Heavyweight champ

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Substantially revised and now without a 90 cousin – all small Audis now carry the better-established 80 nomenclature – the Audi 80 is a formidable contender in the quality sports saloon category, a worthy heir to 3.4 million predecessors.

The fourth generation Audi 80 comes to Britain with Bosch ABS anti-lock braking as standard equipment, along with Procon-ten crash protection and a galvanised steel body that carries a 10-year anti-corrosion warranty.

Those who are considering BMW or Mercedes should also put Audi on their list, for the Volkswagen division is now setting quality standards that appear higher than those of the BMW 3-series and precious little adrift of the Mercedes legend. If that was not worth serious consideration, Audi also delivers technical tricks, such as four-wheel drive upon our test 2.8E quattro, at similar money to that charged by the opposition for rear-drive engineering.

The test car combined the simple but compact new V6 with the stiffer, more capacious body of the latest ‘B4’ generation. On paper it is an irresistible combination of useful technology and obvious quality, all for less than £22,000. However, the list price does not include items like alloy wheels and is likely to approach £25,000 for most buyers.

A kerb weight beyond 3100 lb and somewhat numb handling also sap much of that theoretical superiority, but we are still left with a very serious alternative to BMW and Mercedes, one that makes you wonder if any nation will ever effectively challenge the Germans in this sector?

UK range

A plain two-litre, 90 bhp 80 starts the 13 model range at a sliver under £14,000. All the rest have multi-point fuel injection, rather than the 80’s Bosch Mono Motronic, but there is little else in common among the engines. Audi offers turbocharged diesels, normally aspirated four (dohc or sohc, eight or 16-valve), five and sixcylinder variants. In-line configurations abound, save for the 2.8-litre V6, which tops the range at prices from £19,249.05 (just evading the £19,250 tax bracket) for a front-drive version of the test car.

From that you will correctly deduce that the 174 bhp V6 now does the job of the old five-cylinder 20v unit in Audi’s smallest saloon, and the same policy is applied to the Coupé cousins. There are eight versions of these sleek, but comparatively slow-selling, three-door machines.

Prices start at £18,198.89 for a 115 bhp four-cylinder and culminate in the £30,098.12 Coupé S2 (220 bhp/154 mph), a severely underrated successor to the original quattro turbo coupé with one of the world’s most admirable turbocharged power curves. MOTOR SPORT fully tested the S2 in 1991, and it is worth noting that the same 20v turbo unit is also at work within the S4-badged 100 saloons and estates.

Technical analysis

For most owners the biggest benefit of the new 80 body is that a reasonable boot shape has been introduced to overcome the original jest. It is supported by the extra versatility of tipping rear seats and was made possible by replacement rear suspension systems.

Audi’s unique Procon-ten crash protection uses looped steel cable reaction to heavy impacts. It then reels in the safety belts and draws the steering wheel hard into the dashboard, lowering the risk of fatal injury in the severest accidents.

The 80 has become wider, stronger (a structural rigidity gain of 20 per cent is quoted) and a lot heavier. When taxed with the 3153 lb kerb weight, the British importer responded: “This will be the last Audi introduction where a new model weighs more than its predecessor. It is no secret that we are planning an aluminium structure with Alcoa for the 1993 Audi V8 saloon, and this is expected to save 40 per cent in kerb weight compared to a conventional steel construction. Expect the aluminium technology to spread further down our range soon after that.” Welcome words indeed, but they do not help current buyers, who are saddled with unnecessarily heavy fuel bills and lower performance than one would anticipate when contemplating a 2.8 V6 nestling within the smallest car in the range.

The aerodynamic drag factor is not actively promoted these days, which is ironic when you recall what a fuss Audi made about the 0.30 Cd of the first aerodynamic 100 models in 1983. We can only conjecture that the imposition of a corporate face via the grille has not helped the cause of slipping through the atmosphere. A 0.33 Cd is hardly on the aerodynamic pace for 1992. The 3.2-inch stretch in overall lengthover 90 per cent of that in the wheelbase should have helped aerodynamic values, as well as ride quality.

However, it is worth noting that the quattro derivatives have a 15 mm/0.6 in reduction in wheelbase and a fractional (3mm) gain in track, owing to their use of a double wishbone back axle (rather than the front-drive layout, which is supported by a torsion beam back axle). All derivatives now run 15 in diameter wheels and we benefited from the £930 option of 10-spoke alloy wheels.

The recently introduced Audi V6 makes an impressive sight under the bonnet, being almost as wide as it is long. Audi eschewed its extensive four- and five-valve knowledge in favour of a strong torque curve and comparative simplicity via an sohc two-valve-per-cylinder layout. The tricky part is a multi-path inlet manifold which draws on the now common industry practice of using flap controlled alternative inlet tracts to serve maximum torque (gaining 40.6 lb ft below 4000 rpm in this application).

The V6 has an amiable character and generates an excellent 184 lb ft at 3000 rpm to back up a more modest 174 bhp from its 2771 cc. Audi claims these figures are enough to generate a 137 mph maximum speed and 0-62 mph in 8 sec, figures we could not match on a dry day.

Action

You lower yourself into the contoured grey cloth seats prepared to be suitably impressed, for the external finish is exceptionally well co-ordinated and executed. Bumpers line up, as for all door and bonnet shuts, with military precision. Colour matching is flawlessly extended to the flap door handles, and the doors shut with an air of massive solidity that really is a cut above the ordinary. Unfortunately the clear – but spartan – instrumentation and obvious cabin quality are not a preliminary to the kind of awesome driving experience that Audi can supply. At least, you are not overawed immediately by the easygoing engine and numb controls.

That is because your plushly insulated environment separates you so effectively from the pace at which the 80 quattro can cover distance, especially over poor surfaces in hostile weather. We suspect that this is one saloon that is the epitome of sensible engineering for the traffic conditions of the ’90s. The ad campaign won’t be highlighting its 0-60 acceleration figures. A big factor here is that V6 engine. Like the car it is not a rampant invigorator of the emotions. Rather, it has an accessible supply of even-tempered pulling power from 2000-5500 rpm that rarely intrudes upon the occupants.

When you decide that the four-door quattro is to be worked harder, the engine is certainly audible to its 6400 limit; all the same, it remains essentially a smooth operator that simply begins to run out of 12-valve breath when extended.

The 3100 lb kerb weight is offset by the outstanding mid-range performance of the V6 and the efficiency of the quattro system. From rest to 30 mph the 80 actually equalled the times of the Ferrari Mondial tested last month in one direction. By 40 mph, 300 prancing horses are beginning to establish their anticipated advantage, but the point is made: Audi has lost nothing of its supremacy in applying available horsepower to the tarmac.

Maximum speed was not up to the factory claim, but we did find that the fat four-door kept on accelerating upon the banking of Millbrook. A couple of laps saw nearly one second removed from the lap time and speed nudged up from 131 to 133 mph, a pace it felt as though it would hold from Inverness to Munich, representing less than 6000 of the available 6400 rpm.

More relevantly to Britain, just 3000 rpm delivers slightly over 70 mph (72.6 mph) in top, and the quattro tracks along very peacefully at this pace. Crosswind stability is outstanding and our team found this the easiest — and safest — of saloons at its maximum speed.

The same feeling of inherent road grip is generated by this quattro’s cornering behaviour. It turns ponderously into slow curves, but when you are tackling a frosty bend you forgive it that pomposity. For then the steering lightens up as predictably as an advertising hoarding to advise you precisely how much adhesion remains in those progressive Dunlop D8s.

Away from public roads, it is also amiable enough to balance in a mild slide on the greasiest surfaces. The final characteristic is likely to be the old Audi understeer, albeit a little diminished in line with the compact V6 that now hangs over the front axle rather than the previous in-line five. Weight distribution is far from the old front-drive, nose-heavy tradition, just under 60 per cent concentrated over the steering wheels. Roll angles are well contained by the sports suspension package that lowers and stiffens the 80 quattro, but there was too much vertical bouncing on minor roads. This trait merely joggled the occupants, rather than the car itself, for our outstanding memory of this vehicle will be its overall composure under pressure. Possibly the seat springing and sports suspension characteristics have not been unified . . .

Just how autobahn-biased the gearing is can be ascertained from the fact that this quattro is almost as fast in fourth — at the rpm limit — as it is in fifth. By past Audi standards, the gearchange quality is excellent and we believe it is a lot more effective than is generally acknowledged, particularly in use away from a test track.

Fuel consumption was not wonderful at less than 21 mpg overall, 12.3 at the track, especially as the advertised horsepower is only delivered on top priced 98 octane unleaded. It is worth pointing out that we reached 22.4 mpg in one brisk (59 mph average) outing. Total test mileage was not so long as usual however, owing to the fact that one of our contemporaries inverted the intended test Lancia Delta integrale and distorted our original schedule.

Verdict

Audi and UK pricing is not all it seems at first glance. Initially, this quality saloon appears within a couple of hundred pounds of the Ford Sierra XR4x4 2.9. As for the RS Cosworth, discounts — large discounts — are available to restore the Ford value for money appeal. The 150 bhp Ford V6 offers similar performance to the Audi, but is only worth considering if you pay significantly under £20,000, rather than Ford’s currently unrealistic £21,440 list price.

Meanwhile, the Audi represented closer to £25,000 when extras such as the stereo entertainment, rear electric windows, sunroof and alloy wheels are taken into account.

The most realistic buyer’s alternative choice is the BMW 325i (from £22,125), which is part of an extremely popular range in Britain. Yet such a comparison is a technical mismatch, as the BMW lacks 4×4 transmission and carries a perceptible performance advantage thanks to lower kerb weight and an 18 bhp bonus. You can also buy six cylinders and rear-drive quality from Mercedes. Prices for the frequently overlooked 190E-2.6 start at £24,680.

Such German machines have traditionally set the pace in this category, but there are options. You might just select the front-drive Honda Accord four-door 2.2i (£20,395) in the USA, but it seems an unlikely option in Britain, where front-drive handling seems to be disparaged in this class.

Again, you could wait for the Alfa Romeo 155 to break cover in the UK. We are told that these front-drive Alfa 75 replacements will be available with two-litre dohc or 3.0 V6 power from July in RHD. Our information is that they will cost less than £20,000.

If you are buying German today, our advice would be that the Audi has the most features and quality per pound spent. The BMW 325i is the most exciting of the German trio, but still needs further interior work to justify its UK cost. The dedicated Mercedes-Benz man would never buy outside the three-pointed star, whatever magazines advise, so we will stick to the Audi 80 quattro as the heavyweight champion in a class that was intended to be composed of lightweight entry points to prestige motoring. JW

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