Curbside Classic: 2003 Audi A2 – Aluminium Wonder Or Folly?

(first posted 3/11/2018)      While stopped at a traffic light a little while back I was surprised to see one of Audi’s aluminium wonders in a dealer’s used car yard, because they never sold them here.  Not surprising when it is claimed to be one of four in the country!

Photo: Audi Penfold Burwood

Here are some more photos from the dealer’s website, where it is still for sale at AUD$19,990.  This is a 1.4L petrol engine version, which has 56 kW or 75 hp.

1993 ASF concept

The Audi A2 story is a case of a manufacturer pushing technology further than what consumers were ready for, and particularly in 1999 when it was implemented in a small hatchback, even if it was preceded (rightly) by Audi’s flagship 1994 A8.  There is a reason why new technology is normally introduced in top-of-the-range cars, so perhaps they should have followed up the A8 with the A7 rather than the A2, or done the TT in aluminium?

1997 Audi AL2 concept

The A2 dates from a fairly remarkable time in VW history, with cars like the VW Phaeton and Bugatti Veyron having their design set as much by what seems like arbitrary design specifications or challenges as much as by market research.  Of course there is a common factor here: Ferdinand Piëch.  Need I say more?

In the A2’s case, it was “Transport four people from Stuttgart to Milan on a single tank of petrol”.  That is only 505 km (315 miles) which shouldn’t be much of a challenge even if you have a small 34 L (or just under 9 US gallons) of fuel in your tank.  Highway fuel consumption for the 1.4 petrol version is rated at 4.7 L/100km or 50 mpg US, at least for the Euro extra-urban cycle.  Not bad but not amazing, given the cost involved.

Of course most of the body was Audi’s second-generation Aluminium Space Frame (ASF), of which 60% was stamped sheet, 22% castings and 18% extruded profiles.  In a first, many of the pieces were laser-welded together.  There were still a few steel pieces including the firewall and the front crossmember, while the external panels were not load-bearing, in the manner of the Citroen DS for one.  The ASF construction saved 150 kg (330 lb) compared to a conventional steel body shell.

Infamously the bonnet (or hood) was not hinged but removed altogether when necessary for servicing, but in day-to-day operation, the grille panel opened instead for checking oil and water.  The lack of bonnet hinges, and lighter bonnet itself, saved 5 kg.

Other than the construction method, careful attention was paid to the aerodynamics in the name of fuel efficiency, as this car was intended for use on the autobahn in addition to city streets.  The original versions had flush wheel covers rather than the alloy wheels seen here.

Inside it was fairly conventional, within the tall-hatch form factor that is ideal for maximising interior space within a given footprint.  I wonder if it is in response to the rise of the CUV that ‘normal’ cars seem to be getting lower again?  A narrow car like the A2 (1673mm / 65.9”) can be a challenge to avoid feeling like you are sitting on a bar stool, through the amplified effects of body roll.  Audi’s solution was firm springing and a hefty anti-sway bar; the counter-effect of this is a firm ride

The back seat doesn’t look very accommodating, but was said to provide good room even for tall passengers thanks to the A2 using a similar layout to the original Mercedes A-Class with a sandwich floor that in the rear seat created particularly deep footwells.

Similarly the boot is unusually roomy at 390L or nearly 14 cubic feet, as large as the best C-segment hatchbacks today.  Don’t forget the A2 was just 3.8m long (150.6”), and was impressively light at only 895kg (1,973 lb) in 1.4L petrol form.  Add 100kg for the 1.6 FSi or 1.4 TDi versions.  The aluminium construction had a significant drawback in service though – accident damage is very expensive to repair, which has led to many A2s being written off, even when relatively new.  Parts specific to the A2 are quite expensive too.

I mentioned not amazing fuel economy, but there was a version of the A2 with a 1.4L 3–cyl TDi engine that improved things considerably (3.7L/100 / 63.5mpg highway), but the amazing version was the one with the 1.2 TDi drivetrain from the Lupo 3L.  That refers 3L per 100km or 78 mpg, and that is for the combined cycle; the highway rating is 2.7L/100km or 87 mpg.  What is more impressive is that you can apparently actually achieve those numbers!  Mind you, to make sure you couldn’t take full advantage of this economy the fuel tank was reduced to just 21 litres (5.5 gal).  The normal tank was optional, so I wonder if making the rating was such a close-run thing that a few kilos made the difference, and further how many cars were built with the small tank?

Interestingly, an A2 was converted into a ute by trainees at Audi’s Neckarsulm factory.  Perhaps they should have sent those to Australia?  Probably not, I doubt they would have sold as well as the Suzuki Mighty Boy

Nevertheless like cars such as the Ford GT or Lexus LFA, the A2 is notable as a car that pushed technology and manufacturing processes along even if they weren’t completely profitable as a stand-alone project.  The advertisement for our feature car states that it would be “great for a collector”, which is very true.


Further Reading:

Mads Jensen’s Curbside Classic: Audi A2 1.2 TDI – Vorsprung Durch Technik