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Audi Skysphere concept is like two cars in one

Audi's vision of future luxury morphs from sporty electric two-seater to autonomous grand tourer at the push of a button.

Would you rather drive or be driven? The Skysphere lets you do both.

Andi Hedrick/Audi

Moments before pulling the cover off the Audi Skysphere concept in Los Angeles on Monday, designer Gael Buzyn offered a succinct introduction: "I would like to welcome you to the future." The Skysphere is the first of three new concepts that show Audi's vision of luxurious autonomous transportation. And this one's got a special trick up its sleeve.

What starts as a long, low, luxurious grand tourer capable of Level 4 autonomy morphs into an electric sports car at the push of a button. A steering wheel and set of pedals emerge from below the dashboard, which itself breaks into two sections forming a defined cockpit for the driver. The Skysphere's front wheels roll backwards as the wheelbase shortens by 9.8 inches, hood panels and door sills neatly tucking behind other sheetmetal to complete the transformation.

It's alive!

Audi

In its standard GT setting, the Skysphere is about as long as a full-size Audi A8 L sedan, but in Sport mode, it shrinks to the size of a midsize (but still pretty big) A6. The hyperbolically long hood splits down the middle and opens to reveal a frunk large enough for two sets of golf clubs. Around back, a small cargo compartment holds a specially designed set of luggage for a weekend's worth of wearables.

Open the rear-hinged coach doors and you're met with a cabin outfitted in microfiber suede, vegan leather and eucalyptus wood trim. A cloth roof can be easily removed and a pair of cashmere blankets neatly stow behind the front seats in case you or your passenger get cold. Go on, bundle up and stream a movie on the Skysphere's 55.7-inch full-width digital display.

"The car was designed around the interior," Buzyn said, and Audi sees the Skysphere as a modern interpretation of the ultra-luxe Horch 853 from the 1930s. (Horch later became part of Audi as we know it today.) Crystal flourishes and backlit control panels accent the interior, with a small analog clock neatly positioned in the center console -- a small bit of old-school in this incredibly forward-thinking car.

Outside, the Skysphere is all modern, starting with a reinterpretation of Audi's single-frame grille. Backlit by LEDs, the grille can play welcome light sequences or project information onto the road. A similar effect is found around back, where red LEDs span the width of the concept. The Skysphere has unique LED designs depending on whether or not the car is operating in long-wheelbase GT or short-wheelbase Sport mode.

The whole thing looks awesome, sophisticated yet menacing, like an opulent, elegant Batmobile. The huge, 23-inch wheels are extremely cool, and they're specifically designed to help with airflow to reduce drag.

Despite Audi's well-known history of using Quattro all-wheel drive, the Skysphere uses a rear-wheel-drive configuration. Audi says the battery pack has "more than 80 kilowatt-hours" capacity, and the single, rear-mounted electric motor produces 624 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque. Audi estimates the concept -- which weighs around 4,000 pounds -- can accelerate to 62 mph in 4 seconds. The company estimates this setup would be good for a range of roughly 310 miles on the European WLTP test cycle.

When you switch from GT to Sport, the 55.7-inch-wide screen splits in two.

Andi Hedrick/Audi

The battery pack is positioned behind the cabin, giving the Skysphere a 40:60 front-to-rear weight distribution. Both the front and rear suspensions use a double-wishbone design, and a steer-by-wire system has a variable-ratio setup depending on drive mode. The Skysphere also uses rear-axle steering which, combined with the shorter wheelbase in Sport mode, helps with overall agility.

You can't mix and match the driving modes, sadly. In other words, if you're in GT mode, you have to use Level 4 autonomy. If you want to take over and drive yourself, it's only possible in Sport. Oh, and you can totally change setups on the fly; Audi says the Skysphere has the ability to morph while in motion.

Admittedly, the variable-wheelbase thing mostly seems like a party trick, especially when you consider all the added weight and complexity it adds to the car. But Audi says this is a real technology the company is investigating for production intent. Of course, federal safety standards would have to adapt to allow for such a setup to exist.

Kinda looks like a Batmobile, right?

Andi Hedrick/Audi

Still, the dual personality is super cool, and really sets the Skysphere apart. It also drives home the fact that Audi believes people will always want to drive in an increasingly driverless world.

"The whole topic is the freedom to choose," said Hildegard Wortmann, Audi's board member for sales and marketing. "When we talk autonomous driving, everybody says, 'OK, fine, so how are we going to use the time in the car?' Everything we have on our mobile phones ... you can bring all that stuff into the car, fine, but that's not the story. ... There are certain experiences that you have in the car that you can only have in the car."

"We are all car guys and car freaks," added product and technology spokesperson Josef Schloßmacher. "Driving ourselves in the future is absolutely an alternative."

The Skysphere will make its public debut later this week as part of the 2021 Monterey Car Week festivities.