Car companies like to get sneaky with their prototype test mules, camouflaging them with black and white swirly wraps and even adding fake body panels, to throw suspicious onlookers off their scent. However, over the years, car nerds such as ourselves have become quite good at spy photo sleuthing and figuring out what these camouflaged cars are ahead of their official releases. Which is why when we see a camouflaged test mule that we can't quite figure out—such as this one from The Drive reader Malcolm Dean—it surprises us.
This prototype test car was spotted in Colorado, wearing Michigan manufacturer plates. Dean was actually able to talk to the engineers that were testing the car (which is unusual, as most test engineers are pretty tight-lipped), who shared some interesting details. For starters, the engineers had German accents, which obviously leads us to think the car is German. They reportedly said that the car is sold in both Europe and the United States, is front-wheel-drive but offered with all-wheel-drive, and is definitely coming out in 2026. So what could it be? Let's take a look at what we can see in the three photos Dean provided and do some detective work.
As good as the camouflage is—and it also seems to have some fake body panels at both ends—I think this is an Audi, for a few reasons. First of which is the protruding door handle design, which is sharp and angular, like Audi's, and not smooth like Mercedes'. Modern BMWs have flush door handles, so that rules out the Bavarians right away. Another Audi indicator is its side mirror design, which is mounted to the door and not the A-pillar.
The front end is unfortunately completely covered by camouflage and even the headlights are difficult to make out. At first, the front end had me thinking that it was either a BMW or a Mercedes, based on the hood shut line being further back from the grille. But the side profile shot seems to show body work unnaturally sticking out further than the headlights, leading me to believe that it's a fake panel added to the nose of the car. If that's the case, the hood shut line does line up naturally with the headlights, which is more Audi-like.
While it's hard to tell from just a few camouflaged spy photos, this mystery car also seems to be gas-powered, rather than electric, despite its lack of visible exhaust pipes. The dash-to-axle ratio is that of a typical front-wheel-drive, internal-combustion car. EVs don't need such close dash-to-axle ratios and can therefore offer more interior space by stretching their wheelbases out. So this car seems to be packaged more like a piston-powered car.
If you keep looking at the front end photo but shift your focus to the interior, you can see that the dashboard is flat all the way across. That rules out BMW and its massive iDrive screen that sticks up from the dash. It could be a Mercedes but it lacks the center air vent humps of the C-Class's dashboard and Mercedes loves to trickle-down its interior designs. So I'd expect the next A-Class to feature similar vents. Audi's touchscreen MMI system, though, is flat and typically lower in the dash, which fits this mystery car.
Another interesting detail is the car's frameless door glass. In the side photo, you can see there's no panel gap in the B-pillar, indicating that this mystery car has frameless door glass. Currently, the only Audi sedan to offer frameless door glass is the Audi A5 Sportback but this seems a bit too small to be that car's successor, so I'm guessing it's a smaller Audi.
I want to say that this is the next-generation Audi A3, as that would check all of the aforementioned evidence boxes: door handles, side mirrors, hood line, dash-to-axle, dashboard, and German heritage. The next-gen Audi A3 could be electric, which might mess my theory up, but an A3 just seems to make the most sense. Let us know what you think it could be in the comments section.
Update 7:15 PM:
Redditor EVPorsche noticed that this same car was spotted back in February in Germany and it seems to be the next-generation Mercedes CLA-Class. The team that tests Mercedes' prototypes did a great job camouflaging the car, as it really stumped us. But it was fun playing internet detective, even if I got it wrong.
Got tips? Send 'em to firstname.lastname@example.org