The latest crop of sports sedans get to sixty in less than five seconds, corner at .9 Gs, come loaded with digital displays, are uncannily silent and have kidney punishing rides. Seeing the cars which gave birth to the segment as we know it today can therefore be quite refreshing. They were easy going, confident cars that were designed in deference to subtlety above all else. In other words, fun during an aggressive romp, but appropriate for a Sunday excursion.
So it’s no surprise that it was several Sundays ago that this Audi, with tarnished body work and a license plate hung askew, caught my eye outside my local lunch haunt. I remember these cars vividly from my childhood, and loved the way they looked new. In addition to being pleasingly low to the ground with sharply-defined bodywork, they were uncommonly sober looking, free of both unnecessary styling flourishes and the 5000’s futuristic ethos. Debuting in 1978, the B2 80/90/4000 is attributed to Giugiaro, but much of the initial work was done by Claus Luthe, who also styled the E30, which looked downright festive next to the sober Audi. When it debuted in 1979, the fundamentally decade-old Saab 900 was just plain rustic in comparison and only the W201 (a much more expensive car) looked as rational.
Serious styling aside, however, small details such as these rewarded the more attentive onlooker and spoke to the quality of materials, assembly and even reliability (superior to that of the Typ44 100). Well trimmed but muted surface treatments dominated the snug interior, creating an intimate atmosphere very different from that of its Jetta and Golf stablemates.
Being a Quattro model means our particular car has a 2.2 liter five-cyl engine sits under the hood. I’ll never understand why VW never bothered turbocharging either the 4000 or its B3 successor for the US market. By the time truly competitive power came in the upon the 1.8t, Audi’s compact chassis had been famously numb and overweight for over a generation.
That wasn’t always the case, however; the Typ81 4000 was well regarded for both its front-drive dynamics but also its rewarding driver feedback. While the Audi’s reputation for excellent handling was built during the days that BMW embraced slow steering ratios and enthusiastic tail-happiness, tactile engagement was nearly on par with that of its Bavarian competitor and easily better than either that of the Mercedes 190 E or the Saab 900. While the E30 and Golf/Jetta were ultimately more fun, they lacked the Audi’s security; all-wheel-drive models had the added benefit of allowing fast exits in demanding cornering, something the left all the others struggling (though VWs and Audis have better front-drive traction than many competitors).
This was a problem for all the competition, no matter how meager the power. In the Audi’s case, 115 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque, with a bias toward a strong midrange, propelled 2,800 pounds, sending power to both axles through a low 4.11:1 final drive. That means 60 mph took about 9.5 seconds, with a top speed of 110-115, and real world fuel economy in the very low twenties, upper teens. While not enough to make full use of the balanced, communicative chassis (its successor was criticized for being numb), it wouldn’t be until the B3 hit the market that rivals had above average power. Blame that car, known here as the 80/90, for taking the tossable fun out of Audi’s compact.
In reality, this car would make a very fun beater, quattro or no. The drivetrain in the B2s is famously bullet proof, and with the low gearing and torque curve, one could comfortably drive aggressively in urban situations. Just don’t expect rapid passing, modern high-speed performance or good fuel economy. If the driver of this sedan knows what he has, he doubtlessly has a blast bombing through Bloomington’s busy and often hilly, curvy streets. Given the choice between this Audi and a brand new A4 2.0T, with ultra stiff suspension, drive by wire lag, electric steering and horrendous sightlines, I’d easily take the 4000 for daily urban use.