With record sales and an expanding lineup of luxury-performance vehicles, many of which have been met with widespread praise, Audi has been on a significant upswing in recent years. While its U.S. sales remain only about one-half that of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, there is little doubt that Audi has become a respected world-class luxury brand, capable of competing with the best from Stuttgart and Munich, even outdoing and outselling these brands in certain categories. But in North America at least, it wasn’t too long ago that the future looked a lot bleaker for Deutschland’s four-ringed luxury brand.
It’s common knowledge that in the late-1980s, Audi fell victim to a notorious 60 Minutes special highlighting unintended acceleration allegations that in reality were mostly a result of driver error. But that didn’t stop the once-reputable 60 Minutes filming an “actual example” of an Audi 5000 failing to slow when the brake pedal was applied. It would later be discovered that the 60 Minutes demonstration was staged and completely bogus, but the damage to Audi’s reputation had already been done. Sales plummeted (from a high of 74,000 in 1985 to a low of just 12,000 by 1991), resale values evaporated, and Audi was almost forced to retreat from the North American market entirely.
As a result of the scandal, Audis from this early-90s dark era are significantly hard to find and less sought-after today than those of other European luxury brands. It isn’t that they are inferior cars in any way, but scarcity of parts and general knowledge make for less enthusiasm than similar-era German cars. It’s cars like this well-worn 1993 Audi 90 that are the few relics left of Audi’s less formidable years.
The 1991-1996 Audi 90 would be the final evolution of the Audi 80, which had first been introduced in 1966. Released for model years 1992 in Europe and 1993 in North America, this “B4” fourth generation was actually a heavily re-engineered of the B3 (aka “Typ 89“) that arrived for the European market in 1986 as an ’87 model.
Riding on a two-inch longer wheelbase, Audi’s smallest car was visually very similar to its predecessor. A new, more aggressive front fascia was the most prominent external change; other than that, the B4 could have easily been mistaken for a B3. While this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Audi’s conservative designs typically age well, the 90’s styling didn’t make any statements, and bore a strong resemblance to non-luxury cars like the Subaru Legacy and VW Group’s own Passat.
Interiors have always been a strong point for Audi, and the 1993 90 was no exception. Even in Audi’s entry-level model, high-quality plastics, fine-stitched leather, and genuine wood accents were to be found throughout. As far as design was concerned, things were beginning to look a tad dated though, as little had changed from the vintage-1986 B3’s interior.
The pearl white leather of this car has seen better days, but aside from being deprived of a good cleaning, the rest of the interior has held up rather nicely. It’s worth noting that these thickly-bolstered contoured buckets were the Audi 90’s standard thrones. Entry-level BMW and Mercedes sedans only received seats similar to this as part of extra-cost sport trim levels and packages.
For 1993, the Audi 90 lineup consisted of three models: the 90 S, 90 CS, and 90 CS Quattro. Non-Quattro models, were of course, front-wheel drive and the Quattro featured Audi’s noteworthy all-wheel drive. All trim levels featured items such as power windows, power locks, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with cassette player, leather-wrapped steering wheel, air conditioning, driver’s side airbag, and ABS – all expected convenience and safety features for a car in the 90’s class.
Cloth seats were standard in the base S model, while leather came standard in CS trim. The CS also added features including automatic climate control, power moonroof, power driver’s seat, remote keyless entry, and for the Quattro, unique 10-spoke alloy wheels.
As typical of most German cars, a multitude of gasoline and diesel engines were available in Europe (in the 90’s case, twelve). All 90s destined for North American, however, came equipped with a single engine, a 2.8 liter V6. The 90’s most powerful naturally-aspirated engine in Europe, the 2.8L was good for 172 horsepower and 184 pound-foot of torque. A 5-speed manual was standard with all trims, and a 4-speed automatic optional.
In recent years, many Audi models have proven to be somewhat of a value, having both a greater amount of standard features and a lower price tag than their German competition. Audi’s modern ancestor to the 90, the A4 particularly comes to mind in regards to this.
The B4 90 largely adhered to this practice, as the 90 S began at $26,650 and topped out at just over $34,000 for a fully-loaded CS Quattro, including the extra-cost automatic transmission and heated seats.
For comparison, a less powerful 1993 BMW 318i started at less than $24,000, with the 189-horsepower 325i starting at just a few hundred dollars more than the 90 CS. The 1993 Mercedes 190E began at just under $29,000 for the base 2.3L I4, while cars with the 158-horsepower 2.6L V6 began at a loftier $34,000. It’s successor for 1994, the C-Class would be priced similar, at $29,900 for the C220 and $34,900 for the 194-horsepower C280. Keep in mind that these are base prices, and do not include many of the options that were standard on the 90.
It’s no secret that total sales of this final-generation Audi 90 were relatively minuscule. Given Audi’s damaged reputation, conservative designs, and lack of established prestige, the brand was still a few years away from posing a serious threat to Mercedes and BMW. Despite the B4’s minor updates, it was largely the same design that was introduced in 1986. Especially with brand new 3-Series (E36) and C-Class (W202) designs appearing in the early-1990s, Audi’s entry-level sedan looked relatively staid in comparison.
Given the car’s aging architecture and Audi’s still-shaky fortunes in the U.S., it was wise of the German automaker to replace the 90 in relatively short time. Production of the 90 sedan began to wind down in late-1994, with European-market Avant wagon production continuing a little longer. The 90 convertible, sold in North America simply as the “Audi Cabriolet”, continued production through the 2000 model year, by that point looking very outdated compared to newer Audi designs. The 90’s all-new successor would be known as the Audi A4, and was released as a 1995 model in Europe and a 1996 model in North America.
With an all-new platform, sleek styling, and overall modernity compared to the 90, the A4 is largely credited with turning Audi’s fortunes around and greatly increasing the brand’s overall sales in North America. While forgotten by most people today, there are still a few examples of the B4 90 out there, reminding us of Audi’s uncertain purgatory years in the early 1990s.