Sunday, 7 August 2011

Fleet Review; '98 Audi A4; 'til death us do part?

At the dealership where I work there is rarely a shortage of interesting, cheap old tat coming in as part-exchange, and a lot of it (this old Jag, for instance) is extremely tempting. I actually ended up buying this  Alfa but even that failed to persuade me out of the Audi and I soon sold it on again. The problem is, the Audi has been by far the most faithful car I've ever owned. I bought it, ten years old and with 51k miles on the clock, for a thousand quid. It came in as part-trade against a Mercedes SLK I sold to a retired doctor and, I have to say, I think I got a better deal than she did.

But what led to me keeping it for three years? Why have I not even considered selling up and moving on, when there are so many great, cheap cars out there? 

I really liked the A4 when Audi first launched it. I was 13 and an avid follower of the British Touring Car championships, and I vividly remember when Frank Biela contested a Quattro-equipped example that looked stunning in its silver livery, and which went on to completely dominate the championship. So much so in fact that, as a measure to even the field, all future four-wheel-drive combatants were ordered to carry ballast. Audi complied with the ruling, and still the car remained more than competitive. Whenever I played Toca Touring Car Championship on the Playstation, I always drove the Audi.

The styling had been previewed by the launch of the A8 slightly earlier. That new flagship was extraordinarily advanced with its all aluminium construction and glorious detailing, and the original, B5 shape A4 was clearly intended to resemble a miniature version of that car. I think it remains attractive to this day. It looks tiny when seen parked next to the current car, but I believe it’s the more successful shape of the two. The rectangular is simple and distinguished; this was before the current Edsel-like Auto-Union pastiche snout took over.

The overall shape is quite discrete, slightly cab-forward, slightly wedgey and with a hint of aggression, but the A4 is somewhat colour and trim dependent. Early, low-spec B5s are starting to look a bit past it, but if the colour is right, and they’ve been well looked after, I reckon they still look the part.

If asked to name which model sums up Audi today, I’d say the Q7. It’s a behemoth SUV that broadcasts messages about your wealth, and shouts loudly for everybody’s attention. Ten years ago I would have said the TT, which established new boundaries for corporate brand building and attention to detail. Going further back, though, I’d have said the original A4 was an excellent ambassador for the brand. In those pre-TT days, I reckon that this one car has done more to establish Audi as a manufacturer of aspirational executive cars than any other model in their history.

My personal A4 is a 1.8 turbo Sport, finished in Santorin Blue Pearl, a colour I rather like. It has an iridescence that shows best under the artificial light of a petrol-station forecourt, and which has retained its depth and lustre despite 14 years of English weather, despite my woefully irregular car-cleaning habits. Inside it has “Tungsten” leather on the seating surfaces, and was specified with optional wood trim. This was always a good interior and has dated less badly than, for example, the equivalent Mercedes C-Class of the time. Fit and finish are excellent; in all the time I’ve had the car only the switch on the rear right-hand reading lamp has failed. And, so long as I keep it fed, the leather has lasted amazingly well. The rear seat is literally immaculate, testament to my having had nowhere near enough fun back there.

Some of you may know that within a month of acquiring the car I trusted it to take me four thousand miles across Europe, carrying myself, a friend and everything we’d need to live, sleep and eat in the car for eight nights. The experience in full is recounted here, but from the outset it always felt like the totally unproven Audi could well have been the week link in our road-trip plans. Happily, we were proven wrong and it performed peerlessly, even with my friend Jade behind the wheel.

It’s only ever let me down once, and even then it tried its best to inconvenience me as little as possible. The day after returning from our European odyssey, the water-pump failed on my way home from work. Had it packed up in, say, in Sweden, we’d be in a dozen kinds of trouble, but as it happened my trauma was limited to my fish ‘n chips dinner being cold by the time I got home. After nursing it gingerly back, I made the decision to replace the cambelt at the same time as tackling the water pump, as it wasn’t far from being due a change anyway. That job completed, the Audi has been a paragon of virtue ever since.

It's has had three sets of wheels since we’ve been together. The originals were replaced in the first year simply because, all at once, the lacquer was flaking off badly, corrosion had taken hold and the tyres had seen better days. £170 and eBay saw a set of four 17” rims from an ’03 A6 in their place. These stayed attached for a while, but I never really fell in love with them. 

Happily, that stupid Scrappage Scheme soon arrived, bringing me an excellent source of free pieces of car. I soon swapped my horribly scabby original wheels for a set of RS4 replicas from a woefully tired A4 2.6 that came in on the scheme (the poor thing had literally nothing else worth nicking from it, despite still driving well), but they were cheapo multifit jobs, so I didn't keep them for long.

Soon came a heartbreaking Scrappage arrival in the shape of a ’97 C230 Kompressor, in Sport trim. It was in painfully immaculate condition, with just sixty thousand on the clock. It had leather inside, but better than that, outside it had the optional AMG Styling package, including an almost perfect set of 17” AMG wheels.

For a long time these have been among my favourite designs of factory-fit wheels. Much imitated over time, I don’t think there’s been a Mercedes wheel since that looked so restrained yet so purposeful. I had to have them, somehow, on my Audi. There soon came a tripartite swap-a-thon where sets of wheels were rotated through three cars, with a colleague donating a few old scrap wheels to cover the shortfall. By the end of the day, my partner in crime had my RS4's for his Golf, and I had a rear passenger seat full of AMG wheels.

Of course, they were no use to me until I could machine the Mercedes wheels to accept stouter Audi hub-bolts. This complex operation was carried out by trained, qualified professionals; and we did a great job of it, too. Every hole was a success in itself and Dad and I had a congratulatory beer each afterwards.

Opinion is divided on how the Audi looks on the AMG wheels. Personally, I love it. I like the shape of the car and I like the wheels, so the combination works. Those who like it suggest it would look better if I lowered the suspension a sensible amount. Those who don’t like it, really don’t like it. 

I can understand why. The rear wheels are wider the front, as per rear-wheel-drive dictum. The Audi, of course, is front-drive, or Duotro, as I like to call it. Having wide wheels at the back is pointless, they say, and well; they’re right. But I like the way they look, so there. It drives well, too, not tramlining any more noticeably than before. No doubt the extra contact area has affected my economy, I see about 33mpg average these days, but that still ain’t bad for a teenage car.

It’ll get to 60 in about eight seconds, which is nothing special at all these days, and it makes a tremendous amount of noise in doing so. Driving the Audi is to remember how far the state of the art in noise, vibration and harshness has progressed in the last decade. Most newer cars are a lot quieter than mine, and it affects how I drive it. The build up of noise at motorway speeds discourages me to drive really fast all that often. It’ll do 140, I’ve visited that figure on the autobahn. But cruising anywhere north of the ton is quite a noisy experience. I tend to sit between 70 and 80 most of the time, unless the red mist descends.

I have to be in a certain mood to drive the Audi properly; it only happens every now and again. But if I keep the tacho beyond 4500 rpm, well and truly in the turbo zone, the A4 absolutely flies. There’s number of decent back-roads in these parts that are fun to go out and have an occasional play on, and from corner to corner I’ll wager that the Audi can at least keep up with much most sporty-ish cars. Those wide tyres give the car huge grip, and the sport damping that the car came with originally takes out the worst of the roll. 

Truth be told, no A4 has ever been the best in class to drive. They all suffer from slightly inert steering, handling that’s more about grip than precision, and a firmer ride than is completely necessary. That’s all still true of mine. Any fun you might have in it is probably due to excellent roads or personal skill, the car doesn’t really try to help you out or push you harder. It’s more of a silent partner, doing exactly what you ask it to, right up to the distant point where you get really carried away and understeer off the road and into some really interesting ancient oak tree. It’s fast enough that, driven hard, you’ll end up with a big grin on your face, but any actual joy to be had is your doing, not the cars’. I could never recommend one as an out and out drivers’ car, but as just a car, hell yes.

That sounds like a bit of a downer really, doesn’t it? Well, actually, it isn’t. While it can be seen as having no character, and consequently being rather boring, at least it’s is basically completely viceless. There are no nasty suprises, no snap-oversteer if you lift off in a bend, no bump-steer weirdness, nothing at all that conspires to spoil your day. In fact, if this car was a piece of Hi-Fi equipment its characteristics, or rather lack of them, would be just what the doctor ordered. Neutrality and even-handedness are what you want if you want to hear what’s going on in a piece of music, and, similarly, the Audi does nothing to re-interpret the roads. It lets every corner speak for itself. 

It’s an honest car. It does without the extra sheen of flamboyance that a Mercedes carries and it isn’t burdened by the sporting pretensions of a BMW. It’s just a nicely made, discretely styled car that does everything you could reasonably ask of it, extremely well.

Furthermore, despite its odometer ratcheting steadily towards 100k, maintenance has been easy and cost effective. I’ve changed all the wheel bearings and brakes, the engine is in rude health and there are no signs of rust anywhere on the car. The A/C remains broken but I’ve learnt to live with it. Until the whole car explodes in a shower of shared platform componentry, I can see no earthly reason to get rid of it.

I guess you could say it’s a marriage of convenience. The Audi came along when I needed a cheap, reliable transportation solution; it was the right car at the right time. And, well, today is still the right time. My girlfriend and I are saving our shekels for a house, so for the next twenty years or so a newer car seems an extravagance, especially when the old one works so well. It’ll be in the family for a long while yet.

That all said, the A4 currently sits in my grandparents’ garage, gathering dust and declared to the DVLA as being off the road. It’s dormant, but ready and willing for its next call to duty. It’s having a well earned break while a certain other car gets a chance to prove itself. Which hi-buck, hi-prestige road warrior will this be?

Stay tuned, folks….


  1. I do love the VAG 1.8t motor.. Drive a '02 Passat 1.8t myself. Excellent writeup chris, as always.

  2. You will find that the certifications and aftercare ensures come brisk and thick when you go to an endorsed second hand Audi vendors. private car sales