‘90s Cult Car: 25 Years of the Audi A4
500,000 sold in the first 20 months. Found everywhere on the road. In it’s time, the Audi A4 was as trendy as Bon Jovi, Forrest Gump, or Gameboys. Take a trip through time back to the 1990s and learn how the A4 freed Audi from its outdated image — emotion from the very beginning!
25 years ago. The year is 1994 and I’m only nine years old. My memories of cars are limited to the back seat and never-ending road trips through France or Italy. It was loud, and when it got too hot — which it often did — I cranked the window down. Radios and cassette tapes were our modern media. Walkmans and Gameboys ruled the back seat. They had my full attention. Whatever Audi was concerned with back then was of no concern to me — yet. But for the Four Rings, it was a particularly exciting time.
Audi after the German reunification: from record turnover to reduced hours
The 1990s got off to a sensational start. The fall of the Berlin wall, the unification of German currency, and the resulting upturn in sales helped Audi achieve a record-setting turnover of 14.8 billion DM in 1991. Two years later, the numbers collapsed. The reason was a global economic recession and the end of the German financial boom that came after the reunification. Audi historian Ralf Friese reminisces on the consequences: “That led to stagnating sales and even resulted in shortened working times and layoffs in the years 1993 and 1994. But then came the A4.”
Audi A4: an evergreen lifeline for Audi
In 1994, Audi rang in the beginning of a new era with new model nomenclature. The successor of the Audi V8 was launched in March under the name A8; that summer, the re-worked Audi 100 came out under the name A6; in November, the new mid-size arrived — the Audi A4. Demand was unexpectedly high, and it immediately became a best-seller.
In 1995, sales in Germany alone hit 120,000. “The Audi A4 was Audi’s lifeline at that point. It made sure the registers rang,” Friese reminisces. But how did the Audi A4 mature into an absolute best-seller and highly sought-after cult car?
How the modern classic Audi A4 found the path to success
1. Adieu outdated kitsch: the Audi A4 was a driving force behind Audi’s change in image
“In the 1990’s, Audi finally broke free from its “crocheted blanket” image,” wrote
Autobild about the transition by the Four Rings. This was mostly because of the Audi A4. The mid-size sedan sold so well that it left its mark on the automobile landscape of Germany for many years to come. And the success story spread from Germany to the whole rest of the world.
With the elegant, sporty design, Audi was ready to take on the BMW 3 series and the Mercedes C class. “To me, the Audi A4 was a tour de force for the designers and a milestone for Audi on its way to becoming a premium brand,” Friese explains.
2. Vorsprung durch Technik: the Audi A4 as a sporty, fuel-saving car
With the A4, Audi lived up to its slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik.” The four-link front suspension was a significant technical innovation that improved steering performance and minimized the effect of the front-wheel drive on steering.
In addition, the first units were equipped with a new generation of five-valve engines. At that time, the portfolio was made up of three new four-cylinder gasoline-powered engines and two V6 engines. A unique features was the five-valve cylinder head used in the two 1.8L engines. The “5-valve engines” were available as naturally aspirated engines and as a 1.8 T with turbocharger — now the standard for powerful, efficient engines.
For fans of the quartet of modern classics, here are a few numbers from the Audi A4 (B5) 1.6, which was almost unbeatable in the mid-size class at that point:
• Top speed: 191 km/h
• Power: 74 kW (101 PS)
• Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 11.9 seconds
Audi A4: Emotion meets rationality
At 5.1 – 8.8 liters per 100 km, the first generation of the Audi A4 was very fuel efficient for the time. That made the Audi A4 a reliable, economical, yet sporty car. Friese explains the importance of the A4: “The model was typical of the current Audi mindset: design, quality, value retention, and precision — away from the image of an old man in a hat with a roll of toilet paper on the hat rack and towards being a trend setter.”
3. The right blend of “fun and function”: the Audi A4 as an evergreen and test winner
Even in the 1994 press release about the Audi A4, the sedan’s value was already clear: it was to be an “exclusive mid-sized sedan with high technical sophistication and modern efficiency”. That was reflected in the good price-performance ratio. Perfect for families in Germany.
At the beginning of the 1990s, many households had to economize, and the A4 was just what they needed. It was comparatively inexpensive, came in first in a number of test reports, and was reliable even after many years of use. The materials used in the interior and the quality and precision of the production also represented a good return on the investment.
The Audi A4 not only appealed to the customer’s rationality, but also to their emotions. The A4 was what we now call “hip”. These qualities made it THE car for the German middle class.
ABS and airbags are the new standard
Accordingly, Audi improved the standard features considerably in comparison to the Audi 80. For the Audi A4, the slogan “more car for your money” was more than just a marketing phrase. Among other things, the buyer got several important safety features ex works: ABS, two airbags, and four full head rests.
The car was also available with optional “driver information system with large LCD screen” or a “German network telephone with hands-free system and radio muting.” Welcome to the 90s!
Record: from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego with the Audi A4 quattro
The Austrian long-distance specialist and extreme driver Gerhard Plattner brought the Audi A4 into the ranks of the automotive nobility — as a powerful long-distance machine. In 1995, he drove the Panamericana — traversing North and South America with a factory standard Audi A4 quattro. The result: 23,298 kilometers in 20 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes. This beat the existing record (held by an off-road vehicle) by almost three and a half days.
This year, the Audi A4’s success story continues
The first generation of the Audi A4 (B5) was produced until 2001. Production of the second generation (B6) started in the year 2000, in 2004 came the B7, and the B9 has been on the road since 2015. This autumn, the update of the best-selling A4 will hit the streets. And I’m as excited as a 9-year-old about it!
A look behind the scenes: 4 questions for Torsten Wenzel, the exterior designer of the cult car Audi A4 Avant (1995):
How did the design change from the Audi 80 to the Audi A4?
The A4 was the first car from Audi that was designed with not only the motto “Vorsprung durch Technik” in mind, but also to some extent the motto “Vorsprung durch Design”. It looks very self-confident, and that makes it seem sportier than the old Audi 80. The great proportions with less overall length and a wider wheelbase make the car seem more dynamic. Overall, the A4 seems like it was made in one piece. And the rounded rear was fantastic. I already thought to myself: Wow, we sure are daring here at Audi. (laughs)
What did people think of the “rounder” design of the A4?
In the 1990s there was generally a shift in car design. Softer forms were replacing angled ones. At Audi, we found an elegant middle ground with the A4. We combined a few precise, slightly rounded light and character angles with large, punchy, modelled areas. The play between light and shadow makes the A4 look much more emotional. Overall, the design was seen as being “cooler.” Many people loved the new “face” of the A4, which was friendly yet determined, and the sporty look.
What meaning did the new A4 design have for the Audi brand?
The design of the A4 was a very big step for Audi in general. Away from the technocratic-practical image of the ‘80s and towards a sporty self-confidence and design-oriented premium brand, as the A8 had already done in the luxury class.
And what do you personally associate with the Audi A4?
A lot. After finishing my studies, I started at Audi in 1992. The A4 Avant was my first design that went into series production. That is a dream come true for every designer. I felt proud every time I saw an Audi A4 on the road — and that happened pretty frequently and still happens once in a while now. (grins)