In September 1997, at the Frankfurt motor show, Audi unveiled its vision of the future – a distinctive city car concept called the Al2. The diminutive concept was packed with innovations, all of which were designed to help keep its weight down and boost its efficiency. Most notably, thanks to the radical adoption of an all-aluminium body and structure, it weighed just 750kg in basic form.
Power came from an advanced three-cylinder petrol engine with five valves per cylinder and direct injection. The 1.2-litre engine produced 74bhp which, while not sounding like a great deal, was enough to propel the featherweight Al2 from 0-62mph in less than 12 seconds.
The Al2 was also claimed to be 40 per cent more efficient than comparable steel-bodied compact cars. Such a keen focus on size, weight and efficiency was justified; urban traffic was rising, and emissions and economy targets were becoming increasingly stringent. An efficient, environmentally minded car such as the Al2 would consequently be ideal for tackling the future motoring landscape.
Further motivation came from rival Mercedes-Benz, which had been developing its new A-Class for some time – a car which would propel the premium brand into the lucrative sub-compact market. Audi, understandably, did not want to be left behind.
A GROUNDBREAKING NEW CAR ARRIVES
It quickly became apparent, following the reveal of the Al2, that full-scale production was being considered. In early 1998, for example, Audi began discussing a ‘three-litre’ model – one which could travel 100km on three litres of fuel, equivalent to averaging 94mpg.
Not long after, at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1999, the production version made its debut. The new car, dubbed the A2, surprised many by looking remarkably like the concept. There were some key changes, though; primarily, the engine line-up initially consisted of either a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol or diesel engine.
The A2 was a little heavier, too, with the petrol model clocking in at 895kg. It was a comparatively well equipped and practical car, too – despite its size and weight – thanks in part to excellent packaging and a removable rear bench. It packed plenty of neat touches as well, such as easily accessed fluid checking points tucked away behind its grille.
Even the mooted three-litre variant materialised later, boasting a 1.2-litre diesel, a drag coefficient of 0.25 and the capability to achieve 94mpg. In any specification, the A2 was an upmarket, capable and forward-thinking small car.
There was, however, a catch. When the Audi arrived in the UK market in September 2000, the basic 1.4-litre petrol version cost £13,950. Back then, that was £125 more than a mid-spec 1.6-litre petrol Volkswagen Golf.
THE DEATH KNELL OF DWINDLING DEMAND
The high asking price, in conjunction with the A2’s unusual design, quickly consigned it to the realms of a niche product – despite positive reception from the media. Audi seemingly knew this would be the case, too, given that the UK allocation for 2001 was just 1850 A2s.
The production numbers also painted a grim picture. In 2001, Audi effectively met its yearly target and built 49,369 A2s; by 2004, however, that number had ebbed away to just 19,745. Unsurprisingly, building the advanced all-aluminium A2 was also proving problematic. Its shell alone reportedly cost £1700 more to manufacture than a comparable steel-based car and, while the company claimed it wasn’t losing money on each A2, it was undoubtedly a cause for concern.
With numerous factors conspiring against it, Audi finally decided to pull the plug on the A2 in 2005. A total of 176,377 had rolled off the line by that point, a figure which sounds impressive in isolation. However, in 2004 alone, Audi put together a staggering 344,985 A4s –almost double the number of A2s built throughout the entire production run. Even the flagship A8 and TT were outstripping the A2 by 2005, further justifying the decision to wrap up the project entirely.
The car was unquestionably not without talent or interest, that all said, and it still has many fans to this day. Given that deprecation has comprehensively taken its toll, the A2 – which was unquestionably ahead of its time, given that it’s still lighter and more frugal than many a more modern car – can make for an interesting used buy.
While there’s much to look out for, such as overlooked timing belt changes, you can still pick up a smart A2 for around £1,500. Now, some twenty years down the line, perhaps it’s finally the time to sample and enjoy Audi’s futuristic aluminium supermini.
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