The Future according to Audi

The Audi A2 is not just the first high-volume aluminium car. It is part of a discernible shift towards automotive construction using spaceframes. Richard Feast reports

Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, the chairman of Audi, allowed himself a little immodesty when he unveiled the compact, radical-looking A2 at the recent Frankfurt motor show. The A2, he suggested, would be judged the car of the show. `This is anything but a run-of-the-mill, common-sense car,’ he said. `It is our proposal for mobility in the next century.’

Even allowing for hyperbole, he may be right. There is little doubt, though, about the significance of A2 to Audi. No other vehicle manufacturer has embraced aluminium construction as zealously. Its luxury A8 saloon launched in 1994 uses an aluminium spaceframe chassis known as ASF, or Audi Space Frame. Now the A2, which becomes its entry-level model, will use a second-generation ASF for production volumes of 60,000 a year – four times the level of A8.

With Audi using ASF construction at the top and bottom of its model line-up, the question it now faces is how to apply it to the much higher volume of the A6, which fits in between. The company is using a conventional steel monocoque for next year’s A4 replacement. `Over the next year and a half we have to decide whether to make another car with the same technology [as A2] or whether it will be a third generation,’ says Dr Werner Mischke, Audi board member responsible for research and development.

Whatever is decided, Audi seems determined to use aluminium rather than steel. Moving to annual volumes of 200,000, though, will require special technical and management expertise, says Wulf Leitermann, head of Audi’s Aluminium Centre and the man known within the group as `Mr Aluminium’.

He says: `It will be a difficult task, but I am confident that we at Audi can achieve it because we’re ahead in both areas.’

The launch of the A2 will also increase the use of spaceframe construction in the automotive industry. No one believes the era of steel unitary body construction is over, but spaceframes hung with non-stressed body panels are gaining acceptance.

The A8 (aluminium) and Fiat Multipla (steel) are now well established and will shortly be joined by the BMW Z8, which will use an aluminium spaceframe. More tellingly, when Fiat replaces the Bravo/Brava range in 2001, it will begin the group’s wholesale adoption of steel spaceframe construction for core models.

The attractions are lower initial investment costs and greater model flexibility once a vehicle is in production. For example, Mischke stresses that the A2 will be a family of cars. `It’s one which we can build on with different types of engines and maybe different types of bodies too,’ he says.

The A2 is another example of the way in which Audi continues to challenge the automotive establishment. At 3.82m long, 1.67m wide and 1.55m tall, it is an obvious size rival to Mercedes’ A-class. But with a kerb weight of 895kg, it is around 14% lighter than the Mercedes. Combined with a class-leading drag coefficient of 0.28, that should give the Audi better performance and economy than the Mercedes.

Audi also claims greater interior space. It has gone for a classier design; the A2 looks luxurious inside compared with the post-modern art school-style A-class.

Service and maintenance features are also designed to appeal to consumers. The A2’s service interval, for example, is set at two years or 30,000km. It is also the first car to have what the company calls a `service module’. In place of a conventional radiator grille, there is a flap which covers the oil dipstick and the filler caps for the engine oil and washer fluid. Checking and topping them up promises to be easy and clean. According to Audi, the complete bonnet need be opened – in fact, removed completely thanks to the use of quick-release catches inside the service module – only in a workshop at a regular service.

All A2s on display in Frankfurt were fitted with one of two 1.4-litre, 55 kW engines: a three-cylinder turbo diesel with high-torque output and a four-cylinder petrol unit. The claims are that the petrol engine will consume 6.1 litres every 100 km and the diesel will use 4.2 litres. However, Audi is known to be working on a 3-litre version as well.

The cars have five-speed manual transmissions and are fully equipped with anti-lock brakes, electronic stability controls and brake boosts.

The A2 will go into production at Audi’s dedicated ASF facility at its plant in Neckarsulm, Germany, at the end of this year, though it will not go on sale until next July. The delay is an indication of the company’s concern to get A2 quality right – and the fact that making 300 cars a day in aluminium is a step into the unknown. As on the A8, the A2 spaceframe comprises a mixture of sheet metal, extrusions and castings. However, a lot of automation has replaced much of the handwork and the number of parts has been reduced by around a third for the A2. The A and B-pillars, for example, are complex, single-piece castings which, says Mischke, would not be out of place in the aircraft industry.

The spaceframe components are held together by laser welding. `It is a completely new technique in the auto industry,’ says Leitermann. `Each vehicle has about 30m of laser welds. It is 10 times faster than conventional welding and cheaper than both MIG and spot welding, provided you make full use of the facilities.’

He says the spaceframe’s stiffness is 80% that of a steel body, but putting on the panels makes it stiffer than steel.

`We have succeeded in halving the cost of body-in-white production, and on the basis of further experience in automated manufacture we could expect to make further savings in a third generation which could be built at more than the present 300 a day,’ says Leitermann. The direct cost of aluminium in comparison with steel is not the issue, he maintains. `What matters is that the total benefit of a bare aluminium body must be comparable with a steel body. The advantages of aluminium are not just that it is lighter. The packaging is better, consumption and performance are improved and recycling will be better,’ he says.

The Audi commitment to aluminium is part of a broad thrust to establish itself as a credible alternative to Mercedes-Benz and BMW. It is doing so by pioneering high-technology developments in its production cars – quattro four-wheel drive, five-valve cylinder heads, full galvanising for steel bodies – and designing them with a Bauhaus-like simplicity.

The formula is winning lots more customers around the world, with the company heading towards sales of over 600,000 cars for the first time this year. For Audi, overcapacity is not a problem; it is a lack of it.

But, Mischke acknowledges, a customer won’t buy an A2 simply because of its ASF construction. `The whole car has to be a success. We won’t sell on aluminium qualities alone,’ he says.