New cars; Audi coupe.

You saw it here first!

It makes a change for a German car to come on sale in the UK before it reaches showrooms in its native land, but in launching its new Coupe in Britain immediately after its official debut at the Birmingham Motorshow, Audi gave British customers a fortnight’s head-start on their continental cousins.

Such a move, the reverse of the usual LHD/RHD clash, demonstrates the strength of British demand in the coupe class, where two doors and some headroom are usually sacrificed for more sporting looks. Audi’s new Coupe, though, continues its predecessor’s combination of roominess and performance on the floor-pan of the Audi 90, with five-cylinder engines and two or four-wheel drive.

This time, though, the fastback styling is substantially different to the saloon, with a new windscreen and a full-length hatch made of plastic instead of the previous model’s narrow boot-lid. Despite its stubby lines, the wheelbase is 18mm greater than before, and the drag factor has fallen from 0.38 to 0.32, helped by the deep front apron. That is not quite as good as the 90 saloon it is derived from, because of the wider tyres and shorter tail. It still looks like a new generation Audi, but not very elegant, being rather solid and heavy around the rear cabin, without the lightness which distinguishes the 80/90 profile.

Well-shaped rear seats can be made to fold down to provide a flat floor, offering the flexibility such a car needs with only two doors, and a small hatch to cope with skis and the like is a £165 option. Rear head and leg room is generous, though the seats are shaped for two not three. Height adjustment on the driver’s seat and on both front seatbelts is standard, and the simple, legible dials are in a tidy group under a pronounced lip.

Two engines are offered: the long-running 2.2-litre 136 bhp, five-cylinder, or the new twin-cam four-valve five producing 170 bhp and 162 lb ft of torque. A sophisticated electronic injection and management system, sodium-cooled exhaust valves and anti-knock devices allow this 2309cc unit to run a 10.3:1 compression ratio even on unleaded fuel.

2.2E models can stretch to 129 mph, and reach the magic 60 mph in a little over nine seconds; 20 MV buyers will see 137 mph and 8.4 seconds respectively. With the lesser engine buyers have the choice of two-or four-wheel drive, but the 20V will only be available in quattro form, unchanged from the 90 quattro and using the Torsen centre differential so that the ABS (standard on quattros, £1000 extra otherwise) is always operative.

Like the 80/90, MacPherson struts support the front, with a trailing arm torsion beam behind in 2WD cars and two more struts on the quattro. Sports suspension, stiffer and lower than the 90 saloon, is standard, along with alloy wheels, 205/60 VR15 tyres and power-assisted steering.

Along with the crumple-zones in its all galvanised shell, the Coupe can be ordered with the ingenious Procon-Ten safety device which, in the event of head-on collision, retracts the steering wheel and tensions the safety-belts. Available for the first time on an RHD Audi, this is one of the cheaper options at £411, whereas an electric sunroof adds a hefty £904 to the total.

Standard equipment for UK cars includes electric windows, locks and heated mirrors, rear wash/wipe, and separate rear heater outlets. This takes the 2.2E to £17,994, while a 2.2 quattro soars to £22,486. The 20V car will not be available until the spring.

Due to adverse weather interfering with Audi’s Press launch (the company coped impressively well with an overnight replanning of the operation), our experience is limited to the 2.2E quattro.

As expected it feels solid and well constructed, with nicely engineered controls, excellent visibility, and good relaxing support from the sports seats — just the sort of car to face bad weather with confidence. Hastily fitted with M + S tyres and sending occasional warning ABS tremors through the brake pedal, the test fleet was able largely to ignore the three or four inches of snow overlaying much of Germany: there was no wheelspin at any time and the car’s balance was stable and predictable.

On dry tarmac, however, the Coupe shows a less welcome Audi characteristic, a tendency to dip and bob on its suspension which can make rapid travel uncomfortable. Not that it seems soft; the ride is quite sharp in the favoured German style, but the car does feel top-heavy in the same way as bigger Audis. Chassis response is confident, with a good solid feeling through the power steering.

That very recognisable five-cylinder snarl resounds from the exhaust under acceleration, though the sound insulation is so good that you have to have the window open to hear it, and the gearchange quality is smooth. The ratios, however, are borrowed from the saloon and are too far apart to keep the engine happily whirring at its best.

Though the Audi Coupe quattro is a fine car endowed with the impressive abilities of the quattro 4WD system, it is hard to see what it offers for the extra cost over the 90 quattro saloon, other than a degree of rarity and a useful hatchback. Yet that is more a comment on the market than on Audi, and the advent of the 170 bhp engine will almost certainly make the Coupe 20V an object of desire. GC