- Published in Vehicle Development.
It’s a given that most technologies originate in the luxury segment and cascade down into smaller vehicles. Features such as LED daytime running lights can achieve high production volumes quickly and so become affordable. They add value for consumers too.
Lightweight construction is a different story. Ask OEMs’ senior body-in-white engineers if the people buying their firms’ limousines care whether they’re made from aluminium or steel, and invariably the answer is no – it matters little to them.
Audi first learnt this lesson the hard way back in 2000 when it launched the A2. The premium B-segment was only just getting started then so going in with a radical design combining an aluminium spaceframe and a drag co-efficient of just 0.28 must’ve seemed like a good idea.
After all, lightweight materials and low-drag aerodynamics were essential brand DNA for Audi. Adopting these in its small car might have seemed the best way to attract new customers.
But it didn’t work. The fact that it was streamlined and weighed less than a tonne made it very fuel efficient but the lightweight architecture which made this possible also made it far too expensive. Consumers went for the Mini instead.
This was also built on a unique platform but one stamped from steel. This allowed BMW to invest in the interior and the chassis – people will pay a premium for soft-finish plastics and good handling – but still make very good margins.
A decade on, Audi is back with the A1. The development philosophy couldn’t be more different from the A2’s: a steel monocoque; styling shaped as much by aesthetics as the wind tunnel; features shared as much as possible with the VW Polo.
“Every model has some influence on each new vehicle that you make – that includes the A2, and we learnt from that,” says the Audi A1 project manager Arne-Chris Schrey. “We knew that the tension between cost, design and technology is very high in this segment so we had to focus on the features that really make the car what it is.”
That meant taking a better look at what makes an Audi an Audi. Aluminium was out, but LED lighting was in. A wraparound bonnet – similar to the TT coupe’s – was also considered essential, even though it wasn’t easy to design or make.
“When we saw the models we said that’s it – that’s what we want for this car,” says Schrey. “And we also wanted a flexible electronic architecture and a human-machine interface like the A8’s. Infotainment and connectivity are important features for consumers so we made sure they get them.”
The balance between cost and content will always be a compromise. Adopting the basic architecture, powertrains and much of the chassis hardware from the Polo was the best starting point.