By accident I appear to have become a place of refuge for the unloved high-kilometre Audi. Having previously written an owner review of my ’06 Audi A3 with 216,000km on the odo’, I am now the proud owner of a 1999 Audi A4 1.8T Quattro Wagon that has driven the equivalent of nine times around the planet!
So the question is, how has Audi’s original A4 stood up to the test of time, and what’s it like to live with a car currently sitting on 360,000km? Firstly, let’s address the cash cow in the room: I acquired my A4 for, wait for it, $500 with rego and all. So I think it’s fair to say Ingolstadt’s mid-’90s mid-sizer has hit the bottom of its depreciation curve.
The bad but obvious news, though, was that it needed $1400 worth of parts to get it properly into shape. Not afraid of a spot of DIY, I set about replacing everything over the course of three weeks. What I’m left with is an alternative, practical, sporty all-wheel-drive wagon that I’m not overly precious about.
First up, how does my A4 drive? Honestly, pretty briskly. Some of my DIY included fitting a new turbo and high-flow catalytic converter, which combined with a full service probably means it pushes out a little more than its original 132kW. Combine that with Quattro all-wheel drive and the old girl feels suitably surefooted pulling hard from 2000rpm up to 6000rpm before running out of puff around 7000. The engine generally stays hushed with just a hint of turbo whistle – exactly how an understated Audi should. Getting 600km on a tank of premium unleaded isn’t too bad either.
Fitting new suspension bushes has also firmed up the ride nicely. The car has minimum body roll, but thankfully hasn’t been turned into a complete boneshaker. The steering is nicely direct too, weighting up the harder you push.
There are some issues, though. Despite the decent steering feel, the nose-heavy Audi will always push into understeer a touch too early when you’re really giving it some. And despite the joys of being able to change your own gears, there is a lot of slop in the five-speed's gate, forcing you to really slam the lever into gear to avoid a nasty crunch. In saying that, though, given the kilometres, the car could probably do with some new gearbox linkages/bushings!
Back when the original owner, a country GP out Toowoomba way, took delivery of his shiny new A4 back in ’99, the interior was probably something to behold. Full grey leather seats with woodgrain trim inserts, a leather sports steering wheel, trip computer, six-CD auto changer and a sunroof probably went some way to justifying the $65,000 price tag.
Nineteen years later, though, and despite its luxury connotations I find my A4 refreshingly simple. Sitting as low as possible, the wheel devoid of any buttons, you look out through an expansive glasshouse. The seats could, however, do with a little more adjustment, and the fronts hadn’t held up well. Cracked, ripped and torn to shreds, I did treat the car to a new set from a wrecker's. The plastics and soft-touch dash have held up well and the doors still close with a reassuring thunk. There aren’t even that many rattles or squeaks on the move; testament I think to that old adage of German build quality. The car even has rear parking sensors that still work.
From the outside, I personally think the car has aged gracefully – its bubble-like rounded styling holding its own against more contemporary cars in traffic. Being a bit of a wagon fanboy, I also can’t help but think this B5-generation A4 looks much better with a hatch than the sedan's rear end. And after some time studying the car’s lines, I really do prefer the small front grille of ’90s-era Audis compared to the gawping great grilles offered on today’s models.
Besides a few scuffs and battle scars picked up from previous owners, the paint responded well to a cut and polish, with rust only evident on particularly big stone chips. Probably testament to Audi galvanising its bodies I suspect.
The space offered by the good old wagon body style is immense given the relatively small dimensions of the car compared to the current A4. I use the car like a small van, with back seats down most of the time. I find it’s the perfect car for a trip to Bunnings, swallowing building materials and gardening equipment or a couple of mountain bikes with ease. The slightly worn look of the interior means I’m not too fussed about literally throwing things into it.
What’s that thing they say about age just being a number? I think the same should be said about high-kilometre cars. When I’m driving I never even look at the odo' slowly ticking another trip round the planet. If you maintain a car and treat it to a few new goodies now and then, it will reward you with its service.
I like to think I saved my A4 from the wrecker's, and want to use it as proof of the excellent engineering that goes into these things we use to get from A to B. And like my other Audi, I want to proclaim that European cars really do not need to be money pits, if you shop smart for parts and attempt a bit of DIY maintenance.
It might not be for everyone, but if you fancy an alternative AWD wagon to, say, a Subaru Outback, why not shop for one of Audi’s offerings?