for the future”. More tangibly, Audi does predict that its model lines “will change massively over next few years as Audi goes EV”, and much of the brand’s nomenclature will change accordingly - presumably the “e-tron” moniker will be dropped as EVs become mainstream.