The Late 90’s was a crazy time. As I had mentioned in my previous COALs, I was freelance IT consulting in Detroit, Michigan. Between Y2K and the explosion of the world-wide web, it seemed like just about anyone could make a buck selling IT servers. So a few friends and I decided to go back to Cleveland and hang out our shingle with the slick but generic sounding name of Sterling Technology. Of course, what we failed to realize was that running a business was more than just putting a name on a door and waiting for the world to beat a path to your door. It requires many competencies, like management, sales, HR, and finance, all of which were in short supply at our company.
Still, we did alright, picking up the odd software development projects and consulting gigs, always kind of riding the knife-edge between success and failure. Soon we came to be acquired by another small consulting firm that was slightly larger, but more or less in the same situation of living invoice to invoice. Shortly thereafter, we were acquired by a venture capitalist who didn’t really know anything about the IT services business, but saw everyone else getting rich off of it and figured he would too.
So over the course of about a year and a half, I worked for three different companies, all while sitting at the same desk. This is a pretty common story from people who worked in those acquisition crazy days before the dot-bomb bust. I was putting in LOTS of billable hours, working at just about all the Fortune 500 companies in Cleveland at the time (Chase Mortgage, Sherwin-Williams, and Moen just to name drop a few). Consulting is a great way to build a resume, and having experience working in a wide variety of clients and industries certainly helped my career, the benefits of which extend to this day. Consulting is an excellent way to bootstrap your career, I would highly encourage anyone who has the opportunity and the ability to to do so.
When I wasn’t working (which wasn’t often), I was still riding the Goof2, and continuing my quest for automotive perfection (a recurring theme in my previous COALs). I was living with a roommate at the time (who was also a consulting coworker), so we were making a ton of money with almost no living expenses. He purchased a 1997 BMW Z3 Roadster with his earnings. Even though the Z3 is one of the lowest regarded of modern BMWs, especially in 4-banger form like my roommate had, it was still a revelation to me. Despite being a convertible, it felt exceptionally solid. I thought my Acuras were solid? This car was SOLID. The 5-speed, while not quite as smooth shifting as the Acura, still felt, well, solid.
Having no real experience with German cars before, I was hooked. Could I have found at long last the automotive perfection that I was long seeking? I had to find out. There was also one other factor at play. 1998 would mark the thirtieth year of my existence (aka birthday). While 30 is certainly not a major milestone birthday (especially in retrospect), I still wanted to feel like I had “made it” by the time I turned 30, and didn’t want to mark the occasion driving a lesser automobile.
So I test drove both the BMW E36 3-Series and the B5.5 Audi A4, going in with a slight amount of bias towards BMW. After driving both, The A4 was really a superior car over the BMW in every way: 30V V6, all-wheel drive, and styling that is among the best Audi has ever done. It was certainly a better car then the Maxima I was driving at the time. Now had the E46 been available at the time, it may have been much closer call.
The B5 generation A4 is really the car that pulled Audi out of the woods of unintended acceleration, and put them back on the path to being a first tier luxury brand with BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Stylistically, it was a clean break from the futuristic look created by the 5000, and carried forward in the 100/200 and 80/90 models. While clean and ultra aerodynamic, the look was getting dated by the mid 90s, and more critically, still carried stink of unintended acceleration. The B5 A4 (followed by the C5 A6) set a new, more muscular direction that still holds up well 20 years later.
Like most German cars, it came in with a bewildering combination of options, interior, and exterior color combinations, which meant that I would be special ordering to get what I wanted. Again, I dipped liberally into the option sheet: Bose, leather, power moonroof, heated seats and mirrors, etc. After crunching all the numbers, the lease payment came out to over $600/month, but I didn’t really care because I had to have it.
While the option selection was easy, the color selection was not. Pro car shopper tip: If you are not sure what color to get, look closely at the brochures. Manufacturers labor months over the contents of the brochures, which almost always feature the most flattering color combinations, having been pored over by professional designers. That is how I finally decided on pearl white and black leather, based on some really good photos in the brochure. And as good as the pearl white looked in photos, it looked absolutely stunning in person. It had a depth that photos unfortunately simply do not justice. I was also told that it was a money losing color for Audi because of all the extra time required in the paint booth, which is why it was discontinued on the A4 after 1998.
The Quattro all-wheel drive setup was another revelation, much like the front-wheel drive in the Plymouth Reliant was a decade and a half earlier. My A4 was virtually unstoppable in the snow (which in Northeast Ohio we get a lot of). Indeed, Quattro was known to inspire so much overconfidence that tow truck drivers would refer to winter storms as “Audi Duty Time,” in reference to pulling over confident Audi drivers out of ditches. Luckily I never succumbed to Audi Duty Time. The Quattro system also reaped dividends in the rain, and even in the dry, making sure that the power of the 30V V6 was put to good use, and that I never had to suffer any embarrassing wheel spin.
Speaking of the engine, the 190HP 2.8L 30V was also a gem, with HP and torque specs comparable to the engine in my Maxima, despite being down 200cc of displacement. While the 5-valve per cylinder arrangement would suggest a high-revving engine, it was really more of stump puller, with the 207 ft. lb. torque peak coming at a relatively low 3200 RPM. That didn’t stop me from feeling smug about the 5-valve layout, which was shared with Ferrari and few other cars. The engine, combined with the all-wheel drive, yielded a claimed 0-60 time of 7.4 seconds, very respectable for the day and easily achievable with minimal fuss and wheel spin.
The 5-speed manual, being smooth, easy shifting and having a large meaty knob that one could easily grab, was a huge improvement over the agricultural manual transmission in the Maxima that I complained so much about in my last COAL. The only gripe I had with the powertrain was the clutch, with its characteristic VW high take-up point. To wit: Almost all Japanese cars (including my prior Maxima and both Acuras) have clutches that start engaging once the pedal is barely off the carpet, and then engage very quickly. While a little touchy to learn on (the quick take-up makes it easier to stall), once mastered these style clutches are very fast and make it easy to launch and drive the car quickly. The clutch on the A4 (and Volkswagens in general, I would come to find out) has a take-up point that is much closer to the top of the clutch pedal travel. The first inch or two of pedal travel do nothing, which tends to make the car feel lazy. Worst, the engagement of the clutch is more gradual, which tends to make the car feel even slower still, and frustrate fast driving. While this style of slow clutch if very forgiving to learn on (it is virtually impossible to stall), it does not inspire confidence for spirited driving.
My only other minor disappointment had to do with the unavailability options that were not commonplace in 1998 outside the most expensive cars – navigation, traction control, stability control, and HID Xenon headlights. The latter I was able to resolve by purchasing online a set of Xenon headlights from the German S4 which, at the time, was not sold in the US and was the only A4 variant available with HID headlights. While I paid dearly for them ($1600, as I recall), I was able to sell them for almost what I paid for them several years later when I eventually retired the A4. It was money well-spent: There was literally a night-and-day difference from the stock halogen bulbs, and I have since specified HIDs on almost all the cars I have purchased since.
This A4 is also the first car for which I have digital photos. While some of the early photos are scans of prints, the newer ones were taken in late 2000 with a Kodak DC290 digital camera, which sported a whopping 2 megapixels. It is hard to recall now what a big deal digital photography was back in 2000, but scrolling through this article it is easy to tell which pictures are scans and which are digital.
All in all, I still consider A4 was still one of the best cars I ever owned, and the driving impressions hold up well even after several decades. But where was all this going? My quest for automotive continuous improvement had reached a Pareto plateau, beyond which lied a large expanse of diminishing returns and financial unsustainability. Even small improvement in subjective vehicle quality (A6, 5-series, E-Class, etc.) would require ever-increasing financial commitments.
But more to the point, was my life destined to be a treadmill of working and buying ever more expensive cars? Now that I was in my 30’s, was it time to finally grow up? Come back in two weeks for the surprising answer, after the intermission.