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