Emerg­ing clas­sic: Audi A2

The alu­minium-bod­ied Audi su­per­mini said to be a loss-leader.

Classics Monthly - - Contents - Words Paul wageR

I f you’re not up on all things In­gol­stadt, you might not have no­ticed that the cur­rent Audi range runs log­i­cally from A1 to A8 but no longer con­tains an A2.

The of­fi­cial line is that the model wasn’t re­placed in 2005 be­cause it was sim­ply too costly to pro­duce and re­tail at a price the mar­ket would stand.

All of which was a great shame since the A2 rep­re­sented some gen­uinely in­no­va­tive think­ing and in many ways paved the way for the wide­spread use of alu­minium as a weight-sav­ing measure in cars to­day.

The A2 story be­gins back in 1994 with the launch of the A8 which utilised a rev­o­lu­tion­ary alu­minium struc­ture.

Dubbed ASF (Alu­minium Space Frame) this had been de­vel­oped jointly by Audi and the US alu­minium com­pany Al­coa over the pre­vi­ous 12 years.

The con­cept uses alu­minium ex­tru­sions con­nected by pres­sure die-cast alu­minium nodes at the joints to cre­ate a frame­work, with the alu­minium outer pan­els largely non-struc­tural. Audi’s own cal­cu­la­tions reck­oned that the ASF car weighed in at some 40 per cent less than a con­ven­tional steel­bod­ied equiv­a­lent and ex­tend­ing the de­sign to a smaller car pre­sented an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate some­thing re­ally ground­break­ing.

In­deed, part of the de­sign brief was fa­mously to cre­ate a car which could trans­port four peo­ple from Mi­lan to Stuttgart on a sin­gle tank of fuel.

The re­sult was a pair of con­cepts dis­played at the 1997 Frank­furt show, under the names AL1 (sa­loon) and AL2 (hatch). Both were pretty avant garde and the AL2 ‘Open End’ shown at the Tokyo show later that year had a neat de­sign pre­view­ing the Citroen Pluriel where the en­tire fab­ric roof and plas­tic rear win­dow could be rolled for­wards elec­tri­cally, with the rear panel low­ered to give a pickup-style load bed.

Under the show gim­micks though, there was some re­ally se­ri­ous en­gi­neer­ing and the AL2 con­cept re­turned in 1999 as the pro­duc­tion-ready Audi A2. Audi had cho­sen to base its alu­minium en­gi­neer­ing ‘Com­pe­tence Cen­tre’ in its Neckar­sulm plant – iron­i­cally, the for­mer home of once-in­no­va­tive NS U – and full pro­duc­tion be­gan in 2000.

The whole ethos of the A2 was weight sav­ing but with Audi po­si­tioned by then as a pre­mium brand with all the con­ve­nience and safety kit de­manded in a modern car, the tar­get weight of 900kg – that’s lit­tle more than an Elise – was a tall or­der.

They man­aged it though and in its UK-mar­ket 1.4i petrol spec the A2 weighed in at 899kg with half a tank of fuel.

Its con­struc­tion was sim­i­lar to the larger A8, with some clever de­sign in­cor­po­rated in the bodyshell: for ex­am­ple, the en­tire body side from A-pil­lar to tail­gate was pro­duced from a sin­gle piece, fewer joins mean­ing im­proved pre­ci­sion and rigid­ity. The evo­lu­tion of the ASF tech­nol­ogy was shown in the frame it­self be­ing made from a sin­gle part in­stead of eight.

On the road, the A2 belied its tall and nar­row stance with han­dling which was sur­pris­ingly nim­ble thanks to a very low cen­tre of grav­ity and the light weight meant even the 75 bhp of the 1.4 petrol en­gine made it feel sprightly.

The A2 looked the part too thanks to some neat work by the in-house team under Peter Schreyer (now sharp­en­ing up Kia), with its crisp curves and tight panel gaps giv­ing it a gen­er­ally high-tech, pre­ci­sion­made aura which was at odds with its main com­peti­tor, the sim­i­larly pro­por­tioned Mercedes A- Class.

Ah yes, the A- Class. It’s im­pos­si­ble to men­tion the A2 with­out at least con­sid­er­ing the Mercedes but in truth the orig­i­nal ‘W168’ A- Class was woe­fully eclipsed by Audi’s tech – the flimsy plas­tic tail­gate and so-so in­te­rior qual­ity sim­ply wasn’t a match for the Audi’s pre­ci­sion-en­gi­neered feel. It was how­ever use­fully cheaper and also of­fered a full five-seat ca­pac­ity, some­thing which the Audi didn’t: the rear bench had the room, but the A2 came with only four seat­belts at launch.

Mean­while, not con­tent with flex­ing its tech mus­cles, Audi also de­cided to take a leaf out of Ap­ple’s book and tell the pub­lic what it wanted: or more specif­i­cally, what it didn’t want in the shape of a con­ven­tional bon­net. Much was made of the car’s sup­pos­edly sealed bon­net, with just a small flap in the grille al­low­ing ac­cess to fluid checks, but in re­al­ity the bon­net could be un­clipped and lifted away when re­quired.

At launch the A2 was of­fered with just the 1.4 petrol, joined by the 75 bhp diesel in Septem­ber 2000 and in 2002 a new 1.6-litre en­gine was in­tro­duced, us­ing VW Group’s FSI (Fuel Strat­i­fied In­jec­tion) direct in­jec­tion tech­nol­ogy. In Septem­ber 2003, a 90 bhp diesel was of­fered and in 2005 pro­duc­tion fi­nally ended.

One in­trigu­ing model we didn’t get in the UK was the 1.2-litre TDI, the so-called ‘3 litre’ econ­omy cham­pion on ac­count of its 3 litres per 100 km abil­ity – or in real money, a stag­ger­ing 103 mpg.

This kind of tech­nol­ogy didn’t come cheap though. In the range-top­ping A8 it could be more eas­ily swal­lowed in the car’s greater profit mar­gin but not in the A2: yes, it was ex­pen­sive for a Fi­esta-sized car at £13,05 for the ba­sic car and £15,730 for the range-top­ping 4.i in 2000 but de­spite that, it’s ru­moured that Audi lost money on ev­ery A2 made. And de­spite the firm show­ing an A2 Con­cept back in 2011, that ex­plains they there’s still that gap in the cur­rent range.

ASF alu­minium space­frame was first de­vel­oped for the A8.

Frame­work is made from ex­truded sec­tions joined at cast nodes with un­stressed outer pan­els. Re­sult is a sub-900kg car.

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