Pulling No Punches

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Audi is pulling no punches when it comes to comparing its new 90 range with its two main rivals in the compact luxury high-performance class. The customer seeking quality and prestige inevitably looks to Germany these days, not because these elements are unavailable in British or French products, but because German engineering is seen as a surer guarantee of them; and if the BMW roundel or the Mercedes star have something of an edge in reflected glory, the marketeers at Ingolstadt are determined to blunt that edge.

In pricing the three 90 models, Audi UK stresses that its offerings come with a noticeably higher standard of specification than the base versions of the 3-series BMW and Mercedes 190 with which it must inevitably be compared, and indeed even the cheapest 90 includes power steering, electric windows, and central locking. Such extras can substantially increase the price-tag of many imported cars, since options always carry a higher profit margin than the car itself.

So the Audi would appear to offer good value compared to its compatriots. But of course the strengthening of the pound against the mark has made all German products relatively more expensive, and the Audi’s price spread (from £14,000 to £19,000) embraces a very wide variety of alternatives from Europe and Japan. We tested the fastest 90, which drives all four wheels with a 136 bhp 2.2-litre and totals £18,998, a sum which might also buy, for instance, the large and luxurious Saab 9000 Turbo, a 2.9 XJ6, or the compact but dashing Citroen BX19 GTi 16v. Four-wheel drive is the obvious difference, but what else might sway the undecided customer?

Thankfully, the rationalisation of Audi model nomenclature has carried on to the latest cars: unusually, the same shell is sold as two different cars, and there was a time when only Audi salesmen could tell what sort of engine the different badges identified, but when can now safely deduce that anything with ’80’ on the boot-lid has four cylinders, while ’90’ denotes the idiosyncratic five-cylinder engine. Not that there is anything untoward about the character or performance of this unique motor; a stranger to the car would merely note that its unfussy power curve is accompanied by a vibrato which sounds rather Italian. Whether he will feel that the extra pot makes the unit any smoother than a modern four is probably a matter of marque loyalty; I cannot claim to distinguish them, at least in this powerful variation.

This is really rather a pleasant car to sit in: interior style is appealing, with a heavily-grained leather finish and three effective air vents in the centre. But yet again the poor driver is not allowed to breath fresh air if the heating is on, and it sia real stretch for him to reach out and close the door because the handle is so far back.

For some time, Audi had a somewhat Buddhist philosophy of calm-inducing interiors, with minimal instrumentation: a speedometer and fuel gauge were considered essential, but everything else was deleted in favour of warning lights only. such puritanism has relaxed a little since then, but even so this sporting saloon only adds a tachometer and water temperature dial to that ascetic display. A central bank of warning lights, Audi’s special multi-purpose display for blown bulbs, open doors and the like, and a digital clock fill out the panel, and all of these are easy to read.

Adorning the centre console are auxiliary switches for the rear window and fog lamps, plus one for cancelling the ABS with which the 90 quattro comes equipped as standard. The excellent and well-sited Blaupunkt radio/cassette system includes rear headphone sockets, and the climate is altered by convenient rotary knobs. A trigger for the pneumatically locked rear differential is sited down by the handbrake, and the window switches are in the doors.

An abundance of storage is one of the 90’s strong points: there are several little trays and pockets as well as a lockable glove compartment, door cubbies, and an extra shelf in front of the driver’s knees. Electrically adjustable mirrors stand slightly proud of the doors and offer an above-average view of the following traffic, while adjustable seat belt mounts should cater for most occupants.

Like its 2WD 80E stablemate, the quattro comes with elegant alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, and sport seats, but surprisingly these seemed one of the least satisfactory features of the car, with inadequate thigh support and an odd lumbar protrusion with no adjustment that I could see. It was like leaning against a barrel and it virtually negates the retaining effect of the side-bolsters as the driver’s frame rolls from side to side

Another unwelcome characteristic is the springiness of the ride: the car dips and sways in unruly response to acceleration, braking and cornering very much as its sibling, the Avant 200 quattro, did in our recent test. This is a shame, as the wheels are always very firmly attached to the road and its handling is rather good. Smooth application of the throttle pulls the Audi tidily through the hardest bends without scrubbing off speed from the front tyres, and the power assistance is helpful without being excessive. There are more sensitive systems, but usually on rear-wheel drive cars, and this still feels more like a front than a rear driver.

The steady increase in tyre widths seems to have levelled out with the 195/60 low-profile rubber now fitted to a large section of the sporting market, including all the Audi 90 range which runs on 14in alloy rims. As always the broad footprints create a certain amount of noise as they squash cats-eyes, but the machinery is hushed and the passage of even gale-force winds, which is what three-figure speeds amount to, is not intrusive. Many small details have this cumulative benefit: the flush glass, sealed panel gaps and sculpted air-dam, added to a smooth shape which has more forward emphasis than the bigger 100 models, and manages to look much more lithe and active.

Interior room is similar to the previous shape, although the car is shorter now; back seat passengers are reasonably well catered for, but might begin to grumble behind a tall driver. Elbow room is generous due to the rounded section with pronounced tumble-home, and the boot is very deep, carrying a full-sized spare upright on the left side. Some space is sacrificed to the rear differential and a larger (15.3 gallon) fuel tank.

In most essentials the drive-line is as before, the five-cylinder block hanging in front of the axle and the five-speed box behind it with integral central differential splitting the power and driving backwards through a prop-shaft and forwards through a hollow layshaft to the front diff which nestles behind the clutch. But now the traditional bevel differential which always dispenses half the torque to the rear and half to the front has been replaced by a Torsen unit, an all-mechanical device which apportions the drive according to the grip available. It does this automatically and instantaneously, does not interfere with the operation of ABS, and needs no lock-up mechanism to cope with extreme conditions.

This means that the only transmission control the driver is left with is one button to lock the rear diff, which is only likely to be used in the very slipperiest circumstances, like liquid mud or hillstarts on sheet ice. Even then, this is cancelled as soon as the car reaches 15 mph, restoring the ABS.

In most normal driving it is essentially impossible to detect the 4WD at work; apart from taming the furious spinning of the front wheels which would otherwise accompany high-speed take-offs in wet weather, the prime benefit is really one of confidence. Such a system does not actually increase the ultimate lateral grip theoretically available from the tyres, but by spreading the driving loads between all four wheels there is a radically reduced risk of breaching the traction limits of a driving pair.

On the road this means that slippery roundabouts are less of a hazard, and that a coarse steering movement is less likely to precipitate a slide. This invisible advantage is matched by the anti-lock brake system, included in the quattro package and a £1,550 option on the others. I did not manage to provoke it into action during the fine weather of our test, but should one for any reason wish to, it can be switched off. Braking follows the now common pattern of ventilated discs at front, plain at the rear, and the system is capable, if rather dead in feel.

The power rating of the 2226cc remains as before at 136 bhp at 5700 rpm, and the torque swells to 137 lb ft at a 3500 rpm. A high compression of 10.0:1 helps towards this, something which is allowed by the fitment of an individual knock sensor for each cylinder which retards ignition the instant pre-ignition is detected. Bosch mechanical/electronic injection looks after the fuel, and the single belt-driven cam operates hydraulic tappets.

Long service intervals (20,000 miles between main services) are one of Audi’s selling points, and the goal of low running-costs extends to a long-life exhaust, diagnostic circuitry, galvanised bodyshell, and a particularly comprehensive warranty package.

Safety provisions are generous: the front and rear doors overlap to reduce lateral penetration, the hinges are bolted in two planes, and the brilliantly simple Procon-Ten protection device will become available in mid-1988, possibly as a standard fitment. Safety options are rarely seen as very attractive to the buyers of new cars, who would generally rather have a better stereo, but this is a significant idea, and a relatively cheap one at about £350 in Germany.

Since seat-belts operate by stretching to cushion the shock, drivers often suffer injuryfrom the wheel, even though it is designed to collapse. Of course, this is much more catastrophic than the effects of an unbelted person hitting the dash, but unpleasant nevertheless. What Procon-Ten does is to prevent the driver from striking the steering wheel in a frontal crash, not by the instant padding of an air-bag, but by moving the wheel out of the way. No explosive charges, no expensive inertia switches are used; instead, the wheel on its collapsible stem is yanked down towards the dash by a steel cable which runs forward round a U-shaped guide, and then back to attach to the engine. Two other cables take up the slack in the belts.

In a major accident, once the crumple-zone has folded, the engine starts to move back, in a carefully planned way of course; in doing so it pulls the cables, retracting the column and tensioning the belts. Simple, maintenance-free, instantaneous, invisible and cheap — full marks to Audi.

In its blend of sharp performance, stable handling, and unbeatable traction, this is nearly an excellent car: only that see-saw motion under pressure lets it down. Snapping through the light gearbox under full-bore acceleration, the blunt nose lifts and drops like a powerboat, and urgent changes of direction make it tip one way and the other quite noticeably. It just does not feel taut enough for a car as fast as this one certainly is.

In every other way, though, the Audi 90 quattro must be threatening the preserve of the other prestige marques: its specifications are very high indeed, the assembly quality also; it has a technical plus in the 4WD scheme, and it possesses a beautiful body which, in my eyes at least, leaves just about everything in its class behind. GC