1997 was early for a car like this. The Tokyo Auto Salon hosted the debut of the first-generation Prius that year, sure, but that was a purpose-built hybrid designed with the might of the Bubble Era behind it. This, though, was a hybrid built into a model that buyers were familiar with. This was about as forward-thinking as you could get.
Back then, Most other manufacturers were still thinking about getting SUVs into more and more driveways. Land Rover launched the Freelander in 1997 Lincoln gave us the Navigator, and the Isuzu Vehicross came out that year too. Audi would eventually fall into the SUV craze the next time it came around with the 2005 Q7, at least some of the product planners and engineers were thinking about ways to improve the efficiency of the Audi range. Their approach would eventually prove to be a winner, even if it would take nearly two decades.
The A4 duo (duo being Audi-speak for hybrid back then) was the third hybrid Audi had produced, but it was the first one available on the market, albeit in extremely limited quantities. Before the A4 duo made it to market, two 100 Avants got the hybrid treatment.
The first Audi duo was built from an 100 Avant (you know, the one with the sloped rear tailgate) back in 1989 and first shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show. That car had a five-cylinder gas engine driving the front wheels in traditional Audi fashion, while the electric motor picked up the slack out back. Audi told audiences at the auto show that the car had an electric-only range of about 80 kilometers and could be charged in about eight hours. Ten cars were built solely as a proof-of-concept.
The second version, introduced in 1991, was essentially an improvement on the first prototype. An inline-four replaced the old five-cylinder and the all-wheel-drive system was made permanent. It wasn’t quattro, but it was another step towards taking the hybrid model and building it into the Audi features that consumers were familiar with.
Then, in 1996, Audi showed off one last prototype before finally launching the car the next year. This one was built on the basis of the first-generation A4, a smaller car than the 100 but a much more popular platform than the A6 that had replaced it. Instead of a gas motor, this car had a 1.9-liter diesel four-cylinder making 90 horsepower under the hood. 320 kilograms of lead-acid batteries stored power for the liquid-cooled electric motor. Unlike the first two prototypes, this car was front-wheel-drive only.
Importantly, this A4 Avant duo was a plug-in hybrid, foreshadowing another important development in the packaging of hybrid cars that would follow along later.
But if everyone else was pushing SUVs on consumers, who did Audi think the A4 duo was for? At launch, Audi thought they would be able to sell around 500 examples of the A4 duo to fleets and city drivers who could take advantage of the electric-only mode. At the equivalent of nearly $40,000 in 1997 dollars, the car was far from an economical proposition. Though fuel economy was good, diesel prices in 1997 were far below today’s and the savings would likely have been minimal over a traditional diesel-powered A4.
Buyers seemed to agree. That 500-car-a-year sales goal was awful ambitious and only 90 cars were sold before production ended. Not even snazzy graphics along the side could convince buyers to splurge on a car this expensive and heavy for such limited economic and ecological benefit.
While the A4 duo wasn’t the success Audi expected, it did lay the groundwork for much of the brand’s electrification strategy. Since the failure of the A4 duo, Audi has introduced a number of hybrid and electric models similarly based on cars already in their stable. The Q5 and Q7 have had hybrid versions. The A6 and even S8 feature hybrid tech these days too. There’s an A3 hybrid as well.
While these cars seem to slide right into the Audi lineup, the purpose-designed electric cars Audi has built have had some trouble. It’s no secret that the E-Tron is not selling well despite being a convincing competitor among EVs Perhaps it’s difficult for buyers to walk into an Audi dealer and understand why there is a completely separate model that largely competes with the Q5 by most metrics apart from its drivetrain and sticker price.
Is that the opposite of what happened with the A4 duo, a car that looked and likely felt like a normal A4 in most ways? Perhaps, but Audi is clearly dedicated to getting its buyers into EVs and is trying a whole host of approaches to make that happen. With experiences like the A4 duo behind them, Audi just might be better-equipped than many of its rivals to get there.