Deep Dive: Long Live the Audi A2 e-tron

Built between 1999 and 2005, the Audi A2 was a car ahead of its time. No, it never made any money, and with only 176,377 units produced, it remained a niche model. Why did it flop? Because customers refused to pay a premium for packaging excellence, top aerodynamics (it had a Cd of just 0.25), and amazing efficiency (roughly 94.7 mpg on the European cycle). But despite the commercial crash landing, the narrow and tall alloy-bodied one-box runabout worked wonders for the then-lackluster Audi brand image, helping to establish the Vorsprung durch Technik claim.

It was clear from the beginning that the A2 deserved a successor, but exactly what kind of vehicle this MkII version should be remained a mystery for almost seven years. Although Audi showed a (then already 16-month-old) A2 concept at the 2011 Frankfurt Show, the response was not exactly encouraging. As a result, that program was scrapped and a new concept was elected to take on the BMW i3. Its name: Audi e-tron. Its mission: to offer a choice of the uniquely efficient electric and hybrid drivetrains.

A Premium Product

What bugged the Audi A2 from day one was the high price point in combination with the relatively small footprint. However, buyers are no longer averse to premium-priced compacts. Unlike the A2 concept that measured 149.6 inches in length, the latest iteration exceeds the critical 157.5-inch (4000-millimeter) mark by more than a hair’s breadth. It is also significantly wider and roomier, it offers a tailor-made specification boasting a miniature air conditioning compressor, lightweight seats, and a low-loss power steering system; yet it retains the classic A2 silhouette. Unlike BMW i, which is about to evolve into a proper model range featuring the already-confirmed i3 and i8 as well as the tentative i5 microvan (2015) and the i2 city car (2016), Audi intends to offer only a single bodystyle of its five-door high-tech eco car. While the base BMW i3 is expected to cost around $46,000, the Audi e-tron will almost certainly be priced in the $51,000 to $55,000 bracket.

To justify this ambitious positioning, it needs to be premium in appearance, content, and engineering. Although the ground-breaking architecture is believed to be based on an aluminum-intensive material mix, the planet-friendly battery-laden ZEV/ULEV newcomer will be quite a bit heavier than the original A2, which weighed between 1973 and 2359 pounds. The A2 concept was loosely based on MQB, the modular transverse engine matrix also used by the new A3 and upcoming seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf. The e-tron takes MQB to a new level known as Mlittraktion-Plattform (MTP). No, multi-traction does not give a choice of front-, rear-, and all-wheel drive. Instead MTP is a highly flexible cradle that can accommodate a battery electric drive (BEV), a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and a range extender (REX). What MTP does not cater to is a conventional gas or diesel engine. Instead, it combines axle, brake, and steering elements from the MQB kit with bespoke zero-emission or low-emission drivetrain modules. The first e-tron to come to market in late 2014 will likely be the BEV powered by a 136-hp motor connected to a 30-kWh battery stack. Next in line is the PHEV, a joint effort between a 1.4-liter 150-hp gas engine, a 109-hp electric motor, and a 10-kWh energy pack. Still under discussion, but not yet confirmed, is the REX that won’t use the neat Wankel range extender first seen in the A1 e-tron. For cost and packaging reasons, research and development is toying with a conventional single- or two-cylinder powerplant purchased from a still-nameless supplier.

Together with the German carbon fiber specialist Voith, Audi is working on an advanced ultra-plus vehicle structure that is allegedly easier, quicker, and cheaper to build than the life-drive sandwich conceived by BMW and SGL Carbon. In addition to carbon fiber and aluminum, the ultra-plus concept conceived especially for the e-tron incorporates high-strength steel, magnesium, and various composites. To save weight and ensure optimum rigidity, we can expect innovative bonding techniques such as folding, binding, splicing, and stamp hinging.

Although the e-tron will be more expensive than an A4, it should be significantly more economical to run than the diminutive A1, and it is bound to match or exceed the A3 in terms of performance and driving pleasure. if the green flagship car gets the nod later this year, the e-tron components will soon filter through Audi’s A, Q, and R model range, be it in the shape of tweaked PHEV applications or by systematically reducing the weight via a flexible material mix.