COAL #9: 1991 Audi 200 20V – How Fast Do You Want To Go?

The 1991 Audi 200 20V was a limited production, high performance sports sedan made for one year only.  It was the precursor to the Audi UrS4 & UrS6 models, which were based on the redesigned C4 chassis.

Here I was in a healthy relationship with a perfectly good 1987 Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro, and yet I had lust in my heart for another vehicle.

Forgive me Father, for I will sin…

It was 1994 and I’d been faithful to my 1987 5000CS Turbo Quattro (TQ), but I had been bitten by the 200 20V bug real bad.  I’m a pretty logical guy, but like a lover that you can’t get out of your head, my thoughts and emotions were being controlled by someone or something else.  And with fewer than 1,200 200 20V’s ever imported into the US, the odds of me fulfilling my obsession were not high.  Like those rare individuals in a relationship with a supermodel with a great personality, people knew what a rarity they had and were much less likely to move on to other affections.

So what was this car that I was smitten with, and how was it different than any other run of the mill Audi?  And why wasn’t it just an updated version of my TQ?

The 1991 200 20V was a one year only model with modifications to the body, engine and brakes that make it a unique unicorn that blends in rather than calling attention to itself.

Some cars, like people, scream “LOOK AT ME!”, whether it be through bro-dozer lift kits, rolling coal, or obnoxiously loud exhaust systems.  Some vehicles and owners demand attention, and whether the attention is good or bad doesn’t really matter, because ATTENTION WHORE!!

In business, politics or personal life, we all know examples of those that MUST BE SEEN because they’re the best – in everything!  Of these some would say that their mouth is writing checks that their body or intellect can’t cash.  In Texas they might be dismissed as “All hat, no cattle”.

On the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt said “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.  These are the people that you don’t find out until years later that they had been helping the struggling family down the street, or received a Purple Heart during the war, or had amassed a fortune with no one noticing.

The Audi 200 20V was definitely like the later, not the former.  On the outside, the 20V was characterized by larger, open wheel wells and flared fenders to accept larger wheels and tires.  It was also devoid of any unique badging, with only the four rings and a quattro badge on the grill and four rings on the trunk lid – that’s it.  No “200” or “20V”, no “DOHC” or “Turbocharged”, no “Fuel Injected” or “Intercooled”, no Audi “S” or “Sport” anywhere on the vehicle.

It was like mild mannered Clark Kent walking in the big city – anonymous until he needed not to be.

Popping the hood showed that there was something different to this car, as it had a fuel injected, turbocharged, intercooled, DOHC four valve per cylinder engine descended from Audi’s famed rally and Trans Am teams.  Wait, American Trans Am series?  What?  Yeah, let’s get to that in a minute…

Audi released their first five cylinder engine in 1976 as a single overhead cam version in various states of tune.  By 1984, they had decided to get serious about performance and developed a DOHC, four valve per cylinder cross flow head with versions for both the street and racing.

This DOHC motor was rated at 306 horsepower for the street and 720+ hp for racing – all from 2.1 liters.  That same year the Corvette’s top engine was a 205 hp 5.7 liter engine, so the Audi was not exactly a slouch.  But, of course, we in the US can’t have nice things, so the DOHC motor was race only in the US in its initial years.

Most of you may be aware of Audi’s racing exploits in its rally cars, but do you know that Audi also raced its big 200 20V sedan in the American Trans Am series?

It was 1988, and Audi entered Trans Am racing using its little 2.1 liter DOHC motor and Quattro drivetrain against the traditional American cars.  It didn’t win its first race, but it did win its second.  The team was a fast learner though, eventually winning 8 of the 13 races in that unprecedented first season.

Other teams complained mightily, and the cars were even handicapped by rule changes mid-season to no avail.  By the end of the season, Audi had won the Manufacturer’s Championship, the Driver’s Championship, and promptly got banned from Trans Am racing for winning too much.  So what’s the next move?

For 1991, Audi took its 200 sedan, flared the fenders, stripped the badges off and dropped in a detuned version of the DOHC engine rated at 217 hp at 5,700 rpm and 227 lbs. of torque at only 1950 rpm.  It was called the “20 valve” (20V) as it had four valves per cylinder on five cylinders, hence the DOHC 20V.  They also threw in their UFO brakes for increased stopping power and – wait, what?  UFO brakes?

Audi’s UFO brakes were another innovation, but slightly less successful than its 20V motor.  They earned the nickname “UFO” as they looked like those grainy pictures of UFO’s you see at AREA 51 conventions or old science fiction movies.

Today, it’s not unusual for cars to be equipped with 18”, 20” or even 22” wheels and tires.  These are not just the latest visual fad, but also have the practical advantage of allowing larger brakes to be fitted if desired.  Larger wheels were not readily available in the late 80’s, so Audi developed its own high performance braking solution.

Audi’s engineers basically turned a disc brake system inside out to allow for a larger disc with significantly greater swept area in the same size wheel.  UFO brake calipers grabbed a disc from the interior of the wheel facing the outward edge, versus a normal caliper clamping from the outside towards the center.  This design had been used on jet aircraft, but never on an automobile subjected to stop and go driving.  A thorough explanation of the system would be worthy of a Brakes Of A Lifetime series – but this isn’t that series, so let’s go with another picture, as a picture is worth a thousand words.

This system allowed Audi to “boldly go where no brakes had gone before”, fitting 12.2 inch brakes where only 11 inches had previously been. They provided terrific stopping power and were a great improvement…until they got too hot and warped.  Parts were expensive (think $2,000 brake jobs) and owners began complaining about the frequent replacements required to keep the system operating well.  Eventually Audi relented and offered a replacement to owners whereby dealers removed the troublesome high performance system and installed a normal carrier, disc and calipers.

So, it was 1994 and I was salivating craving lusting intrigued by the technology and unicorn status of the 200 20V.  Audi offered a current version of the car in its UrS4 guise, but the styling of the newer generation cars left me cold (apologies to our resident UrS4 aficionados).  I had been faithful to my TQ but it was obvious that my heart was elsewhere.

With the limited number imported into the US, it wasn’t like I could just hop down to the local Buy Here, Pay Here lot and pick one up.  Fortunately, the miracle of the internet was with us and I eventually found one that was brought to Colorado from Washington state.  There were not a great variety of colors, and this had the optional Pearlescent White paint.  Although I’d never particularly wanted a white car, beggars can’t be choosers, and this really wasn’t a normal white.  It was a real head turner though, and I’m just glad that I was never in an accident that would have required any repainting or color matching.

The car looked good, drove well and was fast as stink.  Turbocharged Audi’s (and other cars now) have a history of being tunable via computer chip and/or turbocharger replacements to unlock increased levels of performance.  This one had been modified and tuned north of 300 hp, redlining at 7,100 rpm, while still remaining tractable and easy to drive.  With maximum torque at 1950 rpm, there was virtually no lag when you pressed the throttle, and the car seemed to pick up its skirt and just flat out fly.  Even in a tuned state, the five cylinder was known for its robustness, as far higher horsepower levels were used in racing versions.  And, unlike some popular Japanese makes (I’m looking at you Mitsubishi), high boost levels did not result in rotating parts blasting through the confines of the engine block for their freedom.

Audi was serious about keeping everything together, as a peek behind the front valance showed the normal radiator, but also a heavy duty engine oil cooler, hydraulic system cooler and twin air ducts for the brakes.  Not exactly the norm for your average grocery getter.  Oh, did someone mention “grocery getter”?

The 20V was also offered in an Avant version (Audi speak for station wagon), a unique and attractive shape among US station wagons.  Fortunately, being able to haul groceries at 150 mph meant that you never had to worry about ice cream melting before you got home.

The interior of the 20V had also been revised, smoothed and upgraded from my earlier TQ, and it looked every bit like a car that cost $42,400 new.  The only available option was the Pearlescent paint, which I believe was $900, resulting in a selling price of $43,300 – only $83,161 in 2020 dollars.  With a price like that, how could they not sell like hotcakes?

Instrumentation was large and complete.  In addition to the normal speedometer, tachometer, fuel quantity and water temperature, you also had oil temperature, oil pressure and voltmeter.  It’s personal preference of course, but the 20V has one of my favorite instrument panels, as the gauges were large, easily legible and executed with style.

Real wood graced the instrument panel and doors, and the gearshift for the five speed transmission fell easily to hand.  Everything was covered in leather of course, and the seats were grippy and comfortable for all day driving.  The rear seat had a fold down center armrest with a covered ski pass-through from the trunk, but the rear seats did not fold down on the C3 chassis.  The trunk was large, deep and wide; perfect for carrying everything except a step ladder or lumber.

The 20V had stabilizer bars front and rear and had a different personality than the TQ did.  Audi had added a Torsen differential to the drivetrain that normally sent power 50/50 to the front and rear of the vehicle, but could send up to 75% to the end with the most traction.  This meant that you had be careful on snowy surfaces, as you could provoke the rear end to come out like a rear wheel drive car.  Audi still provided a button to lock the differential at low speeds in poor traction conditions.

On the flip side, once the car took a set on mountain curves you could apply liberal amounts of throttle and it just dug deeper.  It was also fairly light for a large sedan, weighing in at only 3,400 pounds or so, so the power to weight ratio was…impressive.

Whereas the TQ’s electrics seemed to be gremlin infested, fragile and ready to go “poof” at any time, the 20V was rock solid and didn’t cause any problems.  I mostly just did normal maintenance on the car, upgrading struts and that sort of thing, except for having the turbo fail one day at 126,000 miles.  I found a company in the neighboring town of Golden (home of Coors beer) that specialized in repairing turbochargers, so I removed the offending part, had them work their magic, reinstalled it and never had a problem again.

The car drove beautifully whether in the city or on the highway, and returned mileage of 19-24 mpg, depending on how far your foot was into the throttle.  I generally lean on the side of economy, so being able to consistently get 22+ MPG was great for my pocketbook.

At the passing of my best friend’s mother, I needed to make a quick trip back to California for her funeral.  I left Denver mid-afternoon and stopped for the night in St George, Utah.  Leaving early the next morning, I pulled on to a deserted Interstate 15.  I didn’t see another car even after driving for miles, so I thought “why not?”

Now kids, listen to your Uncle Ed/Mister Rogers here and don’t try this at home, OK?  Always wear your bike helmet and seat belts, look both ways when crossing the street, don’t smoke cigarettes and never do drugs, OK?  Aren’t you glad that we had this little talk?

When accelerating, the 20V had a freight train like feel, and it didn’t seem to matter much if you were at 30, 60, 90 or 120 mph.  Due to its slick aerodynamics, the standard 20V was rated for a 150 mph top speed, and this one had 50% more power.  The car accelerated…briskly…and the 7,100 redline provided the engine with a lot of room to run.  Acceleration was still strong in 5th gear, and I came off the throttle at over twice the posted limit – still accelerating and without seeing the car’s absolute maximum.  It didn’t take long to get to speed and was as drama free and buttoned down as I could hope, as the car just hunkered down without a hint of float or lightness.  It truly was a car that could comfortably cruise at 140-150 mph with more in reserve.  And yes, the car was properly equipped with speed rated tires.  And no, I don’t make a habit of high speed driving, except for that one time on I-15….

The car was reliable and “fit” me well, as it could be efficient, high performance or just luxurious depending on one’s mood.  The rarity of the car meant that I could go a year without seeing another, and then might see one if I visited Aspen or Telluride.  Owners tended to understand what they had and held on to them.

I had originally moved to Denver to start an automotive battery distribution business with a partner.  Our product line had a unique construction and a six year warranty – unprecedented in 1992.  Within the first year of operation however, our manufacturer suddenly declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy – unwelcome surprise!  It was a great product, but we didn’t feel comfortable continuing to sell the product without a dependable manufacturer to back up the long warranty.  We licked our wounds, wrote a bunch of checks and closed our doors.

With significant costs to close the business and another mouth to feed on the way at home, I had to figure out something for a career and fast.  I’d already abandoned the corporate life, so I got my real estate license and have been blessed in that field ever since.

By the late 90’s however, fitting my workflow into the car had become increasingly difficult.  There were no cup holders, and no google maps, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, so steering, shifting or even talking on a headset made it seem like I was short a few hands to do everything.  I really needed an automatic again, and the available choices left me…wanting.

As the calendar flipped to a new century, I finally found a car that could take the place of the 20V, one that also had an automatic transmission.  Unfortunately, it was also brand new so there were no used examples for purchase.  The year 2000 would see me finally break down and buy my first and only new car.

The 200 20V is the one car that I miss the most, as it did everything well for the time; it was my life that had changed, not the car.  At 188,000 miles, I sold the 20V to another enthusiast, and I expect that it’s still making its owner smile today.  But the truth is, if my garage wasn’t full, I’d own it again in a heartbeat.

Ordering a new car was exciting, but the wait for production and shipping seemed interminable.  I felt just like a kid waiting on Christmas morning with anticipation – but that’s a story best told in another COAL…