As CC’s resident biggest fan of the Audi Quattro Turbo Coupe of the early 1980s, I had a chunk of alternate reality hit me on a recent trip to the ‘yard. While well aware of AMC’s Eagle 4WD offerings which we’ve covered here many times I never really considered the two door coupe/hatchback version and its similarity conceptually to the famed Audi.
Interestingly, both cars were initially released for sale in their home markets in late 1980, have a similar layout, and both ended up on the rally circuit. To boot, the AMC vastly outsold the hand-built Audi by almost 3:1 although it was only offered for three years instead of the eleven of the Audi. Today, this variant of the AMC is largely forgotten with the Eagle wagon getting most of the remaining glory while the Audi is a genuine collector car trading for ever-increasing sums of money.
AMC introduced the Eagle sedan and wagon for the 1980 model year, this coupe/liftback version (that was based on the Spirit, itself with Gremlin roots) debuted a year later. This example is an early model (serial #3681) and obviously hasn’t been particularly cherished in many years. Available with a four cylinder or an inline six, it of course didn’t have quite the performance chops of the turbocharged 5-cylinder Audi but just like it came with fulltime AWD (later in the year a switch enabling 2WD was added to the AMC), enabling it to traverse most any adverse road conditions as well as off-road to an extent limited by ground clearance and maneuverability. Interestingly for competition use the Audi eventually spawned a shortened Sport model that reduced the wheelbase significantly, my writeup of my experience driving one spawned a comment likening its looks to a Gremlin…
In reality the Audi was aimed at the sort of upper crust Euro crowd and with a base price of well over $30k in US 1981 dollars was well out of reach of most shoppers, priced around what a Porsche 911 started at and quickly became a press darling, and of course the Group B rally pedigree didn’t hurt. The AMC on the other hand cost around $7,500, less than a quarter of that, and saw some success competed in SCCA Production Class rallying here in North America. Both cars did in fact compete against each other in several rallies although I am not aware of the AMC ever besting the Audi. Had I been of an age and means wherein I could afford an Audi Quattro in the early 1980s I surely would have purchased one. The AMC on the other hand was not even on my radar. Oh, the blinders of youth.
Of course they aren’t really comparable (or am I just being a bit elitist?), perhaps a better phrasing is that they didn’t compete in the marketplace. Still, the basic idea is astounding to have germinated with an ocean between them at right around the same time and with roughly the same engineering concepts put into play. Ferdinand Piëch of Audi is lauded for being the genius behind the Quattro (which frankly is responsible for much of Audi’s current success), but the name Roy Lunn would likely have many gearheads (certainly those outside of North America) asking “who?”; he was AMC’s chief engineer and put forward the in hindsight brilliant idea, while AMC as a company didn’t survive the decade.
The grille of this one is sadly gone (along with various other parts) but the four quad headlamps are the same size and placement as those of the Audi. The hood opens the same way. Many parts of the car are also shared with various other AMC models, just like many parts of the Audi were, with both being amalgamations of much existing on the shelf componentry. Let’s look a little closer under the hood, shall we?
That’s no rip-snorting turbocharged inline-5 like the Audi, but it is the inline-6 variant that was an option on this car with the I-4 being the standard. While the Audi initially produced 200hp in Euro trim, neutered to about 160hp for US consumption, the AMC engines produced either 87hp for the Iron Duke 4 (yes, still the GM engine in ’81) or 110hp for the I-6 example seen here. Note that the AMC six displaced 4.2 liters, exactly twice that of the Audi I-5, which then of course comes in over the top with a KKK turbocharger to produce a whole hill of beans.
Still, this engine managed to also produce 200lb-ft of torque compared to the Audi’s 170lb-ft. Although the Eagle’s 3200lb weight is about 150 more than that of the Audi, the Audi is still significantly faster to 60mph (7.8 vs a lethargic 12.9 seconds) as well as in terms of top speed (122 vs 97mph). Around town, while the Audi suffers from some lag issues and apparently atrocious gearing especially between second third gears, I’d guess the AMC is actually fairly tractable, especially being equipped with a four speed manual as this one is, just ride the torque in second or third.
The SX/4 is a true liftback whereas the Audi just looks like one (it has a trunk). Both cars have a fairly large spoiler although this one’s is mostly missing. Full width taillights are always a nice touch that please my aesthetic senses especially at night.
Opening that up displays a fairly shallow cargo area as opposed to the Audi’s capacious and deep trunk. Still, with folding rear seats this car has the edge in usability as far as carrying cargo is concerned.
The Audi has a large set of interlocking rings decaled behind its front door edge, the Eagles tend to have Eagle logos on the B-pillar. Interestingly while the Eagle wagon’s medallions are rectangular, the SX/4s are circular, curious that AMC would tool up for both variants.
I do love the AMC logo placed in the middle of the side reflectors, what a great touch.
I’ll be somewhat snobby and declare the Audi to have a more modern interior, but realistically it was just as plasticky as this with perhaps even less warmth. The Audis with cloth (velour) interiors featured a sort of zebra-stripe patterning, but over here most were leather-clad – albeit still with a diagonal stripe pattern for funkiness’ sake. The steering wheel here is aftermarket and I don’t think hails from Momo or Nardi. Perhaps the Boys of Pep or the Zone of Auto are responsible for it, I don’t know. The Audi had zero wood trim inside, real or faux. Just hard plastic.
It’s hard to see through the filth but 1980s velour-clad seats are usually quite cossetting as it probably was with these. A little more bolstering would perhaps be welcome, however at least they have high backs.
There’s what remains of the stick shift, the knob absconded probably decades ago, no center console so lots of room to manspread, and the parcel shelf under the glovebox is handy. And look, it’s my old friend, the glovebox knob featured in everything from Chevrolet to Cadillac which I love to harp on in the latter’s case and making a guest appearance here on the AMC channel!
The gauge cluster is reasonably complete and actually bests the high-falutin’ Audi in one respect in that it features a water temperature gauge. The Audi’s was actually replaced by a boost gauge in the spot formerly occupied by it and added an idiot light for the temperature. This here isn’t at all terrible for the era, certainly better than the efforts of many other domestics of the time.
I doubt any Audi ever had a set of “Cruisin'” graphics across its flanks but perhaps somewhere deep in Hungary or one of the former Soviet republics an equivalent exists, Europe is just as guilty as America in terms of questionable graphics at times. No box fenders here as on the Audi, but a healthy set of fender flares work almost as well.
For $7,500 in 1981, I can perhaps see the appeal, back then it was much more likely for someone to need to actually experience the benefits of AWD on gravel, wet or snowy tarmac rather than just being sold on it as a matter of course. The raised ride height of the Eagle lineup likely did as much as anything else to convince people of the capability, of course nowadays such a thing is de rigueur for most anything to move out of a showroom, and this isn’t that different from the current Subaru Crosstrek for example.
While the SX/4 got off to a very strong start with over 17,000 sold its first year, that tailed off rather quickly. With only a little over 10,000 seeing owners in 1982 and just over 2,000 for 1983 it was quietly taken out behind the shed while the Eagle wagon variant especially kept on soldiering along. With a rallying pedigree/history (albeit something virtually nobody in North America followed in the early 1980s) this could have been a bigger success had it been marketed more, but it was not to be, whereas the Audi has achieved automotive immortality. A continent apart, but curiously similar, two brothers from different mothers.