Since the Renault Espace first brought the MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle) concept to the mass market, many car producers have brought out their own models and variations. When Audi decided to capture a segment of the growing MPV market, its response – the Audi A2 – not only recognised the trend towards small MPVs but marked a complete departure from anything the German car maker had done in the past.
Small MPVs are popular because of their versatility, space, loadcarrying capacity and their driving characteristics that feel more like a car than a van. The introduction by Mercedes Benz of the A-class set the scene for other luxury car makers to broaden their range of vehicles. But the A2 was not designed to compete with a particular rival. The governing aim, according to Calum McKechnie, product manager of Audi UK, was to “create a small Audi, not a cheap Audi”– an exclusive vehicle that would set a benchmark for Audi in a new vehicle segment in terms of design and technology.
Audi’s initial brief for the A2 was to design a car that could take four adults in comfort and safety on long, inter-city journeys as well as on short ‘hop-on, hop-off’ trips around town. The target market was the luxury car buyer – the type of person who was already an Audi owner wanting a second car – as well as the company car buyer, who could be wooed with promises of performance and luxury allied with lower running costs. The hope was then to attract new customers to Audi – people billed as the ‘range-climbers of the future’ with the proposition of the A2 as embodying the shape of things to come.
All of this was translated into one of the most succinct creative briefs in living memory: “Transport four people from Stuttgart to Milan on a single tank of petrol”. This brief, as well as the striking looks of the vehicle, swayed the judges of the 2001 D&AD Awards who gave the Audi A2 a Silver Award for outstanding Product Design.
Audi possessed one huge advantage over all its rival manufacturers – its experience in aluminium technology. The company had an unequalled expertise in working with aluminium over many years in the design and manufacture of past Audi models, most notably the flagship A8. This evolutionary approach meant that the A2 could build on the strengths of previous models in its ambition to become not only the most technologically advanced Audi, but also the most technologically capable car in its class. The company philosophy and structure also had a bearing on the end product. Audi took a holistic view of the design process, softening the traditional boundaries between the design, engineering, manufacturing and ergonomic teams. The core of each team was not the discipline they were trained in, but the vehicle they were designing. Excellence was not sought in an individual area but throughout the vehicle. Team members were also drawn from throughout the company. Members of the A2 design team, under the direction of Peter Schreyer, had worked on a range of other models in the Audi range, thus ensuring a continuity of brand feel in terms of ideas and materials in what was essentially a new car.
As well as drawing on the brand loyalty of existing Audi customers, the strategy also focused on widening the market via the introduction of ‘range topping’ A2 options aimed at family and other customers. The choice of equipment and the choice of 1.4 petrol or 1.4 diesel engines were of great importance. Audi allowed this freedom of choice by carefully planning the way in which the A2 was to sell. Every car was to be built to a customer’s order, based on individual preference – a ‘demand led’ process whereby the dealer does not have to ‘distress sell’ cars to customers who might want something entirely different from what is in stock.
The Audi A2 is full of ‘firsts’ both within the company and within the automotive world. The car is very recognisably an Audi, even though Audi had never built a small MPV before. The feel, design and layout of the dashboard are that of an Audi, and the quality matches that of any of the bigger or more expensive Audi models.
The A2 is not the first Audi vehicle to have an aluminium space frame – the Audi A8 holds that record – but it has taken the technology and vastly improved it. The frame is made of one part instead of eight; this is a real saving in terms of manufacturing time and cost, with added benefits of greater rigidity and better handling.
The low weight of aluminium means that the A2 saves 150 kilograms over its steel-bodied equivalent – a massive saving in fuel costs over a long period, with added benefits of manoeuvrability and handling. The frame also allows a better seating position, as it does not need the added strengthening a steel chassis does; the floor can be lower and the roof higher, all without compromising handling, performance or safety.
Every part of the A2 was considered and then rethought by Audi. The shape, based on a ‘teardrop’, incorporates current thinking to make it one of the most aerodynamic shapes in its class.
Paul Priestman, D&AD jury foreman, commented on the overall creative solution for the vehicle: “Audi has achieved the trick of making the vehicle appear as if it has been hewn out of a solid material.” Audi also thought long and hard about what would be useful to a prospective owner. The ‘service module’ at the front of the vehicle allows the owner to check the oil and water levels of the A2 without venturing into the engine bay. The versatility of the interior, with its many seating arrangements, moveable glass roof and low level loading spaces and ‘cubby holes’, was designed to satisfy almost any need. The range of options available at dealer level aimed to make the A2 customisable enough to appeal to the luxury car buyer, the company car buyer or the family car buyer. The A2 was also very competitively priced in its class. The range of four models to choose from starts at £13,095 and goes up to £16,095 (on the road prices), with additional features such as satellite navigation.
The A2 has made a strong impact both within Audi and in the MPV market. The technological knowledge gained during its design and manufacture has already been fed back into the other Audi models. The new A8 benefits from the aluminium expertise as do the current A4 and A6 which now use aluminium suspension units. Parts of the Audi TT sports coupé (a D&AD Silver Award winner in 2000) are now being reworked using aluminium. The company even advises other industries such as aerospace on advances in aluminium technology.
Sales figures for the A2 reflect further gains for Audi. The company aimed to sell 50,000 A2 vehicles worldwide during 2001 and had already reached 30,000 before the summer. In the UK, an initial target of 4,250 sales was raised to 5,000 (roughly 10 per cent of worldwide production) when it became apparent that this first target would be easily reached. By August, the new, tougher target was well within reach: 3,300 vehicles had been sold with a further 1,000 on order.
Of the initial batch of A2s sold in Britain, 62 per cent went to people over the age of 50, the expected traditional Audi buyer looking for a second car for their family. Fifty five per cent of the purchasers were male, but an estimated 55 per cent of the drivers were female, an overlap that suggests that one group of purchasers are professional men looking for a smaller car for their wives and family, but a vehicle that still carries prestige, luxury and reliability that they can relate to.
A large part of Audi’s work has been to introduce the A2 in such a way that it attracts people outside of the typical ‘pool’ of Audi customers: young, professional couples looking for a first family car, or retired people used to the luxury of a company car. Exclusivity plays a large part – production numbers are low and Audi never expected to fill an unused airstrip with unsold models. Muted TV advertising campaigns play up the benefits of Audi’s use of aluminium in a common sense way but there is no emotive ‘hard sell’ with the A2. As Calum McKechnie of Audi UK explains: “Our volume aspirations are set at 5000 A2s per year. We believe that is the perfect number for an aspirational, prestige car in the segment.”
Audi’s investment in innovative design has also attracted positive media coverage. “Audi’s all-aluminium baby has already delighted the styleconscious with a conscience” was verdict of WhatCar? when it roadtested the A2 and approved of its mix of good looks and low emissions.
Such notices are important if Audi is to meet its objective of using the A2 as a magnet to attract newcomers to the brand. The company is quietly confident that this process is already happening. As Calum McKechnie explains: “From a customer point of view, many do not yet purchase the A2 because it is constructed of aluminium. They do however desire the benefits that it delivers... good fuel economy, low centre of gravity, great driving position and increased cabin space due to the aluminium space frame.”