New cars: Audi 90

An image for the Nineties

The new Audi 90 model became available in Britain in June, completing the German company’s line-up of modern, very aerodynamic family saloons. Three versions, all with five cylinders as the model number denotes, will be offered in the UK, a 2-litre front-drive developing 115 bhp, a 2.2-litre front-drive developing 136 bhp, and a 2.2-litre quattro version also developing 136 bhp.

Although the predicted price range is high, from £14,000 to £20,000, Audi expects to import between 2000 and 2250 of its 90s a year, and still not have enough; “this might meet 80% of the demand,” says marketing manager John Meszaros. Competition from Mercedes’ 200-series and from BMW’s upper 5-series models is going to be tough, but Audi now reckons its image has been raised high enough to take on this sort of opposition. Image is what it is all about in this sector of the market. The majority of purchases are paid for with company cheques, and a Mercedes, a BMW, or a Jaguar XJ6 carry considerable prestige. The particular appeal of the Audi 90 will be its aerodynamic qualities, its modernity, technical excellence, and above all its driver-appeal.

The new 90 is based largely on the new 80, which went into production last October and has been an outstanding success. Production has now built up to 1200 per day, 200 more than the highest level for the previous model, and accounts for two delays in the launch of the five-cylinder version. Audi anticipates that 200 90s will be built each day and that in 1988 the combined volume will rise to 1500 cars per day.

The range for Britain has been realigned, with the 2.2-litre version being offered with front-drive as well as in quattro specification; but the 2.3-litre version available in Germany, the USA and other catalyst markets is not part of the line-up, since the power is identical at 136 bhp. Audi-watchers will also note that the Sport version has been dropped, while the stiffer suspension is standard equipment only on the quattro, which also has ABS braking as standard.

Compared with the previous 90, the new version is substantially improved. It has the 100-look bodywork which reduces the aerodynamic drag from 0.39 to 0.31, and is a very quiet car to cruise at up to the 128 mph maximum speed of the 2.2-litre version. The body-coloured air dam is new and the quattro version also has a rear spoiler, along with alloy wheels and all-disc braking, with ventilated discs at the front, and 51/2J 14-inch wheels carrying 195 section tyres are also standard for the range.

As expected, the 90 quattro is equipped with the Torsen centre differential, which runs normally with a 50:50 torque split but, depending on the available traction, can transmit up to 75% of the torque to the front or rear wheels. A rear differential lock is available to the driver to tackle icy inclines and it disengages automatically at 16 mph, allowing the ABS brake system to function normally.

The front-drive models have the aluminium cased gearbox recently introduced for the 80, and research director Dr Ferdinand Piech also revealed that all models, including quattro, will become available during the 1988 model year with a new four-speed automatic gearbox, developed jointly by VW and Renault. Audi’s, however, “will be much different, especially in quality!”

The simple but effective Procon-Ten active safety system has reached 20% acceptance in left-hand-drive European markets, an impressive figure which counters the old rancor industry adage that “you can’t sell safety”, and will be available for right-hand-drive markets also during the 1988 model year.

The 90 has a full-size spare wheel mounted upright in the left rear wing housing, and Piech admits to a change of heart here. “A few years ago we needed a 2 .5kg weight saving because of the energy situation, but this is not so now.” The luggage area, criticised on the 80, has been increased by removing the “false floor” which surrounded the space-saver spare wheel, and the 80 might follow suit. Another significant statement at the introduction was that the Coupe, based on the 80/90, will be presented in a different form later this year. Always a highly regarded model, its sales have slumped very badly recently by 22% to 17,000 worldwide in 1986. Production of the Audi Quattro Coupe fared even worse, falling from 1400 to just 762 last year.

While Audi’s management in Britain would not admit to any problem in placing the new 90 squarely in the executive saloon market, the real contest will concentrate on persuading prospective customers to test-drive the five-cylinder models. They are delightful to drive, the extra cylinder bringing with it a higher degree of refinement and acceleration, and they handle far better than would be expected of any model with a lengthy engine placed ahead of the front wheels. Understeer is very gentle, no more than any other manufacturer would design in for safety reasons, and if there is any criticism at all it is that the springing feels rather soft in cornering.

That is not the case where the quattro is concerned, for the stiffer suspension kit literally gives the car an “on rails” feel, with neutral handling at very high cornering speeds. Not everyone likes the distinctive growl of the five-cylinder engine, but those who do will instinctively fall in love with the 90 quattro straight away, and might then not give its price competitors a second thought.

German cars have begun to look very expensive on the British market in the past 12 months, although the pound has strengthened sufficiently in recent weeks to stave off any further rises that might have been imminent. Even so, German manufacturers have largely maintained their market share while the Japanese have not, and that says a lot for the perceived level of quality and reliability. If Audi’s new 80/90 range is anything to judge by, their customers will not be disappointed.  MLC