Guide 1999-2005 Audi A2 Type 8Z
The Audi A2 brought radical engineering to the small car sector, along with good looks and great driving dynamics. Its high cost kept sales low, but nowadays it is a sought-after machine. Report: Phil White.
ALLOYED PLEASURE Emerging Classic
The all-aluminium Audi A2, featuring seriously high tech in a small package.
Like the Roman god Janus, Audi has two faces. On the one hand it is a brand, just another rung on the VAG packaging ladder, but on the other it’s an automotive maverick, justly famed for radical engineering brilliance. Thanks to its preoccupation with ‘technik’ Audi has, during its 110-year history, done remarkable things. It was the first European company to marry a large, six-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive for example, and the Auto Union racing cars of the 1930s were ground breaking and legendarily successful. Audi was also largely responsible for bringing four-wheel drive to rallying with its brilliant 1980 Quattro, and the all-wheel drive system of the same name has been a feature of almost every Audi model range ever since, which isn’t a boast many car makers can make. Audi also did pioneering work with its saloon models in the 1980s, reducing their drag coefficient to create remarkable fuel economy for the time.
The name Audi is Latin, a word meaning ‘listen up,’ and over the years we have had much cause to take note of its achievements. However, I admit that I don’t give the brand much thought these days. Its cars are nicely-packaged, well-made, hugely capable and very popular, but then so are those of Škoda, SEAT and VW. Audi in the modern age is little more than a badge.
I certainly did snap to attention in 1997, though. I was working for a VW magazine, and one morning the post contained a press release about Audi’s new concept car, the Al2, to be displayed at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show. It was something very new, an essay in pioneering construction, aerodynamic efficiency, low weight and small-engine technology. It was also an exceptionally good-looking car that seemed designed as a riposte to Mercedes’ rather lumpen A-Class. It also seemed suspiciously complete and fully-resolved, given that it was meant to be just a concept. But who on earth would take to market a radical small car made by advanced technical processes, packing interesting engines and standout styling?
The A2 was small, just 12.5ft long, but inside it was enormous, boasting a spacious cabin with a high roof and a really decent boot. It was airy thanks to a generous glass area, and fitted out in high-quality materials. The eagle-eyed would spot that basic equipment was rather lacking in the Standard trim, although SE spec brought a few more creature comforts to the party. Should those raptor eyes be trained on the specification, it would be noted that quite respectable performance was achieved with relatively low engine power. Two petrol engines were offered, giving 74 and 109bhp. A 1.4 turbo-diesel was also listed, which provided 74 and later 89bhp. The European market also got a 1.2-litre diesel. While the petrol mills were quite conventional, the diesels were for their time remarkable in that they had only three cylinders. Even more noteworthy was the A2’s fuel consumption – the diesels provided 68mpg average economy, while the petrols gave almost 50mpg.
These clues, plus the fact that the A2 was really exceptionally expensive when set alongside other small hatchbacks, pointed to one thing, the thing that had driven the car’s development and which makes it ever more remarkable in a world of platform-sharing and accountant-led automotive design, for the A2 was the product of a focussed, deepset mission to create a car that was as strong and as light as possible. A car which tore apart the rule-book for its sector in the single minded pursuit of an engineering goal. A car for which a complete assembly line had to be created because it was so different from the rest of the Audi (and VW etc) range. A car constructed entirely from aluminium, with non stress-bearing panels hung on a laser-welded inner space frame. Fully assembled, the basic petrol A2 weighed less than 900kg. Even a fully-equipped diesel version had a mass of just 1030kg. This construction joined lightness to rigidity, and endowed the A2 with exceptionally good handling.
It far outperformed its competition, especially as the late 1990s were a time when noise, vibration and harshness concerns were increasingly separating the driver from the physics bearing upon the car.
When discussing the A2, sooner or later you have to mention the significant feature missing from its interior. No matter how hard you look, you simply won’t find the bonnet release catch. There isn’t one. While technically – and more specifically, if you’re a technician – you can undo a couple of half-hidden catches to lift the engine cover, Audi it seemed had no intention of letting the unqualified anywhere near the engine, although if you flip down the false radiator grille you will find a dipstick and fillers for oil and water. The late 1990s was a time when engines were disappearing under plastic covers to deter amateur mechanical intervention, but the A2 took the idea to a new extreme. However, given the way the rest of the car is presented, it is entirely possible that this is less to do with warranty preservation than a designer’s conceit that got out of hand and actually made it into production.
22 years on, the A2 remains one of the most remarkable cars that you’d never consider noteworthy unless someone pointed the fact out. It still looks fresh and contemporary. In this respect it sits well alongside the first iteration of the TT which, although not such a technical pioneer as the A2, is rated as another exceptionally pure Audi design which made it almost unscathed from concept car to production model. The A2 is also a highly enjoyable car to drive, is beautifully screwed together and will reward you with fuel economy that almost embarrasses contemporary small cars.
Plus the A2 is an increasingly rare vehicle. Aluminium construction has many virtues, but should you bend it, the body is eye-wateringly expensive to repair. As a result many A2s have been recycled following relatively minor impacts. This, of course, fuels the argument that we are putting here: right now, while its scarcity grows yet prices are still reasonable, is the perfect time to invest in the A2.
Happily, it seems to have been bought chiefly as a second car by people who could afford to cherish it and low-mileage examples with well-stamped service histories can be found. And a good A2 is worth looking after. Not only will it be a huge pleasure to own, but it is on its way to becoming a design icon, and its value will surely rise as a result.
AUDI A2 SAMPLE PARTS PRICES Prices from www.caarparts.co.uk for a 2001 Audi A2 1.4 SE
- Front brake pads £20.95
- Rear brake pads £13.25
- Front brake discs (pair) £43.50
- Brake caliper (front/rear) £72.75/£70.95
- Front coil spring £22.95
- Rear damper £22.75
- Water pump £21.95
- Starter motor £89.75
- Head gasket set £45.75