Style Steer: Audi’s A2 Is a Glorious Failure

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In 1959, Alec Issigonis and the British Motor Corporation wheeled out a new paradigm: the original Mini – a front-wheel-drive marvel that packed four adults and their baggage behind a transversely-mounted engine. Dinky, frugal, fun. 40 years later, Audi elevated the concept with the A2; an ideological execution so bold, it was too clever for its own good.

‘[This] has to be the small car for the 21st century,’ wrote Russell Bulgin in February 2000’s issue of CAR magazine. And why not? Here was Audi’s answer to flocks of cheap-and-cheerful shopping trolleys. It transposed the all-aluminium, space-frame construction of the company’s flagship A8 saloon into a supermini. Luxury-car vision made to measure for the mass market.

A2 was the product of obsessive, excessive engineering; a model of efficiency and ease-of-use. The eco-minded 1.2 TDI – with its clutchless manual transmission, stop/start technology and electro-hydraulic steering – easily hit the ‘3L’ economy benchmark. That’s 3 litres of fuel consumed for every 100 km travelled. Or, 94 mpg in old money. But such innovation came at a cost – for both buyers and Audi. The manufacturer reportedly lost 1.3 billion euros on its passion-project, and quietly capped production at 176,377 units…

See one, and you want to touch it; drive one, and you’ll wonder why the formula ever flopped. Just savour that shape: a wind-cheating teardrop whose lines still echo in BMW’s i3 and Volvo’s EX30. In period, some criticised the A2 for its tall, narrow, ‘monopod’ styling. They were wrong: it’s the embodiment of Issigonis’ belief that ‘design is intelligence made visible.’ Sculpted yet subtle; Bauhaus and bijou. No thing is superfluous – every element contributes to an aerodynamic Cd of 0.28. Proof that the details and dimensions drip with essential rightness.

Climb aboard: there’s a playful quality to A2’s interior that extends to the drive. It’s lively, full of verve. You sense the car’s creators – egged on by VW Group fire-starter, Ferdinand Piëch – were let off the corporate leash. They spawned a character with space and charm to spare. Lightness – 895 kg for my petrol, 1.4 SE – translates into agility and responsiveness on the move. It’s not fast, but it’s biddable. Perfect for speed-limited, city streets.

Show it an open road, and this lovable little rascal scampers through bends with minimal roll. Steering brims with feel; changes through the five-speed ‘box are pleasingly precise. Equally satisfying is the knowledge that the body will resist corrosion and the 16-valve, Benzinmotor remains compliant within clean-air zones. Park up, and you can’t help but look back at the A2 over your shoulder…

Like the Austin Mini, it was a classic at launch: a car attuned to its times and flecked with genius. Today, Audi’s forgotten masterpiece is even more appealing – which is why mine’s a cherished item. What the world neglected then, is exactly what it needs now. Or indeed, first established nearly 65 years ago…

Gut gemacht!

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