No question, The Audi 90 Quattro 20V, with its hunkered-down sassy stance , meaty Goodyears and bold 5-spoke Speedline wheels, looks the part of a serious competitor. And if this evokes an image of Michele Mouton expertly drifting a short-wheelbase Quattro to a new class record at Pikes Peak or one of Hurley Haywood winning the Trans-Am championship the first year out in a 200 Quattro, well, it's more than simple coincidence.
The competition breeding shines through when the Audi is pushed hard. The only car in the group with all-wheel drive, the 90's chassis is unflappably stable and never seems to put a wheel wrong. But it doesn't communicate with its driver the way the Alfa does.
The high-set steering wheel has a skinny (though leather-wrapped) rim, and there's some looseness around the center position. As the corner tightens up and more steering is cranked in, effort increases in a nice, linear fashion, but there's no intimate sense of what the front tires are doing. The brakes show no nasty habits, but the pedal feel is slightly rubbery.
For a fairly small car (having the shortest wheelbase and second-shortest overall length), the Audi is rather heavy (at 3195 lb., only the Alfa outweighs it). This taxes the limits of the dohc 2.3-liter 20-valve inline -5 that puts out a respectable 164 bhp at 6000 rpm - the Audi feels very reluctant to move away from the rest, even with moderate clutch slippage in 1st gear. There's a real sense of trying to accelerate all that mass in the drivetrain (and, of course, in the rest of the car).
Once moving, however, the engine has a strong surge of mid- and upper- range torque and is reasonably smooth as it growls its 5-cylinder song on the way to a 7200-rpm redline. Shifts have a very direct, mechanical feel about them but require a healthy tug on the polished wood shift knob, and ratios are well spaced.
Inside, the Audi is a little claustrophobic or just cozy, depending on your tolerance for this things. The high waisted design with its consequent smaller glass area makes seeing out a mite more difficult here than in the others and gives the cabin the impression or narrowness. But there's not a finer interior in the group, in terms of nicely textured plastic, beautifully finished wood and excellent assembly fit. Gauges are superb, with all in the main cluster easily visible through the steering wheel, but dials for voltage, oil pressure and oil temperature, while appreciated, are mounted frustratingly low on the center console.
Seating up front is quite good, with body-hugging bolsters and electric seat controls that are nearly second nature to use. Rear accommodations are a little tighter than in most of the others, with virtually no "toe room" underneath the front seats and cramped head room taller sorts. A ski pass-through increases utility and seems a natural offering on an awd car.
Some nuisances are the smallest trunk of the lot at 8.1 cu. ft. and lots of road noise and thumpiness from the Goodyears, which, at size 205/50R-15, are the lowest profile, most aggressive tires of any of the eight cars. But these are sacrifices in the interest of awd packaging and performance, and those not wanting the extra edge of stability and power can always save some money and still get the 90's muscular good looks in a front-drive, 130-bhp version.
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