Curbside Classic: Audi A2 1.2 TDI – Vorsprung Durch Technik

“Vorsprung Durch Technik” – Audi’s famous slogan (roughly translates into “advancement through technology”) varies quite a bit in applicability depending on the Audi to which it ascribed. In my opinion, it has rarely fit better than for the brilliant little A2 1.2 TDI (2001 – 2005).

The A2 was originally a concept car by the name “Al2” and that name hints at just one of the brilliant aspects of the A2; it is built entirely from aluminum. This means it is lighter than you would think. But this is just the beginning.

What makes this car so interesting to me is that it is a small, frugal car that is built to feel like a solid, upscale larger car. I have driven a fair amount of the small city cars that are growing ever more popular in Denmark and other nations with green-tuned car tax systems, and they all leave you with a feeling of driving a small tin box – a death trap to use a less flattering name. The Volkswagen Up! is fairly good and the Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 108/Citroën C1 triplets are getting better as well, but you still cannot shake the sense that you are driving something the manufacturers would really rather not build. There is a charm to such cars; basic motoring and all that, but at the end of the day a Polo or a Corolla is just so much nicer to drive, and you cannot help but think “why did they not just build the small one like the bigger one – only smaller?”

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Well, they did and it is called the A2. While I am not generally too crazy about Audis, I have developed quite a crush on this car. The styling takes some getting used to, but I like the fact that it was designed in and by a wind tunnel. It has a drag coefficient of just 0.25. This is achieved through a slimmer body without the flared arches of the rest of the A2’s, special underside cladding to improve airflow under the car and of course a shape similar to a raindrop.

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The A2 has narrow magnesium wheels with narrow energy-efficient tires to reduce both drag and rolling resistance. Weight has been reduced through several clever measures such as lighter seats and removal of the hood mechanism – it is only detachable, not openable. Instead it comes with a little hatch where you would typically find the grill. Behind that is the washer fluid filler gap, the dip stick and such. The result is a curb weight of just 895 kilos (1973 lbs) which is close to the contemporary VW Lupo 3L. The two are different in that the former is a four door car with respectable interior and luggage room, while the latter is a tiny two door car with all comfort features removed in an effort to reduce weight.

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The Lupo 3L was a commercial flop in most countries with Denmark and its harsh car tax system serving as a notable exception. Lots of them here.

But in addition to their weight, they are similar in another crucial aspect: They share the 3L drivetrain. 3L means three liters per 100 kilometers (78.4 mpg). The Lupo can supposedly achieve that but in reality it was difficult for early testers to achieve. The A2 1.2 TDI, on the other hand, saw more than 80 mpg in independent tests. It is listed with the same fuel economy as the Lupo, but with optional climate control, electric windows, Audi-like interior and heated seats as well as more room for both passengers and luggage. For some reason only the Lupo bears the 3L designation in its official name.

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The 3L drivetrain consists of a three-cylinder 1.2 liter diesel engine with 61 bhp (at 4000 rpm)/103 lb/ft (between 1800 and 2400 rpm) and a five speed automatically-operated manual transmission. It is operated like an automatic transmission and is programmed to shift really early. The system has a so-called eco mode which reduces power to 41 bhp and engages a stop-start system, which was a completely new technology at the time of this car’s introduction. This means that not only does the engine stop when the brake pedal is depressed, but it also shuts off when letting go of the gas going downhill.

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Contemporary tests were positive. It achieved the claimed mileage and more, and was stable and comfortable at cruising speeds of around 100 mph. Comfort was Audi-like and the only downside mentioned was significant sensitivity to side wind due to the car’s tall and narrow profile. You can hear these cars coming, the clutter from the three-cylinder diesel is distinctive.

Very few 1.2L TDIs were sold – only 6,450. This has a lot to do with the car’s high purchase price due to the expensive aluminum construction. A car that expensive would typically be expected to be much more powerful and being green was just not as hip in the early 2000’s. The people who bought these would typically be people who demand a certain level of comfort while having a lot of commuting to do. Therefore these cars typically have a lot of miles on them on the used car market today. There are several for sale in Denmark with more than 200,000 miles on them. Therefore it is comforting that the A2 fares very well in the ADAC Pannenstatistik which Paul wrote a post about recently (and yes, the Pannenstatistik is flawed, but anyway).

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The downside to buying one of these cars today (which I am considering) is that they are very expensive considering their age and mileage. A good one often has 150,000 miles on it and will set you back around 10,000 USD in Denmark. That is a bit steep the aforementioned smaller Toyota Aygo is available from around 12,500 with zero miles on the clock. The reason the A2 retains such a great resale value is that gasoline and diesel are very expensive in Denmark, and so are cars and insurance. Another thing that really kills you is the so-called “green owner’s tax.” It is 40 dollars annually for the A2. My last car, a 2001 Volvo V40 1.8, set me back 662 dollars annually just for owning it. Despite a relatively high purchasing price for such a well-used car, I think this is one of the cheaper ways to drive in comfort in Denmark, and that is alluring.

(Postscript: I had this piece ready – except for the pictures – for a while. I was hoping to catch one of these in the wild. I finally gave up and found some images online. I submitted this piece for review and in true CC effect style, I spotted the featured car the next morning.)