The Family Haulers

Family hauler, thy name is Audi.

My first family hauler was born at the epicenter of three life changes: the Lincoln needed to be retired at age 18, the transmission getting balky; the Lotus was being parked indefinitely; and I was about to start a family.

I followed my father’s lead again. He had bought a 1970 Audi Super 90 and driven it for a couple of years. But he wasn’t that thrilled with it and was ready to move on. He offered it to me at a good price and I accepted even though I knew nothing about it. I gave him the Lincoln in return for nostalgia’s sake, and he occasionally drove it before selling it.

Thus I became an Audi fan, even though I can’t find a race car in the bunch. Since the Super 90, I have bought four others and have driven ~680K miles in my Audis. The first four Audis I bought used; on average, they yielded 150K miles each, and cost $7000 each excluding maintenance. For each, I targeted 12 years or 200K miles, whichever came first.

1970 Super 90 (Red)

The Super 90 together with the 100 were the first models imported to the US by the new modern Audi AG in 1970. The 90 was a red econo-box with 1.8L 90hp 4-cylinder engine and 4-on-the-floor. It had a nice roomy interior and amazingly large trunk for its size, 21 cu. ft. It had been produced in Europe for perhaps 3 years before being offered here.

I liked its looks, particularly under the hood. It had quality alloy castings for both the pan and cam cover. How could Audi afford to do that, when others give us cheapo steel stampings? I found the answer in an original Audi sales brochure; engine bits were sourced from Mercedes, tranny bits from Porsche, and VW designed the innovative suspension. What’s not to like?

The Super 90 was technologically advanced, with a torsion bar suspension in place of springs, and inboard front disc brakes to reduce unsprung mass at the wheels. I’ve not seen these designs on cars since. It had a cross-flow head and got great gas mileage, in the 30 mpg range as I recall.

The car became the little red school bus when it was my turn to drive Owen and friends to nursery school. It was my commuter flyer. I recall taking other couples with us for nights on the town in it.

Money was tight. I did the routine maintenance myself, tuneups, oil changes, rebuilding the carburetor a couple of times, rebuilding the master cylinder, replacing brake pads, and disassembling the front axles to turn the brake rotors.

I had one problem with rough running and I took it to a dealer for service. They told me it was an old car and I should buy a new one. They couldn’t help me, but they could take my money. Vasek Polak’s dealership is thankfully no longer around, gone the same way as Bob Challman’s. What a pair. PCH is the better for it.

I found a local repair shop specializing in Audi and took it in. They diagnosed it while I waited, a crack in the distributor cap that was too fine to see. There were no German accents to be heard, but these guys were real mechanics. They even went SCCA racing in their free time. This shop got all my Audi business for the next 20+ years before they closed their doors. With the newer fuel injection models, I no longer worked on my own cars. It had gotten too hard and specialized. It helped to have a go-to place.

When the CV joints in the front axles finally began to get noisy at 135K miles in 1979, I discovered only entire axle replacement was available and it would be more costly to replace the axles than the car was worth. It hadn’t quite made my target lifespan, but on a cents/mile basis, the 90 was by far the cheapest Audi to operate. We sold it to our cleaning lady’s husband with the understanding it might not go much farther. He seemed way less worried than I was. For all I know, it’s still going.

The 5000S: 1979 Metallic Blue; 1984 Pearl White

I had it in my mind for a while that my next car would have electronic fuel injection and a 5-speed manual transmission. I hoped Audi would get there in time. Sure enough, in 1978 Audi produced the 5-cylinder 5000 line that exceeded my expectations; one extra cylinder, and it looked great.

I found a 1979 5000S company car for sale with 14K miles that had had some front end damage and a repaint. The price was low, even though it was the most expensive car I had ever bought. I drove it until 1986, by which time it had 200K+ miles and was getting tired.

It was a fine road car, but at 105hp, somewhat underpowered for its weight when loaded. It is the only car I ever owned that would get bogged down on steep hills, particularly at altitude. I would have to downshift to maintain 60 on highway grades. It had several expensive problems to the ancillaries like AC and power steering.

The valve seals became a major problem and Audi stonewalled its customers. I was using a quart of oil every 350 miles and Audi said it was still within spec. Well, what goes around comes around, and the sudden acceleration Audi scare of the ‘80s almost ruined the company. But I cheered, knowing they well deserved the pain (but for other reasons), and knowing that used Audis would continue to be relatively cheap.

In 1986 I found a cheap ‘84 5000S with 30K miles, so I dumped the ’79 at a recycling place. I put over 200K miles on the ’84 buzzing up and down freeways. It was the newer design of the 5000, with some of the angles rounded out. It had enough power (barely), and the valve seals held up. Audi had learned something in five years, but ancillary systems still gave an occasional expensive repair.

Overall, the 5000S models were comfortable road cars, got relatively good mileage and range, and the bottom end of the engine was good for at least 200K miles, in which time I usually would have needed only one clutch replacement. The brake pads also lasted. And except for one fuel pump problem, these cars never left me stranded. I liked knowing I could take the family on vacation and the car would get us home again.

1990 200 (Pearl White)

When it was time to upgrade again, I had nearly a half million miles logged in an Audi. Also, my family hauler days were nearly completed. Now my eye might turn more to a flexible personal driver than to a family hauler.  But familiarity now trumped adventure and I would once again turn to a used Audi sedan for renewed driving inspiration.

In 1996, the ’84 was running on borrowed time when I found a bargain ’90 200 with 70K miles in pristine condition. It added a turbocharger, Quattro 4-wheel drive, and black leather interior to the basic 5000 equation. It was elegant, with a lovely wood-trimmed fascia and soft red instrument lighting. I liked the cockpit and the road manners of this car more than any Audi before or since. Sweet.

I hated to part with it, but by 2002 it was 12 years old, approaching 190K miles; parts were not guaranteed to be available much longer. I told myself that when Audi made a model that seemed to equal the 200, I would upgrade. 2002 was that year.

2002 A4 (Metallic Silver)

I bought a new 6-speed A4 3.0 Quattro with sport suspension off the lot. It was my first new car in 35 years and second ever. I sold the 200 to a neighbor who had been admiring it.

The A4 still has the elegance of wood fascia trim and black leather interior, but the instrument cluster is not as attractive as the 200 in my opinion, blinged up to appeal the young drivers at whom the A4 was aimed. It is also down on rear seat legroom and range per tank of gas from my minimum requirements. But I bought it anyway. There are fewer and fewer choices of cars now with stick shifts, and I’ve forgotten how to drive a typical automatic.

The A4 is a hotter car than the 200, but doesn’t have its comfortable touring road manners. In retrospect, it is more suitable as a personal performance sedan than a tourer. I had allowed adventure to intrude on sensibility, accepting the trade-offs. The sport suspension does not allow a passenger to nap on the freeway. You sit lower to the ground like a sports car, making entry/egress more strenuous for the aging joints. But I enjoy driving it and we use our 2007 Passat 2014 Tiguan for touring.

This A4 has a 3.0L aluminum V6 with DOHC Cosworth heads (same manufacturer as the Elan heads). It generates a respectable 220 hp and 221 ft-lbs torque. The A4 weighs 3800 lbs, gets 28 mpg on the highway and 20 mpg in the city, and goes 0-60 in less than 7 seconds. My standard commute obtained 23+ mpg consistently.

The A4 has had a few of nasty problems, two covered by recall. The individual cylinder coils went bad and were replaced under recall. The fuel gauge has been flakey for a while and has not yet been diagnosed. The AM radio antenna/amplifier quit after warranty expired. Neither is worth fixing.

The big issue was an engine misfire that went undiagnosed, followed by a brake seizure on the freeway. I spent a couple of thousand dollars at the dealer, who had to remove one of the heads in an attempt to diagnose it. Working with Audi, they finally diagnosed that water had gotten into the brake booster vacuum lines and then into the cylinders. Audi offered to split the cost with me. Later a recall addressed the cause, a clogged drain hole that let water build up near the brake booster. Since then it’s been trouble free. I’m still on the original clutch. The engine pulls like new. The interior is still pristine.

The A4 offers largely the same performance characteristics as an entry-level Ferrari from two decades previous. It is the most performance I’ve ever had in a car with seats for more than two people, slightly eclipsing the Elan in go juice, although too heavy to contest the Elan in nimbleness and road feel. I still get a kick from driving the A4 ten years later after 82K miles. There have been no offerings from Audi over this time that would tempt me to switch. They exist elsewhere, but not in the USA.

Looking back over the last 40 years, an Audi pattern can be detected. On average every 12 years, Audi brings a car to the USA that innovates sufficiently in engineering and design to warrant a serious new look. There was the Super 90 offered in Europe in 1966 (Audi imported to USA beginning in 1970), the 5000 from 1978, the 200 from 1990, and the B6 A4 from 2002. These were my cars.

Update 1

Here we are in anticipation of 2014. The B6 A4 will turn 12 next month. Hence by the cyclic pattern above, wonderful things should be brewing at Ingolstadt. In fact, a 2014 A4 plugin-hybrid with e-quattro is rumored. It would be worth a look, if weight and price can be controlled and the USA version is not too dumbed-down. Here’s to Audi maintaining their long-running pace of 12 year strides. (Nope, never happened, just more Audi hot air).

Update 2

It is late 2014 and Audi has missed its 12 year target. It now appears that 2017 is the most likely USA introduction of a significant update. Hopefully, the tired, gauche, gaping, goon-appeal front end styling will be disappeared by then as well. Fortunately, the A4 is still going strong.

Debby upgraded our Passat for a Tiguan, which offered her the five features she wanted: easier ingress/egress, higher seating position with improved visibility, AWD, rear view camera, bluetooth connectivity. The Volvo XC60 was her second choice. The Tiguan qualifies as our new family hauler (sized suitably for a family of two adults).

I am not a fan of the Tiguan transmission, made even worse by extreme programming (forces 1200RPM at every opportunity, causing LOTS of gratuitous shifting at town speeds). But its interior is refined and its road manners are excellent, considering its relatively short wheelbase.

We have considered Volvo and Mercedes alternatives, but only their most upscale configurations are attractive and then they price out of our neighborhood.

Last Update

It’s 2017. Audi offers a new A4 with a slightly calmed-down front end style, ugly techno-wiz pop-up screen in the dash, a dual-clutch transmission, and a pumped-up turbo 4 to make some go. But the colors are not great and the price makes its value too dear for consideration. Regrettably, the 2002 A4 will be my last-ever Audi.

Audi could have sold me another, but they have recently treated the USA as a zombie land suitable only for cookie-cutter cars, essentially unchanged for the last 15 years. So it’s time to take down my garage Audi flag, breaking a 47 year consumer loyalty record that began with the 1970 Super 90.

It’s been a nice ride. Audi made great road cars that could be depended on for family vacations; only twice in all those years did I require roadside assistance, due to a failed fuel pump, and to water entering the brake booster, causing the brakes to seize.

I have decided to move up by trading down, making us now a two VW family: 2014 Tiguan (red), 2017 Alltrack (blue). The primary colors are our resistance to the tendency of age to reduce color in our lives. Gray and silver provide no contrast now; time to color-up.


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