It’s not uncommon to see a Mercedes, Volvo, or BMW sedan from the 1980s on the road today, but finding an Audi may take some time, and possibly a trip to Portland or Seattle. The Ingolstadt-based automaker may have had a modest hit on its hands with the 4000 sedan in the early 1980s, but a lot of things just were not in its favor by the end of the decade.
The Audi 80 and 90 arrived on the scene in 1987 to replace the car we knew as the 4000, filling the compact sedan slot in the automaker’s lineup and aimed at the BMW 3-Series and the Mercedes C-Class…and not a whole lot else, as luxury sedans tended to be at least a segment larger in general.
Even though it may look slightly boxy and anonymous today, the design was a breath of fresh air at the time, with Audi once again opting for an understated, slightly aerodynamic look. Flush-fitting door handles; headlights and grille transitioning smoothly into the hood; and thin pillars all communicated a new approach to compact sedan design, avoiding the visually heavy details of its predecessor. The minimalist theme continued on the inside, with plenty of flat surfaces and supportive seats, while the center stack looked like a hi-fi stereo system, all without overwhelming the driver. Overall, the interior was an example of stern German efficiency.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder provided the power in the front-wheel drive 80 model, serving up 108 hp and 121 lb-ft of torque, while a 2.3-liter five-cylinder lived under the hood of the all-wheel-drive 80 Quattro and 90 Quattro models paired with a five-speed manual, good for 130 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. A front-wheel drive Audi 90 was on the menu as well with the same 2.3-liter, but with the added option of an automatic transmission. The European lineup of engines was a little more varied, as usual, with a few diesels to choose from in addition to a tiny 1.4-liter, so it’s safe to say that North American buyers did not miss out on any cool secret menu items.
“The concept of distributing driving power among all four wheels seems only logical,” ad copy of the time promised. “Nature, after all, designs locomotion much the same way for the fastest land animals. But there was a problem when it came to land vehicles. The additional drive train added weight and bulk, cramped the interior compartment and made for a rather bumpy, though directionally stable ride. At Audi, we overcame these problems by designing a compact transmission with a center differential, incorporating a shaft within a shaft that drive both sets of wheels simultaneously. We then tested our new design both on the snowy slopes of our native Bavaria and in international competition.”
The 90 can be distinguished by the larger taillights stretching all the way to the license plate niche but it’s safe to say that both versions presented a slightly offbeat choice to the 3-Series and C-Class—offbeat and deliberate, that is, as opting for the Audis wasn’t motivated by cost savings as they were pricey when new.
These were already rare by the late 1990s even in places that traditionally had a solid Audi presence, and they were quickly upstaged by the arrival of the A4, which was arguably the most important launch for Audi that whole decade. Most if not all remaining examples or the 80 and 90 Quattro are likely now in enthusiast hands.
Have you see the Audi 80 or 90 in traffic lately? Let us know in the comments below.
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