Audi’s A2 confounded the buying public and lost its maker billions, but it was a stellar achievement nonetheless.
Carmakers are for the most part, pathologically averse to matters of risk – and for good reason. The costs of failure can be ruinous. For instance, a cogent argument could be made that Fiat Auto never recovered from the commercial failure of their 2003 Stilo programme, precipitating a decline from which they have never recovered.
Not so Audi, nestled safely within the VW Group mothership, and for decades now, a significant profit centre within the vast German multi-brand automotive titan. Nevertheless, the luxury carmaker is no stranger to the bitter tang of failure, or its financial cost.
Twenty years ago Audi announced the A2, a revolutionary and futuristically styled monopod aimed at elevating the Ingolstadt carmaker’s perception as technological pioneers. Six years later, it was summarily axed, following losses which amounted to around €1.3 bn*, having failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the marketplace. This places the A2 programme amongst the ten most expensive failures of the previous decade, but raw figures alone cannot tell the full story.
The roots to the A2 programme go back to the late 1980s and an environmental crisis which was precipitated by the massive depletion of German forestry from the effects of ‘acid rain’, a direct consequence of vehicle and industrial emissions. With the environment firmly on the political agenda during the decade that followed, carmakers were literally forced to act.
There had been for some time something of a gentleman’s pact amongst the German carmakers, where they agreed not to overtly encroach upon one another’s core markets. But as Mercedes-Benz sought to transition from their position at the patrician end of the automotive pecking order towards a broader demographic, their decision to produce a compact front-driven hatchback precipitated no little consternation along the banks of the Mittelandkanal.
By embarking upon the W168 programme, Mercedes essentially tore up the rulebook. Such a precipitous move into VW’s orbit was viewed by Audi’s Dr. Ferdinand Piëch as a declaration of open warfare – one which would lead to wide-ranging ramifications.
According to an Audi spokesman, the programme brief for the A2 stated it should be capable of transporting four people from Stuttgart to Milan on a single tank of fuel, so the emphasis would be on lightweight materials, small-capacity fuel-efficient engines and an overtly wind-cheating shape – Ingolstadt’s aim being to create a small Audi, rather than a cheap one. In this respect at least, one could suggest it to have had more in common with Stuttgart-Untertürkheim’s W201 model in that it combined all of the virtues and refinements associated with the marque in a smaller package.
Audi’s engineers started with one pronounced advantage: Material technology. Having developed an aluminium structure for the upmarket A8 model, Audi’s engineers developed the architecture to underpin an advanced lightweight monospace bodyshell, where the outer panels were attached, largely unstressed to the alloy spaceframe.
When Audi previewed the A2 with the 1997 Al2 concept, timed to coincide with the crucial world debut of their bitter rival’s new A-Class, few realised the seriousness of their intent, assuming it to be merely a well-chosen dig at their antagonists. Two years later however, the naysayers were well and truly confounded.
Stylistically credited to Audi designer, Derek Jenkins, working under the supervision of Peter Schreyer, Audi’s design team created a masterpiece of form and surface. Appearing as though it had been hewn from a single billet of aluminium, its exquisite streamlined teardrop shape was a pared-back masterclass in visual and material purity – arguably the most intelligent car to ever bear the four rings of Auto Union.
While its Rastatt rival was in essence an engineer’s car clad in the ephemeral fashions of the day, the A2 was a stylistic and conceptual landmark. Its cabin too not only was clever, versatile and spacious, it was as finely wrought and elegantly specified as any contemporary larger Audi.
But this level of integrity came at a price. Costing above an well-specified Golf, potential customers really had to make a case for the Audi. Combine the high cost of entry with small-capacity, low-output engines and it’s little surprise buyers baulked at the asking price. Most chose more conventional options, and the too smart for its own good A2 never troubled the sales charts, with a mere 177,377 built at Audi’s (former NSU) Nekarsulm facility until 2005.
Against its three pointed star rival then, the A2 may have been a sales flop, but it proved the more durable design – from a materials perspective, from a build and durability perspective (the original W168 being anything but a quality product), but more pertinently still from a design perspective – the A2 remaining an object of desire, whereas the A-Class’ faddish shape dated as quickly as its paintwork faded. And while the Mercedes (its million plus sales notwithstanding) remains something of an embarrassment to its maker, the A2 has maintained its credibility – at least amongst those who truly understand it.
Audi have paid lip service to reanimating the A2 concept a number of times in subsequent years – (most recently as an autonomous vehicle), but the concept lives on in Milbertshofen – BMW’s i3 illustrating the A2 concept’s prescience. However, while monopods remain showroom poison, it remains highly improbable that Audi will repeat the experiment, especially since Ingolstadt has not only proven its point, but also can achieve significantly better returns with stultifyingly conventional Polo-based derivatives.
So can Audi’s monospace capsule simply be dismissed as a cost-no-object Piëch-inspired folly? It’s likely that the A2 programme was viewed by VW senior management as an expensive but necessary thought experiment which came with the added benefit of demonstrating both technological superiority and commercial daring over their rivals. With this achieved, it was inevitable the focus would shift focus towards more cost-effective solutions.
An ambitious stab into the unknown then – one its maker would never countenance now, but not only was the A2 hugely significant as Audi’s turn of the millennium creative moonshot, but also as a point of reference (and reproach) for small cars ever since.
*Datasource: Bernstein Research via Automotive News Europe.
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Author’s note: The original text has been altered to reflect the correct stylistic attribution – see commentary below. [17/07/19 18.52 GMT]