(First posted September 1, 2013) Summer of ’99, my significant other was traveling in Europe, I was at home working, and decided it was time for another car. Once again without a specific vehicle in mind; just knowing that the budget was more secure than before and I did not want a new car again, I spent a few weekends poking around all over the Bay Area…
Eventually I found it – A 1993 Audi S4. Two lady owners, 60k miles, stunning Emerald Green over Ecru (think Bone-colored) leather, turbocharged, quattro all-wheel drive, without any cosmetic flaws whatsoever. I drove it, was extremely impressed, went home, read all about it, drove it again, and eventually bought it for $22,000 even and took it home. (Note: All of the pictures in this article are of my actual car, mostly from towards the end of my ownership)
While I’d had new cars, and I’d had large cars, I had never had one that felt this solid. Conceived in the era where the Germans engineered and built it first and assigned the price tag afterwards, this car was a rock. Every input was rewarded with the right amount of resistance, the power was intoxicating, and the comfort and convenience level was superb.
The S4 first arrived in the U.S. for 1992 and replaced the one-year-only 200 Turbo 20v. Based on the Audi 100 (C4 generation) chassis, this was the top of the line, being compared to the M5 and the 500E at the time. (However, I can admit now that both those cars are possibly even a bit better as pure driver’s cars but neither had a turbo nor all-wheel-drive which made the S4 perfect for certain parts of the country.) The S4 was produced after Audi released the (not for North America) S2 (Audi 80/90 based), and produced the S1, which was the rally evolution version of the original Quattro (internal, never sold to the public). At the time the S-range denoted Audi’s top sports models (however soon thereafter the RS2 was released and later there were also S-plus versions available.)
Most people in the U.S. (including lots of Audi dealer personnel) usually think the first S4 was the A4 based sports model. No, this one was. After the Audi 100 was renamed the A6 for 1995, the S4 became the S6, leaving room for the new S4 version of the A4. (That will be the last mention of the “new S4” in this article, by the way.) Lots of fans call the old S4 the Ur-S4, Ur as in original, like they do with the Ur-Quattro). Anyway, the Ur-S4 was available in the rest of the world with two engines, one of them a 4.2 liter V8 and also the one that North America got, the 20-valve 2.2 liter turbo-5.
Putting out 227hp and 258lb/ft of torque with an overboost feature in the first two gears, this car was a rocket (for the early to mid 90’s at least). Add the grip of full time all-wheel-drive through 225/50-16’s, acceleration and handling in all weather conditions were no match for most other cars. A 5-speed manual was the only available gearbox. Add in tons of room for 4 or 5 people and their luggage and this was just an amazing car with a lot of room left for improvement by the enthusiast owner.
The outside differed from the normal 100 in several minor ways. The front fenders were actually wider than the standard items (larger flares), the front headlights had the fogs integrated into the lights as opposed to separate units under the bumper, and the front bumper was different with more air inlets for the intercooler.
Inside was amazing. Supremely comfortable Recaro seats with movable under-thigh bolster, wonderful leather, heated seats front AND back and nice real wood in 92’s and 94’s, the 93’s like mine got genuine carbon fiber trim, not the fake stuff you see everywhere now, a Bose sound system with optional trunk mounted CD changer (remember when that was cutting edge?) and a built in analog corded cell phone (also passe by the time I got the car). Everything was solid and well-made and felt like it would last forever.
Even though the changes to the car are very subtle, owners can spot them literally a mile away. One day I was driving on Highway 1 south of Santa Cruz when I noticed another one coming the other way, both of us moving fast in opposite fast lanes. We both flashed our lights at each other and later than evening on the S-Cars forum I posted that I had seen another car. Well, the other guy (also named Jim) saw the post and answered.
We became good friends, have traveled to Europe together on a three-man Car-Museum, Factory Tour, Frankfurt Auto Show and Nurburgring trip, speak regularly and our families are friendly now as well, as a matter of fact my daughter and I spent the night at their home this last summer on a road trip. Our wives joke that we are both total freaks for meeting how we did but that’s how things happen I suppose. (Update: Jim and I are planning another trip to Europe together for our 50th birthdays, which are within weeks of each other.)
My car had stickered for around $50k in 1993 at Anderson-Behel Audi (now Stevens Creek Audi) in San Jose, CA. It was pretty much dealer maintained until I bought it. Soon after I bought it, it was time for a new timing belt and front brakes. I looked all over and tried to find the best deal I could and ended up taking it to a small Audi enthusiast shop in Davis, CA, just over an hour away. The two owners welcomed the car and did a great job at a very good price. However, this was also pretty much the dawn of the internet age without which this car probably would have frustrated me and caused me to spend way more money than necessary.
For example, in the first week of ownership, all of a sudden the fuel would cut off whenever I hit 4000rpm’s. Late at night I found an S-car forum, posted a question and the site’s owner in Iowa gave me step by step instructions on how to easily locate and fix a small hose that had come off making the car think it had a boost issue. One 69cent hose clamp later and I was back in business after worrying about how much this would be costing me.
With a total of just over 3000 of these cars sold over the entire model run in the U.S. (not just the one year) and the cars no longer the focus of Audi North America and their dealer body, the enthusiast base on the internet became invaluable as it is today for almost any problem on any car. The internet and the available knowledge makes it realistic to now own almost any car, even those that would normally be beyond the reach of “normal” people and their budgets.
During my second year of ownership, I was really enjoying the car, loving my commute in any weather, and decided I needed to explore the car more. I joined the Quattro Club and attended a Driver’s Instructional Event at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, CA for a weekend. Wow, what a blast! First, a classroom discussion, then some parking lot exercises and then lots of track time with an instructor in the passenger seat.
It was a fantastic event, I met a ton of other Audi enthusiasts, and had a wonderful time. The first night in the hotel the evening before the event, I met a couple that had come out from Colorado in their S6 Avant, the 1995 wagon version of the car. By this time that car was my “unicorn” and I immediately struck up a conversation and we ended up hanging out all weekend and many years later I can say they were indirectly one of the main reasons for us deciding to relocate to Colorado.
Some of the things that became apparent during the track event that had been noticeable before but never to the same extent was how much power was lost once the engine and turbo became heat-soaked, the brakes were really rather marginal for such a large and powerful car and the suspension was a bit soft as well as riding fairly high. Well, back to the internet! In the mid-90’s, with Porsche’s help, Audi developed the RS2, which was a modified Audi S2 Avant (wagon) that was actually assembled at Porsche’s factory. Since the S2 and the S4 shared the same engine, most things that were changed to make the RS2 immediately translated to the S4 and were available on the aftermarket, albeit at a hefty price.
Using my uncle in Germany and sending him part numbers, I sourced an RS2 Turbo and Exhaust Manifold from his village Audi dealer and then had him ship them to me for a total cost of less than half of what it would have cost over here. I added a chip from MTM (Motoren-Technik-Mayer), which was founded by one of the Audi engineers that had developed the engine in the first place, then added a set of contemporary Porsche 993 Turbo brake rotors and calipers (Big Reds), along with a set of Eibach Sport Springs and Bilstein Sport shocks. Thus equipped I was ready for the next driving event at Laguna Seca which was just as good as the one at Sears Point but I was able to learn in the first day when it rained that even if you start to spin at 60mph in turn 4 and even if you get completely perpendicular to the track, as long as you give it full lock (not just a “dab” of oppo) and keep the throttle buried to the floor the car will recover. Did I mention this was a lot of fun?
The turbo and exhaust manifold I swapped myself in my garage. With the help of the forums, I figured out the full parts list of nuts, bolts, washers, gaskets etc. and did the swap over a weekend. Really it was just a matter of working methodically and keeping track of everything, the engine bay in a C4-chassis Audi has a lot of room for even large hands and fingers. Later I would swap engine mounts, figure out why the engine had developed a slight miss (with coil on plug ignition a matter of swapping parts around and eventually realizing it was the Power Stage Output device that was defective) as well as various other maintenance and repair procedures. Basically by the time I was into it for a few years I was able (and not afraid) to tackle pretty much any job on the car.
People say Audis are expensive to fix and unreliable and they certainly can be if you arrive from a Honda set-and-forget mentality. Back in the day there was also no good way to figure out an issue, with the internet it has become simple. The fact of the matter is that the driver involvement level makes up for a lot of the maintenance shortcomings, at least on the more interesting models. A base A6 with front wheel drive? Yeah, I don’t really see the point either, to be honest. The trouble these days is that a lot of the parts have so much electronic componentry that it is not feasible to fix something anymore.
One particular example is the power steering pump on almost every S4 that over time develops a weeping X-plug on top. Most any Audi repair facility and pretty much any dealer will tell most owners that they need a whole new pump. Anyone who has been around these cars and can pose a question on an Audi forum knows that you can take a ½” screwdriver bit, grind off 1/16” from the end, use an impact hammer on the X-plug to free it and then order a new plug with O-ring for $8. Takes about 5 minutes, saves hundreds of dollars and solves the issue completely. I still have my socket and a spare X-plug somewhere in my toolchest just in case…After our first child was born any issues that I could not or did not want to handle myself I took to my longtime mechanics Griffin Motorwerke in Berkeley that always did a thorough and honest job on the car when needed.
About a year later my Colorado friends from my first driving event at Sears Point mentioned that the Quattro Club in Denver organizes an Ice-Driving event at the Steamboat Springs facility run by Bridgestone. The Club rents the track for several days and as long as you are a Club member you may join. So I paid the fee, bought a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks and drove to Colorado in the middle of February. I got a speeding ticket just 30 miles from home (not a good start to a 1200 mile trip) and then when in Utah eventually realized that my windshield washer fluid had frozen solid and cracked the tubing.
The problem is in California they sell fluid with a higher freezing point than they do in the mountain states. In Glenwood Canyon I stopped at an Audi dealer, explained the situation and they just handed me 12 feet of tubing at no charge. After I got to my friends’ house and was able to thaw the car I replaced the damaged sections, drained the bad fluid and refilled with the local brew…
Anyway, the event. In a word, wow! Two tracks, each about a mile long, carved out of the high meadows in Steamboat Springs with snow walls all around. On top of that was a skidpad made of ice, but not just a circle, it was also on an incline so the car’s attitude changed every time you went around.
Driving the tracks was amazing, you’d find yourself coming around a turn like a rally driver (they’d teach you the “Swedish Flick”), you’d step on the throttle and then realize that while the car was still somewhat sideways and all four wheels were spinning and throwing snow and ice chips all over the place, you’d be in 5th gear with the speedo showing 125mph, but in reality you were maybe doing 45 mph. And too soon there’d be another corner and you’d be sawing at the wheel trying to slow down and get the car adjusted right for the next corner.
At first the track’s big F-350 SuperDuty had a lot of work to do pulling people out of the snow banks but by the next day most people had figured it out and were having a huge amount of fun while learning a lot about their car in a very safe environment.
My girlfriend-now-wife flew in the next day and we had a few days of good skiing. When it was time to go I took her to the Eagle airport near Vail around lunchtime for her 3pm flight and then I started driving back home. Well, I drove through the night (this time getting a matching speeding ticket to the one I got on the trip out, but in Nevada this time), had a great time going over the Sierra Nevadas in a snowstorm in the wee hours and pulled into the garage at 5am. Due to flight delays my girlfriend had gotten in only a few hours earlier!
By this time the car was really fitting me like a glove, the engine, brakes and suspension were as I wanted them and it was just a great mile-muncher. After the modifications I tested it using a G-Tech and plotting it against a friend’s stock versions of the car and we figured it was putting out around 340hp and 380lb/ft of torque, but still very everyday driveable. I drove it to LA for the annual auto show down there and my friend Don flew in from Chicago. We had a great time at the show and then afterward while getting gas realized that the station offered 100-octane unleaded at an astonishingly high $4/gallon (to us then, how I long for those days now!).
So we took the plunge and filled up the most expensive tank of fuel I’d ever paid for in the U.S. Wow, how that changed the car even more! Driving home that night over the Grapevine it was cold and misty, virtually ideal conditions for a turbocharged car. With the 100-octane it was just an absolute beast. I was pulling out to switch lanes and pass cars and at first totally misjudging my acceleration to the point that I was finding myself getting way too close to people as I was moving over.
I really loved this car. I owned it for four years which is the longest I had owned a car to that date and still is one of the longest ownership periods of any car I’ve had. I sold it after finding my automotive unicorn, the deal with my now-wife was I could not have both, I’d have to sell this one. So I took all the modifications off the car, returned it to stock, and sold it with almost 115,000 miles for $12,500 to a man from Reno who met me in Sacramento.
I still periodically check the Reno Craigslist for S4’s and whenever I run across a green one with Ecru interior look closely to make sure it is not mine. If I found it again I would probably buy it back, it was just that great of a car. There are a ton more stories and memories about this car, but this post has already run way over its normal length…Thanks for riding along with me down memory lane at high speed!