Third Time Lucky for Audi’s Small Car Ambitions?
By Andy Bannister
Audi has high hopes for its new A1 “supermini” which optimists say could become the best-selling model in the company’s history.
It will take the German prestige brand into a new sector of the market, and is aimed at the jugular of BMW’s ultra-successful Mini, as well as some more recent European competitors including the Alfa Romeo Mito and Citroën’s unusual new DS3.
The Belgian-built vehicle is set to be the most luxurious car in its class, and has been carefully styled to reflect cues from the company’s bigger models. Initially a three-door, it will be followed by a five-door Sportback and a cabriolet, as well as a hot S1 model.
Despite the hype about a bold new beginning, this isn’t the first time Audi has attempted a small car. On both previous occasions the company ended up with egg on its face and beat a retreat, so it must be hoping for third time lucky.
The inaugural small model from the brand dates right back to 1974, a year which saw the launch of the tiny Audi 50, a three-door hatch with an 1100cc petrol engine. With the world reeling from the fuel crisis triggered by war in the Middle East, it looked like a sure-fire hit.
The 50 was the consequence of the earlier merger of Audi with NSU, a small German manufacturer best known for slightly quirky rear-engined cars like the Prinz and 1200, which were technically obsolete by the 1970s.
NSU had a small but useful slice of the German market, and Audi wanted to hang on to it. Unfortunately, Audi’s VW parent was itself embarking on a new product blitz to distance itself from the fading Beetle, and the 50 arrived at the same time as new and larger front-drive Volkswagens like the Golf and Passat.
It was a neat, delicate little design with notably clean and crisp lines. The most distinctive features were the slightly unusual circular air intakes at the rear, which were easily mistaken for the fuel filler cap.
With Audi increasingly becoming VW’s prestige brand, however, the promising and well-received 50 sat uneasily in the company’s showrooms. While it was a higher quality product than rivals like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5, it was still quite stark and utilitarian and simply confused buyers of the company’s worthy 80 and 100 saloons.
The writing was on the wall for the Audi 50 as soon as the following year, when VW – which built the model at its Wolfsburg plant – launched a rebadged and cheaper version as the Volkswagen Polo. The two models uneasily co-existed for three years, and then the Audi was quietly retired.
In the end, only 180,000 Audi 50s were ever made and the car is now a forgotten footnote in history. By contrast VW’s Polo has gone on through numerous generations and millions of sales to become a major player in the European small car market.
With the small car experiment apparently behind it, Audi embarked on a steady, determined pursuit of its once-distant prestige rivals, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, gradually boosting its reputation and sales and successfully distancing its products from their Volkswagen roots.
By the end of the 1990s, however, it was Mercedes and BMW who were fighting back with ever-more audacious ways to capture market share. With the Mercedes A-Class and later the ubiquitous BMW Mini, the premium small car was born.
Audi’s swift riposte was the all-new aluminum A2, an avant-garde five-door launched in 1999 which was surprisingly faithful to a design study previewed two years’ previously. Despite appearances it was large inside due to its innovative space frame construction.
Technically it was a marvel, with its lightweight construction producing remarkable fuel economy, particularly in its 1.2-litre turbo diesel format.
Unfortunately for Audi, this unique car was expensive to build and the money-no-object approach meant it was costly compared to its rivals.
Its ultra low-drag looks also divided opinion, despite being much lower and sleeker than its arch-rival from Mercedes. In my eyes it still looks good today and is a sure-fire future classic.
All sorts of customisation packages were offered, as were some unusually bright colours for an Audi. However, it was never a going to be a contender in the youth market, and had no real export prospects outside Europe.
BMW’s Mini, which appeared slightly later than the Audi, meanwhile, went for an entirely different audience, targeting young urban aspirational buyers with its strong sports appeal and three-door configuration.
Audi persevered with the A2 until 2005, but sales were always a disappointment. Even at its peak it never managed more than a quarter of the volume of the Mercedes A-class, which ultimately shifted over a million units. Only 176,000 A2s were made – just less than the earlier Audi 50.
It is far too early to predict the future for the company’s third attempt to crack this market, the new A1, which was launched earlier this month at Geneva and goes on sale in Europe later in the year.
It harks back to the tiny Audi 50 in one sense, as it shares a (now much more grown-up) platform with the latest VW Polo (Europe’s current Car of the Year) and with humbler brethren from Seat and Skoda.
Stylistically the car looks reasonably good (if unadventurous), with familiar design cues combined with short overhangs and a sporty coupé-like demeanour the old A2 never managed.
The interior look has been inspired by the wings of an aeroplane and its four air vents are said to resemble the turbines of a jet. Like the Mini, a vast range of custom accessories will be available to personalise the car
From launch, two smallish petrol and two diesel engines will be available, all of them featuring direct injection technology and turbocharging.
The A1 is set to be more practical than the Mini, with a roomier interior and much better luggage capacity, since the car is longer, wider and taller than its British-built rival.
Despite the current economic climate, interest in prestige brands remains high, and the A1 looks perfectly sized to score a hit across Europe. Audi must be hoping it emulates the Mini in attracting a horde of new customers, rather than cannibalising sales of the larger and rather dull-looking A3.
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