Benchmarks: Audi’s Monospace Capsule

The A2 wasn’t just the most intelligently wrought Audi ever. It was also their most expensive sales flop. We tell its story.

Audi A2. Image via nordschleifeautoblahg
Still bracingly contemporary – Audi’s A2. Image via nordschleifeautoblahg

History marks the Audi A2 as a failure, and with vast commercial losses incurred during a six year lifespan, it’s convenient to imagine this. Since 2005, the party line has been that Audi took a brave, risky and ultimately doomed gamble into the unknown; one which was studiously ignored by the buying public. But did they?

It had been an open secret since the late-1980s that Daimler-Benz was working on a compact hatchback. Such an incursion into the VW Group’s orbit was seen by Chairman, Dr. Ferdinand Piëch as a gross betrayal, leading directly to this overt cost-no-object rival. Based on an ultra-economical VW concept, Piëch wanted a technological statement to put his detested rivals in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim firmly in their place. Audi’s engineers had one pronounced ace in their pocket: Material technology in the form of aluminium spaceframe construction. But when Audi displayed the Al2 concept as a direct riposte to the newly announced Mercedes A-Class in 1997, few believed it was anything more than another fit of Piëch. Two years later however, press and public realised just how serious Ferdi was.

Image via bilmodel
Image via bilmodel

Luc Donckerwolke styling was a masterpiece of form and structural function. An engineer’s car from its rounded nose to the tip of its aerodynamically shaped tail-lights, it appeared to have been milled from a solid billet of aluminium. Its design detail was a delight and with a exquisitely streamlined teardrop shape the A2 was an pared-back study in visual and material purity. Beautifully finished and assembled to similar standards as larger Audi’s, the A2 became an object of desire for Design aficionados from Dundee to Dungeness. Audi would never be this clever again.

Image via audiworld
The level of investment in the A2’s aluminium spaceframe construction was vast. Image via audiworld

But this level of engineering integrity costs. Priced above a well-specified Golf, customers really had to make a case for the Audi. Combine this with small-capacity engines and subsequent lack of performance, (a function of its efficiency brief) and the case for the A2 was tougher still. So while the market was surprised by the A-Class, they were utterly confounded by the A2. Was it a compact luxury saloon or an economy trailblazer – or could it be both? Buyers chose the safety of convention, so the smart-alec A2 never troubled the sales charts. After six years Audi pulled the plug, indirectly replacing it with the screamingly conventional Polo-based A1.

Image via picgifs
Image via picgifs

Audi ultimately lost €1.3bn on the A2, although I strongly suspect its costs were written off before the first production car rolled down the lines. The A2 did its job for Audi and Dr. Piëch; proving they could out-engineer their bitter rivals in Stuttgart. The A2 proved a more durable design amidst enlightened autophiles – held in genuine affection by owners and those (like myself) who still quietly covet one. While major sales success eluded the A2 during its life, it has become a sought-after secondhand buy, holding significantly more residual value than the considerably less well wrought A-Class. Even today, an A2 makes a great deal of sense – its alloy body impervious to rust, with commendably low running costs – especially in three-cylinder TDi form.

Late era A2's were available in these cheerful Colourstorm liveries - image via A2oc
Late model A2’s were also available in these cheerful Colourstorm liveries – image via A2oc

While Audi have abandoned the A2 concept – (recently stating they have no intention of producing a similar monospace vehicle), the concept lives on at Munich’s Hochhaus; its current equivalent (BMW’s i3) aptly demonstrating QED on the A2’s prescience.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Benchmarks: Audi’s Monospace Capsule”

  1. Eoin. I too share your fascination with the A2 and have toyed with ownership. One problem is that the interiors are equally rigorous with their monotone colour schemes, except on the nicely coloured Storm versions you show. So those (the blue or the orange) are the ones I like, but then they come with low profile tyres, etc. This does highlight a (for me) problem with the A2 design. Since a hard ride for smooth autobahns had become the default for larger saloons, Audi felt it would be fine for smaller ones. I disagree.

    1. The reason it had a hard ride was the infamous elk test and the A-class toppling over. Nothing to do with Autobahns. That hard ride meant I had to take speedbumps I now do at 40mph in my Yeti at no more than 15mph in the A2 – it was a PAIN. BUT it meant it cornered like a go cart on twisty backroads. My partner had a 170hp Golf V5 at the time. And trust me for a Sunday jaunt down my favourite country roads I took the 75hp A2 nine times out of ten over the floaty Golf.

  2. Like the Mk1 Focus, this is one of those cars that I look back upon and ask why I did not buy one at the time. When I see one today, something stirs within so superb, fresh and relevant does it look still today. I love the style and the concept, and the bravery/ rashness that underpinned its commercialisation. What put me off at the time, I recall was the price, the reported hard ride and road noise (I never drove one, much to my regret these days). It seems that such flights of ego, or daring are rare these days (I believe we felt them rare back then), victims of the fear of spilt red ink. One could argue that the i3 is the “new” A2, but the style (much as I like what they were trying to achieve) is too contrived for that to really ring true in my mind.

    By the way, I loved the “fit of Piech” phrase, I wish I’d thought of it first.

    1. The late 1990s were a great time for mainstream styling. I remember the Audi TT and Ford Focus came out within a very short period; both genre busters.

  3. The problem facing the A2 is that ‘economy’ (either fuel or visual) has always been a tough sell. Such cars live and die with the press of an equals key; in this case as with many others, stellar MPG figures were more than offset by the purchase price, as proven by the A2’s later comparative popularity as a second hand buy. Coupled with the A2’s visual economy (the styling may have fans here but many others would call it “utilitarian”), to the surprise of few outside of Ingolstadt, the model became an aluminium limpet on dealer’s forecourts. Matters were certainly not helped by the contemporaneous Golf TDI, which achieved excellent MPG in a classy but conventional package, even if it did go about its business with all the brio of a Massey Ferguson tractor.

  4. I bought an fully loaded A2 1,4 TDI brand new out of the box in 2001 and had it for 9 years. Loved that beastie. Nothing came close to it hence I never replaced it until the Yeti came along. The Yeti was the first car that also had a full length panoramic sunroof like my A2 that can open (I HATE fixed fish bowl sunroofs that lets heat in but leaves you now way to let the heat out) and that had rear seats that you could take out and leave at home to create more space. No matter how hard I thrashed that A2 it never gave me less than 45mpg. It just drove on fumes and always sounded and felt a lot faster than it had any right to be on just a mere 75 horses. The best way for me to describe that A2 was how Nissan described their Micra in an early ad campaign: compact yet spacious: compacious. Six footers were always amazed about the amount of space out back. Why? Unlike the silly and hideous Mercedes A-class of the time, the A2’s sandwich floor stopped under the front seats. So the floor of the rear footwell was at the bottom of the car unlike in the A-class where the rear passengers had their knees around their faces because the floor was a sandwich front to back. What do I miss most of it, apart from the 45mpg my DSG 2,0 Yeti cannot dream about as an average? That lovely 3 cylinder engine note. Heck it gave it such a great heartbeat.

    1. It is a shame that Audi did not recycle the engineering package into something more conventionally palatable. I would imagine that the A2 would have made an excellent MPV or crossover faux-by-four.

  5. Johann. You are convincing me to restart a search. I omitted mentioning it above, but the sunroof would certainly be a must-have. But it’s even harder to find the Storm colours with sunroofs for some reason. 45mpg? That’s about 5 times the urban consumption of my present Audi!

    1. The Open Sky sunroof is a must have. BUT they can get problematic and once broken you can’t fix them really. The average A2 is worth about £2,500 or so now and a new sunroof is £3,000 BEFORE labour to fit it. So you get many an Open Sky A2 now with a fishbowl roof that’s permanently left closed. But heck I LOVED that roof and how it opened and that BOTH panes of glass moved when it opened. Sadly because it didn’t have anti-pinch technology it would open or close from the keyfob. Something my Yeti sunroof does do since it does have anti-pinch.

    2. A quick Autotrader trawl brings up just 4 (petrol engined) sunroof versions, including a nice looking black one at less than 30,000 miles, but unfortunately priced at £6,000. There is a Storm version in blue, with blue inset seats which exactly mimics my S6 colourway so that I could play ‘Honey, I Shrunk The Audi’ – but alas no sunroof.

  6. I didn´t have time to join this thread but enjoyed reading the article and the comments.
    Note to SV: it´s never too late to drive a Focus Mk1. By chance these cars were part of my daily life for five or six years. I have tried all but the 3 door version and apart from the seats I think it´s a super car. Presumably good ones can be had for around a grand. As a useful daily driver, the Focus must be one of the all time greats, inheriting the mantle from the Peugeot 306 and the Alfasud before that.

    1. I used that American company called Google to find me that film. Where they deemed to find it was up to them. 🙂

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