Opinion : Spiritual successor of the ECV3 – Audi A2

British Leyland ECV3

Back in 1982, BL Technology unveiled the interesting ECV3 Prototype. This fascinating family-sized hatchback was the first all-new prototype to be publicly released by Spen King’s Gaydon-based think tank, which was tasked with building more efficient cars, as well as developing new systems to be incorporated into the company’s existing ones.

I say that it was an interesting car, because it was an Engineer’s dream. Built from lightweight aluminium, powered by a newly-developed highly-efficient triple. and clothed in an aerodynamic body, it really was a family car with supermini-style fuel economy – and then some… It weighed in at a sylph-like 664kg and had a drag coefficient of 0.24 – meaning it could top 115mph (when a 2.0-litre Ford Cortina wouldn’t even make 110mph) and, at a steady 56mph, it would return 81mpg (compared with 64.1mpg for an Austin Metro HLE). Impressive stuff…

The thing is that the world wasn’t ready for the ECV3 – a car that would have been hideously expensive to build, and might well have been a step too far visually for most family car buyers of the 1980s. But that was fine – ECV3 was never meant for production, and was more of a showcase for what BL Technology was capable of. Elements of it were planned for the Austin Metro-replacing AR6 supermini but, when that was canned, so it seemed were the last vestiges of this fascinating project.

Back in 2002, when I interviewed Spen King, it was interesting to see what was in his garage. Alongside a Range Rover, there was an Audi S3, which was his daily driver. I also clearly remember his admiration for the Audi A2, which was still relatively new at the time of the interview. He said that Audi’s smallest car was the clear successor of the ECV3, which was remarkably similar, apart from, ‘its bloody stupid A-pillars.’

The similarities are remarkable – the A2 is underpinned by Audi’s ASF (Audi Space Frame), fashioned from aluminium. It’s also exceptionally light (for its time), starting at 895kg, and aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient from 0.25, depending on the model.

‘The A2 proves one thing – car companies stopped telling people what they should have, and started giving them what they want…’

I’m also a bit of a fan because of its efficiency and sheer minimalism of design (although my guilty secret is that I preferred the Mercedes-Benz A-Class when they were contemporaries). There really are no unnecessary design or marketing flourishes here – it’s a just a light, roomy, clever small family car, which should serve the needs of most car drivers. And like the ECV3, the A2 was an engineering masterpiece, which reflected the ideology of the man at the head of its design and engineering process, the extraordinary Ferdinand Karl Piëch.

Okay, so we all know the A2 was a bit of a commercial flop for Audi, and it was canned after just six years in production, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t make a good car to drive today. After all, the relative success of, say, the Vauxhall Mokka compared with the A2 proves one thing – car companies stopped telling people what they should have, and started giving them what they want. Is that a good thing? You be the judge.

Audi A2 interior

On the road, the Audi A2 works really well today. The car in question has been in my family since 2016 (I paid a grand for it from a bombsite dealership, and it’s not worth that much less now), and it’s been a really impressive runabout during that time, returning 45-50mpg on average, and capable of an easy 60-70mpg when you really try. So what, I hear you day, it’s not that much better than most modern diesels. True, but this is a 1.4-litre petrol with a grand 75bhp on tap…

So, it’s going to be slow, isn’t it? Not a bit of it – it zips along with the rest of traffic, and sits very comfortably on the motorway at typical UK cruising speeds. But, beyond that, it steers with an accuracy you just don’t get with any other Volkswagen Group product of that era, it brakes firmly and is actually pretty good fun on B-roads. Because it’s so small, it also feels very usable in traffic, and is an absolute dream to park. Don’t think because it’s tiny, it’s not roomy inside, as there’s plenty of space for four and their luggage in it. The only downside that I can see is that, because it’s so small, it does tend to be treated quite badly by other road users.

‘As a used car, an Audi A2 makes great sense – as long as you accept that they are a bugger to work on and expensive to fix.’

The other impressive aspect of the A2 is its build quality. Its utter lightness isn’t betrayed by biscuit-tin like panels, or doors that clang when you close them. Far from it: it’s a solid little car, and much better screwed together than an A-Class of this era. This one has 160,000 miles on the clock, and it still feels as tight as a drum. The only thing that doesn’t work on it is the sliding glass roof panel. But they all do that, Sir. And perhaps that’s why it didn’t stay in production very long – Audi allegedly lost money on every one it built, and sales were hampered by the fact that it looked (and still does) odd, and the market wasn’t ready for such an overt engineering exercise as this.

However, that doesn’t stop it being an absolute delight today. As a used car, it makes great sense – as long as you accept that A2s are a bugger to work on and expensive to fix. They’re cheap to fuel, good to drive, and are perfectly sized for roads that are being increasingly filled by overstuffed SUVs. So, in conclusion, Engineers design great cars with all the benefits in the world, but car buyers struggle with the concept of owning something so rational. More fool them, I say…

Audi A2, front view

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

8 Comments

  1. I very nearly bought a used one in 2009 when needing a sensible daily car for commuting… the aluminium scared me off in case it got damaged, and I got a very deeply traditional Bora diesel instead. I think I made a mistake, despite the Bora being dependable.

  2. The first time Steady Barker (bless him) saw an A2 he said – “what the **** is that ugly thing?” I’m with Steady! Beauty in eye of beholder etc…..

  3. Looks apart (it depends which way you look at it !) I think integrity best sums this car – everything has had a lot of honest thought put into it from the light yet strong bodyshell to the very good fuel consumption. It is a quality sewing machine kind of car that ticks over and keeps going! Ours in question is a 2004 with 140,000 miles and we have had it for 5 years. I have begun to understand what quality means in a car for it has it in large quantities. And it certainly doesn’t feel old and in need of replacement giving a self respect to its driver! Well done Audi, I notice the local dealer keeps one it brought in as a kind of talisman among all the latest models to remind them of what values mean when making a car. It is a wise investment!

  4. While R6 did carry over the AR6’s K-Series engines (apart from the planned 973cc 3-cylinder*) , it would have been fascinating to see the R6 or even the R6X prototype carry over more elements from both the ECV3 and AR6 prototypes.

    Sure there was the Aluminum LC8 Metro prototype, though was also thinking of an R6/R6X more along the lines of the Citroen AX in terms of being aerodynamic and (preceding the Audi A2) very light (around 617kg at its lightest) by utilizing (either aluminum or) plastic panels in non-load bearing areas and varying the thicknesses of steel in the bodyshell to be the minimum needed to take required loads as well as lowering friction in the engines,

    *- The planned 973cc 3-cylinder K-Series was targeting a figure of 100mpg in AR6 before it was dropped, due to the increased weight of the all steel bodyshell after the plan for an aluminum shell was dropped on cost grounds.

    However such a 1-litre 3-cylinder engine would have been very useful in a smaller car like the R6 (and R6X) as well as even in the Mini, even more so if the R6/R6X featured other advanced from the ECV3 and AR6 prototypes as well as the production Citroen AX (whose own advanced stem from the Citroen ECO 2000 prototypes). It should have been possible for the 1-litre engine to even exceed 100mpg in something like the R6/R6X.

    • Consider as well the fact AR6 was reputedly larger than the R3* before reverting to LC8 into the R6 and it makes one be of the view they were perhaps too hasty in canning the 1-litre 3-cylinder K-Series, especially given it would have allowed the company to finally replace the A-Series in the Mini.

      *- Which begs the question of why AR6 was allowed to unwittingly drift into the C segment in terms of dimensions given its planned 1.1-1.4 K-Series engines (instead of staying within the B segment standard), given the later criticism of R3 being a car that slot in between the B and C segments.

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