Audi – Always the Pretender?

And What Is Wrong With Putting the Engine in Front of the Wheels?Auto Union Type C

Audi are in danger of becoming the Phil Collins of the petrolhead world, an act that even people who know little about music like to cite as being a bit off. Speaking as someone who can, hand on heart, swear that he has no murky Genesis related skeletons in his youthful musical vinyl rack and hopes he’ll never hear Against All Odds on the radio again, I’d judge that Mr Collins is no worse than many, and better than scores. Changing fashion means that he has just become a lazy symbol for bad comedians and the generally undiscerning to latch on to in order to suggest, quite undeservedly, their musical connoisseurship. Likewise Audi. In bars and on motoring websites everywhere, you will hear the drone of “overrated and overpriced …. style over content …. they’re all designed on a photocopier …. no driver involvement ….. they’ll never really be premier league until they go rear drive”. Is any of this justified?

DKW F4
The DKW F4

To begin, I might make the following three points concerning Audi.

Point 1. They have heritage. They are not uninvited arrivistes at the same table as Mercedes and BMW. In 1960 they were making a full, uncompromised five seater family car entirely of their own design whilst BMW were making do with a derivative of an Isetta bubble car. They can also claim the longest loyalty to front wheel drive, with a direct lineage going back to 1931.

Point 2. Of those bar room bores who claim that ‘real’ cars are rear driven, some might know what they are talking about, but most don’t. Getting the tail out can be fun but it doesn’t suit many and, please be honest, it doesn’t suit today’s road conditions and you shouldn’t really do it with friends and family on board. The car a responsible mass manufacturer should be making is one that is predictable and starts, corners and stops well in the widest range of foreseeable conditions. Enthusiast based road tests gloss over the limitations of powerful rear drivers with phrases such as ‘ … need to be a bit more circumspect in the wet” and “ …. hampered by a lack of snow chains in an unexpected blizzard”. By all means choose rear drive if it suits, but don’t assume that a manufacturer who avoids it is a fool or a cheapskate.

Point 3. I own an Audi. It’s a 1996 S6 Avant in Nogaro Blue with matching upholstery. It has the quattro system and a 2.2 litre 5 cylinder turbo. It’s a bit of a rough thing, not because it is old (it is actually in excellent condition) but because it was probably always that way. Nevertheless it is fast, comfortable, spacious and has a distinctive character. I had meant to own it for only a few months, but I’m now well into my fourth year since I have become very attached to it, despite it’s profligate thirst.

Audi 03

I make the third point only to confront early any suggestions of bias. You now probably take me as a committed Audiphile. Not so. I think that many modern Audis are perfectly worthwhile cars that suit a wide variety of people. I would happily recommend one to a friend whose driving style and budget I thought it would complement. Personally speaking though, contemporary Audis don’t move me much. Even historically, there are a handful I might be willing to buy secondhand, but it’s a baby’s handful – primarily an RS2 Avant or a 100 Coupe which would each please two contrasting sides of me.

It is how Audis came to be the way they are technically that interests me. Most of their vaunted Vorsprung durch Technik seems to have come about through opportunism forced on them by stubborn policies and most of the flaws that people identify are for the same reason.

DKW 3 Cylinder 2 Stroke
DKW 3 Cylinder 2 Stroke

Audi’s engine location is the result of its heritage which, as I said, is an effectively unbroken, though slightly complex one. The original Audi name was used on larger cars before the Second World War, but today’s cars are more directly descended from the smaller DKW products that were also produced by the Auto Union group at the same time. Although DKW stood for Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (steam driven car) the firm actually never got such a device past prototype stage, specialising in 2 stroke powered devices instead. The DKW F1 introduced in 1931 set the pattern for over 30 years with a two stroke engine driving the front wheels. After various models, the War split the firm with IFA, then Wartburg taking over the technical mantle in East Germany and a re-formed Auto Union producing the DKW in West Germany. In the West, bodies evolved from the separate wings of pre-War cars, though the curved lines of the DKW 3=6 / Auto Union 1000 (that reflected the styles of both the Beetle and Morris Minor but made both look dumpy) to, finally, the three box shape of the F102. By the early Sixties, two-stroke engines were becoming untenable so, in 1965, the Audi name was revived with the 72 derived directly from the near identical looking F102 but, instead of that car’s light 3 cylinder 2 stroke sticking out the front of the gearbox, an all-new, heavier 4 cylinder 4 stroke engine was fitted in its place. Audi got away with this but, with hindsight, this was the point at which they might have started asking themselves if this was really the way to go. Look today at the 72 and you can see how its styling has morphed subtly, generation after generation, to become the A4 we know today. Although I greatly admire those manufacturers who make quantum leaps, chucking away the past, such as Ford with the first Focus, I also like those ones, like Porsche and Audi who keep a continuity.

Following the success of the 72 and its variants Audi became more ambitious, starting what became a long drawn out move upmarket. First, in 1968, it produced the larger 100 model. With the next 100, in 1976, it needed to fit a more powerful engine. Audi 100Back then, the normal answer to this would be to stretch that 4 cylinder into a 6 cylinder but, because of Audi’s engine location, that would have put far too much out front, so the pragmatic answer was a straight 5. Five is not a natural number of cylinders for an engine. Though Audi didn’t invent the format, they produced the first production 5 cylinder petrol engined car, and how fortuitous that was. Audi’s five was far from the unsatisfactory compromise you might have supposed when first hearing about it. It had a distinctive sound and a nice burble, all of its own and responded well to turbocharging. And when you have a straight 5, why not double it to a V10. The Audi V10 lives on, notably in Lamborghinis, but the longitudinally mounted straight 5 is, regrettably, no more, replaced by competent, but predictable V engines.

Once you have the more powerful engine, road behaviour becomes all the more critical. It used to be taken that front drive was only suitable for relatively lowly powered vehicles but, by the time the 5 cylinder came along, Citroen had shown with the SM that you could easily accommodate getting on for 200bhp through the front wheels, but that was with the engine behind the wheels – the pedantically named front mid-engined format. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of physics to know that a big weight in the nose of a car makes it difficult to change direction at corners, though Audi isn’t alone in having a heavy engine mounted ahead of the wheels in a front wheel drive car. Many cars have in the past, including such notable fine handlers as the Alfasud and Lancia Gamma. However, one of these had a small engine and both were, tellingly, flat fours, shorter and with low centres of gravity. As the five became more powerful the engine placement finally became a liability and Audi’s answer to this was to look in-house at the VW Iltis military vehicle, in fact an Audi based 4WD jeep, and apply that engineering to a road car to produce their Quattro system. Of course, the positioning of the engine and transmission had made its adaptation to 4WD, by just taking a drive off the rear of the gearbox back to the rear wheels, a relatively easy process.

ur Quattro
Always Way Out Front

From the original 80 Coupe base that became the first Quattro, this has spread across Audi’s own spreading range and they now produce a wealth of Quattro models, generally performance biased. Some of these get grudgingly good reviews in the press but, frequently, they disappoint those looking for fun. Like Porsche and the 911, having weathered a period where it probably wasn’t the best idea, Audi can probably persist with its eccentricity. Engine location has become much less of a problem and there are cheaper electronic alternatives to 4wd for keeping lesser variants in line. Also, in recent years, a new transmission has allowed the engine to be shifted back a bit and I very rarely see Audis stuffed through hedges. Whether the curiously lifeless steering is still necessary is a different matter though, on the subject of steering feel, it can be argued that 96% of drivers wouldn’t know what to do with the messages they receive.

At some time they have been aware of the dynamic shortcomings of their vehicles. Having owned both my current Audi and a Mondeo V6 of the same vintage, I can testify that, if you stripped away the 4WD and that unique engine, the base 100/A6 of the mid 90s is a very ordinary thing dynamically compared to the Ford – not as sure footed, not as comfortable not as entertaining. Obviously Audi agreed, since they are supposed to have tried, unsuccessfully, to woo the brilliant Richard Parry-Jones away from Ford. But then again, there is the suggestion that there is a fixed idea as to how an Audi should behave and that dead steering now seems to be accepted proudly by Audi as being part of its essential character. In terms of actual engineering, Audiness is a flexible thing for a company that sits within VAG. As it entered the 1970s, Volkswagen was still having trouble breaking free from variants of the Beetle and the original Passat was just an opportunistic hatchback version of the Audi 80. Then came an on-off tussle between VW’s desire for a transverse engined Passat and Audi’s refusal to countenance such for its similarly sized 80/A4 model. The Passat has seemed to oscillate between transverse and longitudinal, but the A4 stayed doggedly in line. The original DKW heritage really lives on in the A4, A6 and A8 models. The A3 and TT have always been more VW than Audi, and though branded ‘Quattro’, their 4WD system is more VW than Audi. The Q7 owes much to the Toureg and Cayenne. The A1 is a hugely disappointing thing, especially when you consider the A2.

Audi 100 C3

For quite a while, Audi was the German equivalent of France’s Citroen, Sweden’s Saab and Italy’s Lancia. Almost a classless image, certainly the cerebral choice. This was at its height in the 80s with the C3 model 100, with its vaunted low CD figure and the Quattro, a sports car that embraced boxiness. Should they have stayed like this? Well, look at Saab, Lancia and Citroen today. The swansong of logic over market was the A2 of 1999, a car still greatly admired, and appreciated by its owners, but a financial folly for Audi. Cerebral doesn’t sell any more. So whilst the idealists at Audi were in their laboratory, tweaking the A2, the pragmatists at Audi were intent on finally nailing Audi to that top table. Audi Q7Subtle and understated were not for the 21st Century and in came the big, hungry grille gobbling you up in your rear-view mirror, the S-Line option delivering instant sportiness by making a mediocre ride rock hard, V10 engined uber-estates for going nowhere very fast and the supersize-me Q7 to keep you safe on the school run. Fortunately, Audi at least managed to avoid getting into a totally deluded stylistic rut like Mercedes, remaining, relatively speaking, restrained inside and out and retaining the impression of being well made. If today’s Audis don’t excite you, at least they won’t look as horrid in 15 years time as a W210 E Class does now.

So, back on the subject of Phil Collins, he produced middle of the road rock that, though not to my taste, seemed to do its job well enough. I suspect that many of his modern day detractors once drove along with one of his cassettes in their decks, humming along to the mournful lyrics and imagining they were Sonny Crockett, broody and reflective following a Miami Vice shootout, and now they’re a bit embarrassed. Zooming out from that scene, we might notice that they weren’t driving a white Testarossa, but a silver Audi 80. They really liked that car but, somewhere along the line, doubts were sown. Was it that episode of Top Gear where 50 people wearing Jeremy Clarkson masks tried to locate their Audi in a car park full of Audis (bear with me I never watch TG, so I had to make that up)? Anyway, nowadays they nod in agreement as the Bar Bore drones on “ … I mean the ur-Quattro was OK, but it was massively over-rated….” though, secretly, they wonder quite what is wrong with a car that looks so much better than anything Mercedes have produced for 20 years.

7 thoughts on “Audi – Always the Pretender?”

  1. Sean’s Phil Collins analogy is a good one. Aside from fronting Genesis after Peter Gabriel’s departure, Collins provided percussion on several of Brian Eno’s seminal solo recordings. Having said that, the drivel he churned out throughout the 1980’s lost him any residual credibility – although tell that to Ayrton Senna and a goodly proportion of the 1980’s F1 grid.

    Audi are a marque I respected more when they were a little more self-effacing, but that could say as much about me as anything that’s emerged from Ingolstadt in recent times. Yet despite admiring Audi’s style and metallic sheen, many of them were for me at least, decidedly lacklustre things to drive. I have driven several different models over the years – albeit not recently – having experience of the B2 Audi 80 (good), B3 80 (awful), C3 100 (excellent), B5 A4 (my Dad had two, both disappointing) and Typ 8L A3 (good). None of these were actively bad cars, more that their sleek appearance and slick marketing suggested a far more rounded driving experience than they were capable of delivering.

    Audi’s were not really enthusiast cars – Ur-Quattro and one or two performance specials notwithstanding and I suppose they now represent what the likes of Saab or Lancia would have needed to do to remain relevant and competitive in the modern marketplace.

    The final years of the last millennium saw Audi’s styling achieve near-perfection. From the ascetic rationality of the A2, the beautifully realised styling of the (C5) A6, to the supremely elegant A8, Audi’s looked so good I could overlook many of their other shortcomings. I couldn’t have then known that these cars would mark the end of my affection for the marque. The fatal shift in Audi’s perception occurred once Walter da Silva led the design revolution that saw the addition of the ugly gaping maw at the nose and the ‘Tornado Line’ down the flanks.

    It was every bit as painful as being forced to listen to the follicly challenged tunesmith bash out another cringeworthy chart-topper.

  2. I wish I had the means to express Audi’s standing in as beautiful a text as this. Thank you, Sean!

    The one statement encapsulating the height of Audi’s styling – and hence, at least from this blinkered perspective, the brand’s history – was made inside The Magazine Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned at some point during the early noughties, in the context of a test comparing the C6 A6, Jaguar S-type and BMW E60: “The Audi’s interior has been designed with the care and attention to detail of a Kubrick movie”. I’m paraphrasing here, and obviously personal interests did play a role in this quote’s resonance, but this pretty much sums up Audi’s strengths at the time. The C6, despite its exterior already exhibiting the seeds of evil that would spread over the coming years, had an interior so far beyond the competition, it beggared belief. Even the contemporary luxury class competition appeared insubstantial and cheap in comparison. Which is why I developed some fondness for the car, despite its slightly unnervingly nose-heavy handling (in 3.0 TDI Quattro guise) and bluff nose. In sharp contrast to, say, a Maserati Quattroporte VI, its cabin exuded the exact opposite of any “that’ll do” attitude. Maybe it even was the very spirit of Ferdl Piech, but that might be interpreting a bit too much into it, after all.

    But like the nerd that went to the gym, starts receiving previously unknown admiration from the fairer sex for his toned physique and then decides he didn’t have to study quite so hard and could still receive good grades, Audi became more preoccupied with appealing to a new clientele that’s less enamoured with subtle qualities. The Q7 was the very obvious sign of this change. And ever since I’ve found myself completely losing interest in cars from Ingolstadt.

  3. Thanks for an incisive post. I suppose the reason Audi has that air of the arriviste despite having arrived quite some time ago is that they didn´t field a convincing big car until the 90s. Their first attempt was to shoehorn a V8 into the 100 body-shell and compete in a class where rear-wheel drive and dedicated bodies were the standard: Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar all had vehicles in this class that were distinct from their mid-rangers. The Audi 100 was predominantly a 4 and 5 cylinder creature and the V8 resembled it as closely as the 1987 Opel Senator B did the Opel Omega. As such, Audi weren´t trying hard enough despite the excellence of the interior and various technical advantages the V8 enjoyed over the 100 it was so obviously based on.
    What is admirable about Audi is the consistency of their design language. You can see the same serious going back five decades. The 100 of 1976 adheres to a design mentality once embodied by Mercedes, that the styling is a result of engineering choices not whim. They still have more of this attitude than either BMW or Mercedes though as said above, Mr da Silve has been confusing things with his Italianate curlicues which have no place on cars as serious as Audis are supposed to be. I can only presume that the tastes of other markets are impinging on Audi´s will to stay uncluttered and deadly earnest.

    1. Richard. True that, to keep the potted history short, I made no mention of BMW’s big car of the 50s, the 501/502 Baroque Angel, which laboured on into the early 60s. I ignored it because it was one of the causes of BMW’s woes rather than the saviour that the Neue Klasse was hence, to use your term, it was never convincing. Personally, I’ve always liked this idiosyncratic vehicle. I used to pass one daily in Kentish Town in the late 70s. Dusty and seemingly abandoned outside a newsagents, I fantasised about rescuing it and restoring it. Fortunately, since I had neither workshop nor money, it disappeared before I got up the resolution to act.

    1. It’s De’ Silva, actually, even though the apostrophe is usually ignored by the press (even in Italy).

  4. How embarrassing! Clearly the recollection of Senna’s love of Phil Collins’led to a catastrophic fact-checking malfunction. The holy mortifying shame…

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