Emerging from the sales slump brought on by the recession and actual fake news, Audi solidified its position in the small executive luxury market with its brand new A4 model in 1996. While in truth the car heavily borrowed from the evolution of the B3/4 series and started life with the same flaccid 12 valve V6 that had replaced the sonorous 7A inline-5 for 1993, the A4 was exactly the model Audi needed to redefine its image.
And redefine it did, going from near zero to hero in just a year’s time.
Car and Driver immediately named the A4 one of its “10 Best” cars, a position it would repeat in 1997 and 1998. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the perennial favorite as the BMW 3-series was for the magazine, but still, that it was mentioned in the same breath was impressive. New sheetmetal was smooth and tight, full of great angles and well-placed curves. The bumper covers were finally integrated well again – something the U.S. specification B4 had inexplicably failed miserably at. Inside was evolution rather than revolution, but the cabin looked and felt upscale and modern. And the market responded to this instant hit; consider, in 1994 Audi sold 12,575 cars in total. In 1996, some 15,288 of just the A4 models were sold. That was before the many variations and improvements Audi rolled out in the B5, too.
Seemingly every year new changes offered refreshment and redesign to the A4. In late 1995 and 1996, you could only get one specification – the 2.8 either with or without quattro. But ’97 saw the introduction of the 1.8T, and the Sport Package got some revisions as well with new Ronal ‘Swing’ 16″ wheels. Today’s Laser Red example has to be one of the better examples out there:
The Audi racing program went through some really interesting changes between the late 1980s and the mid 1990s launch of what became one of the more dominant touring cars produced, the A4 STW. Continuously evolving regulations were part of that, coupled with a global recession and cost-cutting measures among many manufacturers. So it was just a few short years between the flame-breathing iconic 1989 Audi 90 IMSA and the death of the turbocharged Audi racing sedans entirely, though there were some interesting steps in between. For example, Audi tried their hand in the France with the 1992 Audi 80 quattro Supertourisme I looked at a few years ago:
Motorsports Monday: 1992 Audi 80 quattro Supertourisme
That car was powered by a crazy turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four. Simultaneously, Audi built a 2.5 liter V6 80 for the German DTM series, though they ended up withdrawing in protest over the series rules, and the car never ran. Quietly, in the background, a more reasonable – and very entertaining – solution emerged. In 1990, the British Touring Car Championship revised their rules to make racing more affordable in the wake of the massively fast and expensive Ford Sierra RS500s. The new regulations were based around production sedans of no more than 2.0 liters and with no turbochargers. This, in turn, led to a series of homologation specials to make cars legal for the new Super Touring regulations, and Audi was happy to take part. What emerged was the Audi 80 Competition quattro – limited to 2,500 units to comply with regulations, Audi stuffed a development of 2.0 16v inline four also found in the European-market B3 Coupe into the B4 chassis quattro, stuck an S2 front end on it and a raised rear spoiler, quattro-script interior and a few other goodies, and sold them to the public:
What is the price of obscurity?
Here we have a 2001 Audi S3. While the S3 has been a recent addition to the Audi lineup to bolster affordable performance options and compete against Merc’s CLA and BMW’s 2-series, the model has a long history which dates back to the nomenclature change for Audi. The first A3 was launched alongside the then-new A4, and while the visual similarities were strong, the two models shared little. That’s because the A3 was based heavily on the Mk.4 Golf platform with transverse mounted engines. Just like the original Audi 50, though, the A3’s arrival predated the Mk.4 Golf by a year.
As I’ve already covered in previous articles, while the U.S. had to wait until the 2004 launch of the Golf R32 to get all-wheel drive performance, Europe had enjoyed Golfs with four wheels driven since 1986. So it was a relative cinch to stick the Haldex-based all-wheel drive system into the A3 chassis where, like the TT, it would be called “quattro”. And just like the TT, a high performance variant of the 1.8T would be included and become the S3 in 1999.
Again, some of the styling cues were shared with the big-brother S4, including 17″ Avus wheels and deeper, smooth bumper covers. The S3 was the first model to utilize the ‘door blades’ that would become signature S bits soon after. Performance was about what you’d expect from a near twin of the TT – meaning, virtually identical. But what you did get was slightly more subtle styling and slightly more practicality, with a bit more storage space and a roomier cabin. Despite the relatively negligible gains, because the 8L S3 never came here, they’re a bit of a hot commodity when they do arrive. How hot?