Fred Bear's cars of distinction
The Audi A2 was engineered to be a technical tour de force back in 1999. Twenty years later, it’s still futuristic.
The story of the A2
Volvo Cars has made investments in two promising Israeli technology start-ups through the Volvo Cars Tech Fund, the company’s venture capital investment arm.
BMW is set to name Oliver Zipse as its new chief executive, picking the manufacturing expert to help the German automaker make the shift to electric and self-driving cars.
Ford has been out driving some of the best roads for its Europe’s Greatest Driving Roads video series.
I remember that first time I saw an Audi A2. I was living in Paris in the swanky 7e arrondissement. Returning from the market one afternoon, a little silver Audi whisked across the Avenue de la Bourdonnais. Instantly I decided I wanted one.
Silver suits the A2, gives it that extra air of other worldliness and future times that, 20 years after launch, it retains.
While an Audi TT from the same era now looks a little shabby, the A2 still fits in. It’s low emission, ultra-light weight and high MPG set up make it even more a car suitable for 2019.
One year later I added one to my garage. Blue, not silver though. I’m a contrary bear.
The Al2 concept
The story of the A2 begins with the Al2 aluminium concept that Audi produced in 1997, some say to hit back at Daimler’s new Mercedes A-class (itself a far more interesting car than the today’s equivalent).
The all-aluminium concept won the hearts of the auto press, and two years later the A2 appeared, remarkably close to the prototype in looks and engineering. Car, said the production A2 “shined like a diamond”.
But the car also found fans among designers, architects and anyone else who saw in the A2 a crystallisation of design purity and dynamic efficiency – a little bit of the Bauhaus on wheels.
The aura of that all aluminium body and chassis only added to the allure. I used to tell people all the time, it’s made from aluminium you know. It will never rust!
The boss of Audi parent Volkswagen, Dr. Ferdinand Piëch, wanted the little Audi not to be progressive and as well built as all other Audis. It cost a fortune to manufacture however.
The design of the A2 was overseen by Luc Donckerwolke (now at Hyundai). Later he would tell Car magazine that the A2 he felt he over-egged the whole design a little.
“It was too complicated, if you have to explain a design. I’m afraid it’s already too late” he said.
I get that. I often found myself explaining the rationale for buying an A2, its clever packaging, the service hatch, the amazing MPG, the fact it could cruise at 90mph in comfort and peace due to its teardrop shape. But to the unconverted it was just an expensive small car.
I remember telling the dull editor of one of Haymarket’s dull motoring titles about my A2. He scoffed at its light weight and the fact that, when stationary, the car would shake a little when the wipers were on.
This was true, but it hardly bothered me. Quite the opposite in fact. High cross winds would trouble it a little on the motorway due to its low mass, but it never felt unsafe.
While the first generation A2 is undoubtedly the purest, the 2003 face lift did improve its road presence a little, with fatter tyres and wheel arches.
It was an attempt by Audi to increase its sales figures, which were chronically low. The addition of a 1.6 engine boosted its performance. The sales were not boosted however.
While the high purchase price of the A2 put many off (some could be as much as £16,000 – in 2000!), if you kept one long enough, you’d find it was remarkably cheap to run. Low road tax, amazing economy and cheap service costs saw to that.
But in the end, Audi could not afford to keep losing thousands on every A2 it produced and in 2005, the plug was pulled on this jewel of a car.
The Audi A2 today
Today there are still good A2s on the road and you can pick one up for less than grand. A really good one will be around £2-3000.
You won’t find much information about the A2 on Audi’s website, which is a shame for car that was so far ahead of its time. Are they embarrassed by what followed.
Effectively (but not officially) the A2 was was replaced by the lousy Audi A1. A car that is technically inferior, and worse looking than the A2. Incredibly, it was more cramped inside.
But of course, the dressed up Polo sold in droves to the people who always wanted an affordable way into the Audi brand. These were not A2 buyers.
Sadly the A2 remains the last really interesting car Audi has built, one that was engineered to set new standards. In that it succeeded.
Audi A2 facts
The base version had a curb weight (without driver) of no more than 895 kilograms (1,973.1 lb), and the “3-liter” A2 1.2 TDI weighed in at just 825 kilograms (1,818.8 lb).
The key factors behind this were the Audi Space Frame (ASF) and the aluminium add-on parts with a total weight of just 153 kilograms (337.3 lb).
The A2 was conceived to be built in volumes than of up to 360 cars per working day.
Its ASF showcased improvements and new developments that simplified the structure. The number of individual parts decreased to 225, and the B-pillar was made as a single large casting for the first time – for the luxury sedan it had still comprised eight components.
Hydroforming was used to produce the profiles for the roof line, whose cross-section changed several times over its entire length.
The underbody frame was welded together from extruded profiles, which were directly joined to one another.
The sheets also made up the largest share of the Audi A2 body, at 81 percent. Three joining processes dominated – punch riveting, MIG welding and the new laser welding, enabling Audi to achieve an 80-percent degree of automation