From the November 1979 issue of Car and Driver.
Live with any car long enough and—unless it stops dead in its tracks—it begins to grow on you. If it gets you there and back, you learn to love it. We only put a thousand miles or so on the Audi 4000, but it never missed a beat. True, it coughed once—sneezed, really—on the way up to the historic-car races at Laguna Seca, but all the other beats of its stout Teutonic heart inspired nothing but confidence. It ran like Supertrain, mostly at speeds upward of 80 mph. How many cars have you driven lately that can peg the speedometer for hours at a stretch? The numbers on the Audi’s speedo run out at 85 mph, but we pressed on with the needle buried in no man’s land until we hit the notorious Grapevine southbound on California’s I-5. Shutting off the air conditioner bought back enough power to hold a steady 80 mph up the long grade. And when we finally ran the 15.8-gallon tank dry at 300-plus miles, a fuel-economy check showed the 4000 getting better than 21 mpg at those speeds. Best of all—probably thanks to having pitched seven pennies into the ocean for good luck on the run north up Route 1—we managed to slip through the CHiPs’ speed nets like VC sappers. How could you not love a car like this?
If only the Audi 5000 didn’t exist, we might have been totally captivated by the 4000. But in comparison, the 4000 doesn’t fare quite so well. The two cars look remarkably alike—nice, clean, modern wedges. German (though Giugiaro designs), pointy, purposeful. Some of their hardware, like the door handles and the seatbelt harnesses, are identical. At first glance, about the only differences appear to be the 4000’s rectangular headlights versus the 5000’s round eyes … and the price—a couple of grand less for the smaller (100.1-inch wheelbase), lighter (2260 pounds) Audi. Is the 4000 the baby brother to the runaway best-seller 5000? Not really, more’s the pity; the 4000 feels more like a Volvo, any Volvo since the dear old 122S.
A Volvo? Yeah, well, at least the steering and handling. Which may not be quite fair, because the 5000 started as a clean sheet of paper, with the former Porsche design team poised with Dietzgen drafting pens in hand, while the 4000 is an evolutionary refinement of the discontinued Fox, wrapped in snazzy new sheetmetal. The 5000 has one of the most lissome combinations of ride and handling of any car on the road; the 4000, however, is less smooth and less graceful. It harks back to an earlier generation of engineering—to cars like the Volvo.
There are some odd attitudinal differences between the 4000 and the 5000, too. If the 5000 is “deluxe,” the 4000 is definitely “junior.” The 5000, for example, has a proper pneumatic strut to prop the engine lid open; the 4000 has a manual hood stay, like a Morris Minor, ferchrissake. Some of the 4000’s controls are smaller than their counterparts on the 5000, as if Audi expected the buyers of the 4000 to be physically scaled down as well. And while the 5000 has a full-sized spare tire, the 4000 has one of those “space-saver” spares, about the size of a dirt-bike tire. Nonetheless, the 4000 has some pretty posh touches; standard equipment includes items like steel-belted radials, a trunk light (the trunk is huge for a small car), power front disc brakes (although not power steering; alas, not even as an option), honest-to-goodness vent windows that open, an electric rear-window defogger, and a center console with a voltmeter and an oil-temp gauge. The console, however, is badly placed. Tall drivers complain that its trailing edge leaves a lasting (and numbing) impression on their legs.
Driving the car is pretty nice. The seats are like the 5000’s: fully reclining buckets and comfortable for hours on any kind of road. The fuel-injected 1.6-liter, 78-hp (76 in California) four-cylinder engine starts easily and runs without any of the drivability problems associated with most engines built since “ecology” became a dirty word. It’s redlined at 6500 rpm, but most of its considerable poke comes between four and five grand. The clutch is a bit notchy, but the shift is as smooth as Teflon and cocked slightly toward the driver (wonder if they change that for a right-hand-drive version?). The instruments are intelligently laid out, with big, bold, E-Z Read graphics, and the operating controls are placed where you expect to find them.
The 4000’s steering may be slow, heavy, and not as precise as the 5000’s, but it’s better than most of its competition from across the Pacific. With 60 percent of its weight over the front wheels, the 4000 has unflappable straight-line stability (unaffected by anything but gale-force side gusts), and excellent traction on loose stuff, but she sure do understeer and the rear wheels tend to lock if you stand too smartly on the brakes.
The front-drive powertrain is inherited from the Fox, and the engine still buzzes enough at speed, especially at 70 mph, to rattle the keys off your key ring. A five-speed manual transmission would help, and is rumored to be in the pipeline, as are a five-cylinder engine, a three-speed automatic, a three-door coupe, a five-door wagon, and—gasp!—a turbo. But for now the 4000 is simply buzzier and noisier than it should be.
Still and all, for a company whose motto is “Success through Engineering,” there are some curious lapses. Consider: the rear frame of the front quarter-window partially obscures the outside rear-view mirror. (Rearward visibility is further hampered by a narrow field of vision in the inside rear-view mirror.) Consider: the little spoiler that pops up when the optional sunroof is opened creates more wind noise than there would be if there were no spoiler at all. (We finally taped the spoiler out of the airstream altogether.) Consider—the ultimate insult: park a 4000 alongside a 5000 and open a door on either car; the rub rails don’t even come close to mating, and the result is a ding in the other Audi’s door.
If your style is elegance, ante up the extra bucks for the 5000. But the 5000 is an 85-mph car—any speed much above that and the disharmony of its uneven number of cylinders grates unmercifully on the human ear … which is what we’re equipped with. If, on the other hand, you want a little stormer, the 4000 is your Audi.
I’ve had too much fun with the Audi Fox to applaud its demise and welcome this family-type 4000 to the fold. The 4000 just doesn’t stack up to the Fox’s performance standards: it’s slower, heavier by 200 pounds, noisier inside, and less fuel-efficient. And, of course, much more expensive. Some of this you can chalk up to tighter emissions standards, but really, the reason the 4000 isn’t Foxy is that Audi has given this car a character transplant to move it up and out of America’s apartment complexes and into a split-level life of country luxury. That’s fine, but the transformation is incomplete. The 4000 admittedly looks the part, even though it is the cheapest expression of the made-in-the-Black Forest styling idiom. And the ride, the ventilation system, and tire adhesion are all substantially improved over the Fox’s. Unfortunately, the 4000 has been sent to us with a 70-mph sonic boom built into its structure. I’m not sure whether this is some sort of subliminal over-speed alarm purposely installed at the factory, or just a bad job from the sound lab. In any case, I’ll be saving my enthusiasm for this new-generation Audi until I see the five-speed, five-cylinder version. —Don Sherman
Audi did the right thing when it put a new name on its small car. The back-road duelist that lived behind the Fox badge is dead and gone, and I’ll miss it. But in its place is an equally competent, though very different, kind of car. It’s as if Audi sent the Fox through finishing school; it’s emerged from the halls of engineering far more suave, confident, and stylish than when it enrolled.
If anything was lost during the maturing of the Fox, it was some youthful exuberance. The 4000 sedan doesn’t feel so much like a wily sports sedan as it does a sporting luxury sedan—which is nothing to irrigate your tear ducts about, because the 4000 is still one of the better all-around sedans on the road. In fact, if Audi can fix the buzziness at highway speeds and righten up the high-speed stability a notch, the 4000 will be as exemplary a sporting luxury sedan as the Fox was a sporting sports sedan. —Rich Ceppos
Maybe I expected too much. In a fit of impracticality, I had even told my mother to consider this new Audi in her search through the Dashers, 626s, X-bodies, and Accords. But between me mum’s little Midwestern cottage and the nearest Audi dealer lies a hundred miles of pike. Anyhow, having at last driven the 4000, I’d now tell her to hold out till the arrival of a fifth gear and one more cylinder.
The four-banger drones in midrange like a B-29, and the four-speed just doesn’t reel out the long-legged cruising this otherwise sophisticated little sweetheart should be expected to give. Both inside and out, the 4000 looks as if it should provide effortless propulsion to go along with its league-leading styling and roomily luscious interior. It is much more comfortable than the GM X-bodies, having been given far more gracious seating and appointments, yet it weighs 500 pounds less. It is also fitted together infinitely better. For me, that will make it unquestionably worth the price when the all-grown-up drivetrain is available. Besides that, we hear a prototype Turbo 5 is running loose in Europe, even as we speak. Heh, heh, heh. —Larry Griffin
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