MOTOR MOUTH: The jewel in your town

MOTOR MOUTH: The jewel in your town - I was illegally parked outside a speciality paint shop on Fulham Road when a glamorous woman swooshed up in her Range Rover, leapt out and said: 'Gosh! I really like your car.' It spoils the story a bit if I say she w

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I was illegally parked outside a speciality paint shop on Fulham Road when a glamorous woman swooshed up in her Range Rover, leapt out and said: 'Gosh! I really like your car.' It spoils the story a bit if I say she was a friend, not a stranger, but the essence remains. Once, you had to have a 24-valve turbo Swankmobile GTi cabrio to get SW6 totty hyper-ventilating. I was in a tiny Audi A2 with two pots of Farrow & Ball Dead Salmon external matt on the back seat. Say what you like about the new millennium, the co-ordinates of swank have shifted.

The A2 looks odd in a way only German designers can manage. It is not wacko and puerile like some Japanese curiosities, with their screen-saver curves and nursery colour schemes. Rather, it has about it something of a '50s Henschel truck or that bizarre '40s plane by Blohm und Voss with its asymmetric arrangement of fuselage and engine. Geometry rather than wilful expressiveness was the starting point - with the result that it looks serious, but strange.

The Gestalt of the A2 is that it has a very small (and light) footprint, but what it lacks in length and breadth it makes up for in height ... quite a lot of it. This creates interesting technical problems in the sculpture department: gorgeous curves are out of the question, so Audi's designers have come to terms with verticality. Aft, the perpendicularity gives the car its distinctive profile.

No-one does aesthetic refinement better than Audi: the geometrical severity would be austere but for some superbly executed design motifs, most notable of which is the rear glass. Here, in an audacious and brilliantly executed gesture, the fenestration wraps around what is nearly a right angle, blurring any distinction between vertical and horizontal. And elsewhere, the subtlest of curves articulate the Audi mission of high-intellect pragmatism.

Most customers will buy the Audi A2 for its astonishing looks, but under the little body there's a big technical story. The A2 is the first small car to make extensive use of aluminium in its structure. There's an element of bravura in Audi's decision to use its established Audi Space Frame technology in the sense that it does - like the dog with its cojones - because it can.

The benefits of aluminium are strength and lightness, but it is difficult to weld. This means that although an aluminium car can weigh less and therefore be more economical, it is so much more expensive to manufacture (and to repair). Still, the twinkly-eyed techno-suprematists who are drawn to the pricy Audi will not be averted by this anomaly.

Another stirringly confident detail is that the engine is effectively sealed between major maintenance: all the consumer needs to bother with in daily use is a little flap behind the four rings on the nose, which gives access to remote fillers and measures for the usual automobile nutrients and emollients. But the technical supremacy of Audi is made more tangible still in the physical quality of the car itself. This is something that passeth all understanding: the fit and finish of the A2 is exquisite, closer to specialist jewellery than rust-belt metal-bashing. Inside, the textures and colours are lascivious in their tact: if you don't believe shades of beige can be organised to express an intelligent philosophy and stimulate restrained delight among fastidious aesthetes, you haven't sat in an Audi A2.

The engine is a curiosity: it is the only spark-ignition unit I have experienced that starts like a diesel, but it powers the car well enough.

You will not be able to outdrag a Le Mans-specification Dodge Viper, but an eager and responsive nature means that urban journeys can be tackled with an exhilarating dash. The narrowness helps in traffic. The front of the car is exceptionally comfortable and spacious, although I have heard it said that the back is unsatisfactory; it looked all right to me. Like all cars with low drag, the A2 is susceptible to cross winds.

I have no notes on the brakes and steering so they must be fine.

This is the first small Audi since the mid-70s. I don't doubt that in the Volkswagen Group's component-sharing programme, an industrial strategy that makes the human genome project look simplistic, the A2 will be cloned into something else, but it is a unique (and very brave) product. It is not perfect, but it is very, very good: much better than the similar but over-hyped Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The Audi A2 makes intelligence and restraint fashionable.

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