The oil crisis of the 1970s hit the auto industry pretty hard. Automakers all around the world were suddenly forced to truly worry about fuel usage for the first time because consumers no longer could afford keeping the cars they used to drive. That was an ungrateful task because changes take a long time to be applied in this industry and those ones implied making a large investiment in something that wouldn’t be directly converted into higher sales figures.
One can say the USA was the most affected country, given that it had a culture of consuming exuberant cars and trucks. The CAFE legislation was enacted so as to stimulate the development of fuel-efficient technologies using taxation. In Europe, the somewhat different scenario allowed the German government to take a different approach: it designed a challenge for local automakers with rather tough standards and short deadline. That was the Auto 2000 project.
What was the challenge?
According to CarStyling, the Ministry for Research and Technology prompted companies to develop prototypes of urban cars that would consume up to 9.5 l/100 km weighing from 1,250 to 1,700 kg while seating four, carrying 400 kg of payload and doing all that without other standards such as comfort, overall safety, ease of maintenance, emission levels, performance, and service life. In other words, perfectly appropriate for the time, but much more fuel-efficient.
The government funded that project with 110 million Deutschmarks and set the 1981 Frankfurt Auto Show as deadline. While those standards were very high at the time, three makers took the challenge: Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen came up with concept cars which, while very different regarding tech specs, featured similar design guidelines. Over the following paragraphs, see which similarities and differences you can notice in those three models.
As AudiStory puts it, Audi received the smallest portion of the federal fund for the project. While that didn’t reduce the maker’s effort to create a good car, it affected the range of innovations applied to it: the car had a turbocharged 1.6 gasoline engine with a carburetor even though emissions weren’t concerning at the time and electronic injection was already popular. Besides, the gearbox had long gears, and body and chassis used high-tech materials to weigh less.
All those features helped a lot reducing fuel consumption, of course, but they were joined by the body you see on the picture. Smooth shapes, no protruding parts, long hood and trunk lid, inclined A and D pillars and windows leveled with the sheetmetal all contributed to a 0.30 drag coefficient, which was very low at the time. Inside, Audi decided to cut costs: the single remarkable item was an onboard computer, which displayed information about driving data.
Another Auto 2000 concept was longer and featured a Kamm-tail: rear fascia with a gentle slope that ends abruptly. That’s a classic resource to achieve low drag without an excessively long body. Pair that to the smooth shapes and the lack of protruding accessories once again and you obtain the 0.28 coefficient. The overall looks came from regular Benzes, but this one stood out for having a wraparound rear windshield that could be opened as a secondary trunk lid.
The company created three prototypes for the Frankfurt Auto Show, each one with an equally innovative powertrain: a diesel engine with turbochargers, a gasoline unit with cylinder deactivation, and a turbine engine. Among all the models presented, it’s said that Mercedes-Benz’s was the most innovative one, with features that influence the company’s models even in nowadays, to some extent — the turbine engine, for example, hasn’t been massively employed yet.
Since the intention was to create models as similar as possible to those already available, it’s only natural that the Wolfsburg maker would concoct something more humble than the other two. This two-door coupé uses streamlined body just like the Audi and a Kamm-tail just like the Mercedes-Benz, but paired to a front end without an upper grille, a C-pillar wide enough to look weird, and a rear windshield split in two parts in order not to require a longer rear fascia.
Everything else followed the same guidelines. The cabin was less innovative, only with a digital instrument cluster, the whole automobile uses lightweight materials and there were three options of powertrain as well, two with diesel and one using gasoline. They all used turbocharger and/or supercharger and a 4+E gearbox, where the fifth gear was much longer to work as overdrive. A very distinctive feature was the lowest drag coefficient of them all, only 0.25.
What can we conclude from all that?
First of all, many technologies developed for the projects ended applied to the regular models, such as digital instruments, engine downsizing, forced-intake systems and cylinder deactivation. Besides, did you notice which models were directly influenced by the projects’ design? Audi derived the ‘1982 100 sedan directly from it, while Mercedes-Benz applied some cues to the ‘1985 S-Class. Volkswagen’s project inspired both the ‘1982 Scirocco and the ‘1988 Passat.
On the other hand, other traits were deemed excessive: steel wheels with full covers were unpopular even on entry-level cars, downsized engines go against any attempts of sportiness, and the Kamm-tails are simply too difficult to look good enough — Mercedes’ made the car look too long, Volkswagen’s made its rear too tall, and both made the cars look simply too weird. In the end, the trio were nothing but a practical study on what cars would offer in two decades.