Reflections on Evolution #BMW
. We reflect on the evolution of the #BMW-i3
and its parallels with the Audi A2, a car ahead of its time. Although more than a decade apart, we look at the innovative thinking and similar approach that went into the development of each of these ground breaking cars. WORDS & PHOTOS: Jonathan Musk. THANKS TO: Matt Hayward.
At first glance, there may seem to be little in common between these two cars. However, take a closer look and consider both are pioneering vehicles in their own right and similarities begin to appear. Although nearly 15 years separate the two cars, many parallels may be drawn.
The world was not so different in the late 90’s. Fuel prices were steadily increasing with demand swaying toward more economical vehicles. The average car model only offered basic petrol and diesel engines while ancillaries like turbos or superchargers remained solely performance add-ons. Government aimed to increase emphasis on carmakers to begin providing more fuel-efficient offerings and this meant manufacturers had to become a little more inventive than they had been in the past.
As the millennium approached, Volkswagen launched the new Beetle in 1997, a retro styled car, which offered a little ironic opulence by recreating an old - flawed - icon for a modern world. It wasn’t a great success. Despite good feedback when displaying the concept car in 1994, the market wasn’t ready for a retro inspired car that offered little more over its Golf underpinnings. A different tactic was needed, although the direction of the new Beetle would ultimately set a trend many others would successfully follow. It did accomplish starting a trend for retro inspired cars and today it is hard to imagine a road without the new Fiat 500 or BMW MINI.
Audi took a different approach. Instead of trying to link itself artificially to a car of yesteryear, their design would be modern yet in-keeping with the current Audi model range while still managing to be avant-garde. Audi would bestow the car with a new attitude toward innovation clearly setting it apart from competing cars in its class. The #Audi-Al2
concept car was first shown in 1997 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, in the same year the new Beetle was launched. It sported a neat aerodynamic look and was built from aluminium. In 1999, Audi surprised the world by introducing the A2 production model, a car that clearly derived from the Al2 concept shown just two years earlier.
was different, but how? First and foremost, construction defied convention and logic. Rivals like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class used a traditional steel construction, whereas the A2 used aluminium extensively – a first for a car of its size. This immediately put the A2 in a class of its own, at least with respect to the asking price, almost twice as much as the A-Class. Second, were the engine options. The two petrol engines available were relatively normal, having been taken from VAG’s Polo parts bin. The diesel option was a little different in that it was a three-cylinder turbo, at a time when four-cylinder oil-burners were par for the course. The fourth variant, which was not made available in the UK, consisted of a small capacity 1.2-litre petrol engine mated to an automatic gearbox. The idea was to offer the best economy and this special A2 featured additional aerodynamic tweaks too. In the UK, the gem in the range was the three-cylinder turbo diesel, as it provided plenty of power with exceptional fuel economy and low emissions, that still compares favourably more than a decade after its initial launch.
The A2 was a bold offering. There was nothing else like it on the market. Unfortunately, this was likely the reason why it wasn’t the sales success Audi had hoped it to be. Car reviewers struggled to compare it to other vehicles as although its size placed it naturally into the super-mini class, it cost twice as much as some of its rivals. If compared by price, comparative vehicles were in a different class altogether and therefore incomparable. Unfortunately for Audi, the same confused attitude came from potential customers who found the A2 difficult to understand. The blend of MPV styling, super-mini class positioning and high asking price proved a difficult sale. On the one hand, it was classed by Audi’s own naming convention as being smaller than the Audi A3, which was true externally, but internally it was volumetrically larger. Similarly, the package offered was typical for the time. Skimpy equipment as standard but with extras added, a fully specced A2 offered the latest in-car tech, leather seating and even a luxurious glass roof – all at a price, of course. Sat nav cost an eye-watering £1,300 in basic guise, with the ‘Plus’ version costing a whopping £2,175. It is worth noting the base price for the A2 with a 1.4 petrol engine and no extras cost £13,145 in 2003. In truth, the A2 was a subtle pioneer, that many dismissed it in favour of more conventional offerings. That fact aside, the A2’s real genius was in the details. The aluminium construction was the most obvious development and relied heavily upon learning’s from the full-size A8 to make the Audi Space Frame (ASF) work for a super-mini. Overall weight for the A2 started at 1040.4kg for the 1.4 basic petrol model. Had Audi stuck to this alone, the A2 might have been seen as quite normal despite its alloy build.
However, Audi used the A2 as a design exercise and it is clear to see. For example, the bonnet had no hinges and so had to be removed fully in order to access the engine. The idea was servicing should only be carried out by professionals. For the owner, a handy flap was provided at the front of the car behind what would normally be the grill.
For the A2 though, it was a flat piece of aerodynamic plastic, rather than a mesh grille. Concealed by the service hatch was the dipstick, oil filler and screen wash. It was a neat idea that meant checking the basics was a doddle and a, literally, clean affair. Few cars offer similar inventive thinking with regard to checking the essentials. Moving inside the cabin, thin and functional sun visors can be found and their design ethos continues throughout the cabin. Slots exist at the back of the C-pillars, to locate the seat belt buckles when folding the rear seats. The rear seats themselves were fully removable, transforming the A2 into a flat-floored ‘van’ when needed. The aluminium construction also meant there is a sub floor where electronics are kept hidden, but easily accessed via panels beneath the carpets. The boot space could be fitted with an optional false floor too, allowing for storage of less used items to be hidden from view and making a more usable stacking option for the tall area. Some have hypothesised that the A2 might have been made electric drive, as there appears to be space to house large batteries, although this was never hinted at or offered by Audi during the car’s short six years of production.
The A2, as mentioned, was no sales success. Instead, Audi only managed to sell fewer than 200,000 units, which compares unfavourably to the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which sold around one million units. Price was likely the major contributing factor to this, as reviewers and owners alike praise the A2 for its drivability. The 1.4 petrol engine, although rudimentary, offered performance akin to a larger offering thanks to the lightweight materials used throughout the A2 construction. The 1.4 TDI was available in several variations, namely the 75 and 90PS. These provided a great driving experience, sounding more like a grunting V6 than a pokey three-cylinder. Several owners have since retuned their cars to offer more performance and even added an additional longer gear for motorway cruising. Some customers complained about the A2’s hard ride and this was addressed in 2003 by replacing suspension with softer components.
Driving the A2 is a rewarding experience, particularly the #Audi-A2-TDI90
model. The engine may not be unique to this car, but in the A2 it feels completely at home. Low-down torque means traffic driving is kept relaxing and when at speed the A2 makes for a decent cruiser. On country roads with the OpenSky at full aperture, the A2 can even be quite sporting.
It might be a city car, but it is more than that and does everything well. And it only costs £30 a year to tax, as the emissions are that low. The 1.4 petrol doesn’t match the TDI for economy or emissions, but in todays used market it makes for an interesting proposition. Sadly, the 1.6 is the one to avoid. Many suffered over enthusiastic driving and problems crept in too. If well maintained though, they offer a sporty package and the performance the 1.4 lacks. Overall, the A2 offered an advanced car for its day, which helps keep it looking and feeling fresh today. The BMW i3 has a similar design ethos to that of the A2 and consequently it too features an innovative approach for a car of its class.
It all began with the i3 concept, formerly known as Mega City Vehicle (MCV). In 2011, BMW decided to create a new sub-brand named BMW i, which would serve as an outlet for their electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Following successful trials of the MINI E, a car first seen in 2008 and largely created to meet Californian zero emission regulations, the BMW ActiveE was born. This time based on a larger BMW 1-Series, the drivetrain would evolve to be used in the i3. These two cars came under the umbrella of, ‘Project i’. The third and final phase of the project was to launch the i3 and i8, having studied invaluable data from the trials of both the MINI E and ActiveE. The approach to the i3’s design was similar to that of the Audi A2. Firstly, it had to be a little different from the usual hatchback and secondly they didn’t want it to end up not looking like a BMW. The decision had been taken to design it from the ground up, as it was to be the company’s first mass-produced electric car. An aluminium chassis was to be employed to house suspension, steering, batteries and electric motor, while a carbon-fibre body would be mounted atop. This heralded the first mass production use of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) for a car of its class. Before the i3, CFRP was the reserve of racing cars and high-end sports cars. The structure isn’t the only area where unconventional materials have been used either. The interior materials use renewable and sustainable materials where possible, including KENAF, which is a fast growing cotton-like fibrous substance, used on the doors and upper dashboard. The leather in the ‘suite’ interior option has been tanned using olive leaves to give a beautiful deep purple hue and keeps the process as natural as possible. Seat textiles in the other interior trim options are made from 100% recycled fibres too.
Like the A2, BMW used the i3 as a design exercise and added details are what make it a little more interesting than any other electric car. The first and most obvious novelty of the i3, are its rear-hinged back doors that, when opened, provide a pillarless aperture for passengers to clamber aboard. It is a similar approach to that seen in the popular Mazda RX8 but is still an unusual solution. Seating in the i3 and A2 is provided for four persons, although the A2 did have a rear bench option, making it a five-seater. BMW’s opinion on this is they would look into offering a five-seat variant, if there was sufficient demand.
The dashboard features two screens with no traditional instrument binnacles, as they are simply not needed. Driver information is provided on a simple but highly effective screen mounted behind the steering wheel. The centrally mounted and seemingly floating screen displays the usual multi-media and sat nav as is usual. It is not a touch screen either, in part because it is positioned too far away to comfortably reach and by being non-touch, it will not attract unsightly fingerprints. Instead it is operated by BMWs familiar iDrive control wheel. The cabin is a refined and comfortable place to be and it is easy to sense it would make an excellent companion in a city environment.
The i3 can be equipped with additional technology that enables the car to automatically park itself with the only user input being the brake. This £790 option comes with a high-res reversing camera, sensors at every corner and the ability to actually steer the car. All Audi could offer for the A2, a little over a decade earlier, was an acoustic rear parking system as a £350 extra. This does help demonstrate how technology has shaped vehicular development since the late 90’s.
The i3’s powertrain is another area of innovation. BMW did not do what most have done and pick a suitable electric motor from the shelf. Instead, they have developed a new motor in-house, which produces a respectable 170bhp. Being a BMW, they mounted it in the rear of the car providing the i3 the trade-mark rear wheel drive pushing power many know and love about other BMWs. Batteries are neatly stored within the double-skinned the floor and keep the centre of gravity low, which is ideal for handling. Equipped with its narrow tyres, performance and range of the i3 is surprisingly good with 0-62mph reached in 7.2 seconds and a 100 mile range from a single charge. Skinny tyres means less rolling resistance and helps the i3’s efficiency.
It is a ‘Marmite’ love/hate relationship with the i3’s energy regeneration. When throttling back, regeneration is consistently firm, making the hydraulic brakes all but redundant. There is no regen adjustment aside from your own foot, unlike in other electric cars. Once accustomed to it, the strong regen becomes intuitive. It allows for faster braking response too, whereas in a conventional vehicle engine retardation is gentle until the hydraulic brakes are applied. In the i3 braking force begins the moment your right foot is lifted. Some critics have complained it is overly harsh and certainly in scenarios like motorway driving it can be a touch over sensitive. Overall though, it is an interesting new approach to the way we drive; something other EV manufacturers have stayed clear of and instead opted for a more conventional feel. BMW appear to have instead embraced the potential an electric drive has to offer a different driving experience, rather than try to make the it feel familiar. It’s special and it feels it. Of course, if the battery range isn’t sufficient or a charge point isn’t available, BMW also offer the range extended model. This variant (as photographed) has a twin-cylinder 647cc petrol unit. This range extender only activates if charge in the battery is sufficiently low that it needs to operate. It extends the official range by an additional 93 miles maximum. Because BMW realise that it shouldn’t be relied upon for general driving and should instead only be used as a backup in times of need, they have fitted only a 9-litre fuel tank. Simply by carrying a Jerry can, range may be increased substantially. The idea is to keep the car fully electric as often as possible. The reason for the range extenders existence at all is because BMW accept that electric vehicle charging infrastructure is still in its infancy.
If you’re still of the mind that the comparison between these two cars is a little odd, then please draw your attention to more recent Audi thinking. In 2011, they looked at renewing the A2 badge with an all-new aluminium and CFRP car that would be powered electrically and offered as a plug-in hybrid too. Dubbed the A2 Concept, this was at a time when BMW were undertaking their trials with the ActiveE. Initially, Audi intended the new A2 to be available in 2015; unfortunately this was cancelled but would have been a natural competitor to the i3. In lieu of a new A2, the i3 has been distinctly lacking in this department. Reviewers have tried to compare the i3 to the likes of the Nissan LEAF and Kia Soul EV, both good vehicles in their own right, but their only similarity to the i3 is that they are driven electrically. The forthcoming Mercedes-Benz B-Class ED (Electric Drive) may offer the closest competition to the i3 yet, in terms of price and performance, but does not share the i3’s philosophy and was not designed from the ground up as an electric car. The new A2 would have evolved the original thinking behind the first A2 we see here and featured such novelties as a glass roof that could be made opaque at the press of a button.
So, from a design perspective at least, these two cars share lots in common with the approach and methodology to create the ultimate city car. It is a credit to both Audi and BMW for being brave enough to put them into production. The A2 was launched at a time when premium super-minis were not the order of the day and BMW have launched the i3 at the start of an electric vehicle renaissance. Whether or not it will suffer the same fate as the A2 is questionable but likely. BMW probably never set out for the i3 to be a profit-making car. If they had, they would have played safe and opted for either a conversion of an existing model to electric, as witnessed by the experimental MINI E and ActiveE trials, or by using more conventional materials to keep developmental costs down. Again, parallels may be drawn between the A2 and i3 as the A2 for Audi served as a great model to test out ideas and allow their engineers some playtime. Likewise, the i3 gave BMW designers a blank page from which to begin designing the ultimate city car.
To drive each of these pioneering vehicles gives a sense of being in something special. A2 production stopped in 2005 and it is therefore a fairly rare sight on UK roads. Likewise, the i3 has an exclusive appeal as it is only a couple of years old and the electric drive is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t come cheap or suit everyone – you have to really want an i3 to buy one.
If you’re on a much tighter budget than the purchase of a BMW i3 requires, the decade old Audi A2 is worth a look. The 1.4 TDI is the model to go for in either of its 75 or 90 power levels. Top spec examples, like the car featured in this article, which have an OpenSky glass roof, sat nav computer with screen, 17” Sports alloys and full leather interior rightfully fetch a premium over standard cars without the added extras. It might not be an electric car, but its spirit embodies all you might want from an i3 and due to the second hand values of the A2, even with fuel costs added in, it will take many years to offset the difference in price between them.
The designers of these cars came to similar decisions despite there being a decade separating their choices. The comparison of them is an interesting one in that neither can truly be directly compared, they are different cars after all, but the parallels existing between them are uncanny. Both are great cars and sure to be remembered for their pioneering approach.
i3 & A2 Aggresive i3 styling is certainly distinctive and has won both fans and critics alike. The A2 may not look as striking but, appearances aside, there is no denying the two share lots in common.
A2 INTERIOR Minimal but functional. The Interior could be specced up with additions like sat nav and Bose sound as well as a choice of trim.
ABOVE The 2011 A2 Concept featured electric drive, was to be sold as an EV and PHEV and, before it was cancelled, would have gone on sale in 2015.
REAR VIEW i3 tailgate is a single piece of glass, incorporating lights behind it. Both A2 and i3 share remarkably similar proportions.
i3 INTERIOR The Suite interior trim option features leather tanned by olive leaves. Notice the Kenaf fibre on the upper dashboard and door.
LEFT TO RIGHT FROM FAR LEFT Rear-hinged doors are stylish and make access easier than a 3-door hatch. A small storage space can be found under the bonnet. Column mounted gear selector is chunky. Parking assist offers automated parallel parking. Well lit plug-in socket.
FRAMEWORK Like the A2, the i3 uses aluminium for its chassis. Bolted on top is a carbon fibre ‘cell’.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT A 2004 A2 1.4 TDi, with 17” Sports alloys and OpenSky glass roof. The engine is accessed via removable (not hinged) bonnet. Service panel gave access to oil, dip stick and screen wash.
FACTORY LINE Aluminium was used extensively for the A2, a first for mass manufacture of a super-mini.
MAIN The A2 and the i3 are both four seat cars that aimed to buck the trend.
Engine - 1.4 TDI
Power - 90 hp
Max Speed - 115 mph
0-62mph - 10.9 sec
Fuel Tank - 42 litres
Transmission - 5 Spd. Manual
Engine Spec - Common-rail, turbo
Engine CC - 1,422
Torque - 230Nm @ 2000rpm
Fuel Type - Diesel
Economy avg. - 65.7 mpg
CO2 Emissions - 119 g/km
Weight (kerb) - 1,160 kg
Length - 3,826 mm
Width - 1,673 mm
Height - 1,553 mm
Price (June 2004) - £16,410 OTR
Motor - AC
Power - 170 hp
Max Speed - 93 mph
0-62 mph - 7.9 sec
Fuel Tank - 9 litres
Battery - Li-ion 18.8 kWh
EV Range (REx) - 105 miles (+93)
Torque - 250 Nm
Fuel Type - Electricity + petrol
EV Economy - 4.5 m/kWh
(REx avg.) - (470.8 mpg)
CO2 Emissions - 13 g/km
Weight (kerb) - 1,315 kg
Length - 3,999 mm
Width - 1,775 mm
Height - 1,578 mm
Price inc. PICG - £29,130 OTR