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Top Gear's greatest cars of the last 30 years: Audi A2 and Audi R8

Two Audis, two very different purposes in life. And yet each brilliant in their own way

Published: 27 Oct 2023

The A2 and R8 have more in common than you’d expect, given one’s a tall slow hatch and the other a true mid-engined supercar. See, both were all about the confidence and innovation that came so naturally to Audi in its Eighties/Nineties/Noughties pomp.

The R8 is obviously the easier to love. It launched – looking fantastic (still does) – as a quattro with a screaming nat-asp V8 and manual transmission. It carried a whiff of an earlier unexpected supercar from an engineering minded company, the Honda NSX. It was a proper supercar, but without the grumpiness and occasional mendacity. Proper? The R8 revved to 8,000rpm and had a delicious adjustability to its handling. 

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It wasn’t aloof like Audis of the time tended to be. It was low and wide, and the cockpit and seat looped around you – you were a component not just a conductor. The body was super rigid and the suspension’s springing and damping perfectly orderly.

A friendly thing though. Its traction and balance meant it wouldn’t spit you off the road. The cabin had all mod cons. And it had Audi’s usual sense of for-the-ages quality and cabin materials. It was meant to be used, and then used some more. If you wanted extra emotion or glam, a Spyder and V10 came soon after.

As for the A2, emotion and glam were way down the priorities. This was a fiercely rational car, built on a mission. Most car, least fuel. It was comfy and, yes, the design was beautifully considered and crafted. Because Audi. But the real business was in saving fuel and lowering the CO2 footprint. It was extremely light, because that means lower fuel consumption in acceleration, and it was extremely low drag, because ditto in high speed cruising. How light?

Thanks to Audi’s pioneering aluminium construction – which later gave us the R8 – it was under 900kg for the main petrol-engined version. A pretty spectacular result considering it was roomy for four people, had a decent boot and it had doors that shut with the fallout shelter thunk you expected of an Audi. It wasn’t some flimsy science experiment. It was also quite fun, as it happened.

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It felt agile and behaved accurately. Audi had a habit of turning out underbaked four-wheeled dough balls, but this wasn’t one.So both the A2 and R8 went a bit awry. For the A2, it was simple. Fuel stayed too cheap. I know this sounds glib, but the A2 was perceived as a supermini yet it cost twice as much as most. You’d never get that back on fuel savings. Something else too: it had the room of an A3, so people just bought an A3 on instinct. A bigger number so must be higher up the range eh? And the A3 was conventionally desirable and premium while the A2 was a bit left field and boffiny. You needed to explain it to the neighbours.

The R8 wasn’t exactly a flop but on the other hand no one was vastly surprised that, after two generations, it’s now quietly gone to the morgue. Not enough people want a usable supercar. Supercars are madness. 

Both the A2 and R8 were probably too clever by half. That was Audi’s confidence at work. They were immensely satisfying technical achievements that didn’t quite leave the door open to gut instinct. Which doesn’t stop history judging them kindly. 

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