The late ’80s and early ’90s might be my favorite automotive era; my idea of the good ol’ days. Chassis were light and able to boogie, but not yet too heavy, burdened by stability control, or gigantic tires. Engines were strong again, visibility was good and luxury had to do with everything but telematics and navigation systems. My favorite Audis thus came from the period, including this 1991 wagon with the turbo’ed, 20-valve head which was a one-year-only deal.
We’ve covered the C3/Typ44 Audi before, but not any specific model, and the 1991 200 Quattro sedan and, especially, Avant are basically the holy grail for fans of the platform. And usually I don’t borrow too many pics which aren’t of the featured car, but I’ll allow myself to do so this time since my shots were taken from confining angles.
As we know, upon its 1982 debut, the cars inaugurated a design language which defines the company’s sedans to this day. There had been a C2 five door hatch, but this was the car that introduced Audi’s first real midsized wagon.
None since have had as fast a tailgate angle as the C3 did, either, making it unique among Audi estates. Powertrain options were tame at first, with US models getting power from a 2.1 liter straight five and a 140-horsepower 2.1 liter, front-wheel drive, three-speed auto-only turbo.
1986 brought the first round of improvements with flush mounted headlights on US models and a new intercooled, high-boost 2.2 turbo with 158 horsepower, now available with Quattro all-wheel-drive (five-speed only). And check out those wheels, which were some of the most attractive out there.
Unfortunately, this was also the year of the 60 Minutes scandal, occurring right as the model was hitting its stride, sales wise, and at the same time additional additional safety systems like ABS and the ProCon Ten were added, the latter which linked the engine to the steering wheel and seat belts via thick cables. During an accident, these cables would pull the seatbelts tight (like pretensioners) and yank the steering wheel out of the way as the engine was shifted backward.
Buyers nevertheless began staying away, even if by this point, the cars were genuinely exhilarating to drive. A W124 would not have been nearly as fun without the V8 which came after the C3 Audi was replaced and in this size class, only BMW’s 535i provided more thrills behind the wheel, and only for much more money and with much less stability (I’ll concede its superior safety and refinement by 1991, however).
Even with all the bad press, the best was yet to come. By 1988, the non-turbo was given a displacement increase to 2.3 liters, and now had a passable 130 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque to move its 2,800 pounds (3,300 in the new non-turbo Quattro variant). The turbos now made 162 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque to move their 3,400 pounds (3,000 for the auto-only front wheel drive). Top speeds ranged between 120 and 135, owing to excellent aerodynamics, with sixty achieved in less than eight seconds for the turbo variants.
My favorite models, aesthetically speaking, would be the 87 and 88 5000 CS turbo quattros, as I like the original turbo interior better. It was stark and had no wood trim, but it was very unique and high-tech looking (for its day). Plus, I prefer the original VAG parts-bin switchgear and, as I mentioned, the five-spoke wheels.
In 1989, the 5000 was renamed the 100/200 and facelifted with flush door handles and a new interior, which finally included wood trim.
This was definitely a step forward in quality and ambience, despite my preference for the more H.R. Geiger-inspired (believe it or not, that’s a compliment) original. The establishment of Audi’s reputation for truly opulent interiors began around this time.
With continually declining popularity, the cars were becoming well-kept secrets, and in a way, that meant that Audi’s five-cylinder turbo, manual-transmission centric approach to performance was less of a consequence as multi-valve sixes and V8s hit the scene. The buyers who kept coming back were a self-selecting bunch and Audi rewarded them for their loyalty with even more dramatic improvements.
The biggest of these was the addition of a multi-valve cylinder head for the final-year 1991 turbo quattro, which can be identified by flared wheel arches, with full openings for the rear wheels seen here.
This gave the car genuine 150 mph capability and sub seven second 0-60 times, with 217 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 228 lb-ft torque available at 1,950 rpm. With a low, low compression ratio of 7.7:1, that meant that judicious tuning of engine management and a smallish snail ensured an even spread of power while taking advantage of the well-breathing cylinder head. As these are famously stout engine blocks, more power can safety obtained without grenading the engine. Drivetrain components are stout as well; it’s the electronics which go bad on these cars.
The soft leather used in these cars doesn’t hold up as well as it could, though the very tender material used in Volvos and Saabs is even more fragile in the long term. That means this wagon has received a reasonable amount of care. Compared to the likes of Saab’s well regarded 9000 Turbo, this car’s closest competitor (in my mind), the Audi doesn’t score as well in terms of passive safety or all-out blistering performance, but it excels in its ability to get power down in all conditions. And while its chassis may not be quite as sharp, its balance is superior, and feel through the controls, heftier.
A short-lived Audi innovation was the “UFO” front disc brake. Rather than having to resort to bigger wheels for more swept area on a larger rotor, the system placed the caliper inside a rotor which wrapped around it. So while the surface area of the rotor itself didn’t change, the amount of useful friction surface increased.
This shot, on which I adjusted contrast and exposure, shows the way the rotors looked behind the openings in the wheel. Almost like a steel wheel hiding behind a plastic wheel cover.
Here’s what the system actually looked like. With smaller calipers and a thinner rotor, unsprung weight might’ve been lower and heat dissipation was reportedly superior as well. Unfortunately warping of the $200 rotors was a frequent issue. The Audi V8, derived from the C3 chassis, was the first model to use the system, along with later 200 Quattros, like our featured Avant, and early versions of the C4 with the turbo’ed five (that is, the original S4), which was the 200’s spiritual successor. Many cars have since had their UFO front brakes replaced with conventional units, but that requires changing the hub carrier, so many other cars have remained as the one seen here.