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.
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…