I wanted a car with four doors and a boot. Boring? Probably - but I didn't care - I'm getting old. I wanted to be able to leave it anywhere, confident that it would attract no more attention from potential thieves than any other car. I wanted to be able to drive down 'cruise' streets, looking at the modified cars while other drivers were oblivious to mine. The Skyline GT-R with its shallow boot, cramped rear accommodation and eye-catching looks had become all negative, negative, negative to me.
Basically, I wanted car that looked totally anonymous and went like hell. And if it didn't go as hard as the Skyline (and what standard car would?), that was also fine by me. But it wasn't as easy as this. I also wanted turbo power and constant four wheel drive. Plus, my eclectic list included a sunroof, leather, good brakes and a comfortable ride. So, a luxury car then. And it would have to be a used car, because I - like Forg - think that buying new cars is a waste of money.
And how many constant four wheel drive turbo performance cars are there in Australia with a sunroof, leather, four doors and a boot? Just one - the Audi S4. Never heard of it? - neither had I!
The Audi S4
As far as I can make out, just 12 (or 20 - some say one, say some the other) Audi S4s were sold in Australia in the years 1993 - '94 - '95 at a retail of A$130,000. Based on the big Audi 100 sedan, the S4 is an amalgam of the famous Audi Quattro drivetrain with a luxurious, four door body. The engine is 2.2 litres of in-line, longitudinally-mounted five, using DOHC and four valves per cylinder. Max power is 169kW at 5900 rpm but the real kick in the pants comes from 350Nm at an incredibly low 1950 rpm. A single KKK turbo with a huge external wastegate is used and a twin cat stainless exhaust is standard.
Backing the strong engine is a six speed close-ratio gearbox, Torsen torque-sensing centre diff and four wheel drive system. The Australian road test figures show 0-100 in 6.9 seconds, a standing quarter of 14.9-15.1 and a 240 km/h top end. The alloy wheels are 16 x 8's wearing 225/50 tyres and they hide big discs that are ventilated front and rear. There's ABS, leather, carbon fibre interior trim pieces, sunroof, CD system, front and rear foglights, electric seats - all the gadgets. To the uninitiated, the car looks just like an Audi 100 - even the wheels don't attract attention, as they don't look at all like their actual size.
For me, this car was perfect. But could I find one?
Solitaire Automotive - a local prestige vehicle dealer in Adelaide - had one in stock, so off I went to look. At this stage I didn't realise their rarity - the car had been there for about eight weeks. My lady and I inspected it - A$55,000, excellent condition, just 75,000km and a one-owner doctor's car - and then I drove it around a long block. It went hard - all that torque down low being weird from a turbo engine - and rode and handled beautifully. I asked the dealer to work out what it would cost to change the lease over - trading in the GT-R - and went away very thoughtful. The next day the figures came through and they were fine, so I asked if I could take the car for a proper drive, perhaps a full afternoon. That was apparently also OK, and I started letting myself get excited. But a phone call from the dealer the next afternoon - I figured it was just to confirm the drive time - dropped a bombshell. They'd sold the car. Just like that.
So, I'd find another one, then. I used the Anzwers Car Search button (then) on AutoSpeed's menu bar daily, scouring every state in Australia for an Audi S4. Not one appeared. I downloaded the list of Audi dealers from www.audi.com.au and rang each of them in turn - every large city dealer in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. Some of the dealers didn't even know such a model existed, and none of them knew of any for sale. One guy thought he knew of an S4 and got back to me, but it was the smaller S2 that he was actually thinking of. (An S2 that it turned out was making its way to South Australia - and which I'd later meet.)
I was stymied - I knew what I wanted but I simply couldn't find one for sale. And even worse, it appeared if I did locate another, it would cost a helluva lot of money - the Glass's Guide lists them at closer to A$75,000 than A$50,000, and those S4 owners that I located and tried to persuade to part with their cars soon realised that.
With the difficulties in finding an S4, I started looking hard at alternatives. The value of the GT-R was crashing literally daily (and what would happen if someone shipped two or three import R32 GT-Rs into Adelaide at A$25,000 each?) and so I was starting to get a feeling of real urgency. Better to get out now! I looked through my collection of car magazines, going back as far as 1991. What other car could I get? It was starting to look like it wouldn't be turbo'd - and that was acceptable; after all I have two other old turbo cars. But I did want it to be four wheel drive.
- Subaru Liberty (Legacy) RS (already had one, great car);
- Subaru SVX (too attention-getting and only two doors)
- Impreza WRX (value for money - no doubt, thievability - high, uniqueness - zero);
- Japanese-import twin turbo Subaru Liberty (yeah, right - read my comments in last week's story about the long-term value of direct Japanese imports!);
- Mitsubishis VR4 Galant and Lancer GSR ('scuse me? leather?) and 3000GT (the tiniest cabin for the largest car you'll ever find);
- Pulsar GtiR (it's a little hatch, I want four doors and a boot);
kept bringing me back to Audis. And specifically, the Audi 100 body.
In addition to the 2.2 turbo S4, Audi also produced pretty well the same four wheel drive car with a 2.8 litre V6 (auto-only in Australia) and the Quattro V8, complete with 3.6 litre quad cam V8 and again an auto. Having never owned a V8 before, that sounded pretty cool - 'specially with 184kW! But the car is s-l-o-w, with a standing quarter of 17.0 seconds. Decent in-gear splits, though. The V8 (that's what it's officially called - "Audi V8") is very rare in Australia, but I found one in my home city of Adelaide. The car was for sale for only A$35,000; it dated back to 1991 and so had 136,000km on it. I looked at it and drove it, but the footwells were much more cramped than the S4 or 100, the interior furnishings disappointingly garish and crude, and this particular car felt well-worn, NVH at idle being high.
The Audi 100 quattro with the 2.8 litre V6 was simply too slow - a 17.5 second quarter. But I drove one anyway and confirmed again that the later '100' body was spot-on for me - anonymous, aerodynamic and a good size. But since there weren't any S4s for sale at the right price, it no longer mattered.... The Audi 80 - also available with the 2.8 litre V6 - was a little small for what I wanted.
So maybe I'd have to drop the four wheel drive part as well? If so, what else was there? Two cars immediately sprang to mind - the Honda Legend and Eunos 800M. What? Aren't these cars getting an awfully long way from a Skyline GT-R? Yes, and that worried me a little. But hell, I'd had a Eunos 800M for a week for an AutoSpeed road test, had driven it fast and hard, and had liked it a great deal. And since that Eunos first came out in 1994 for around A$80,000 - and now is available for as low as A$30,000 - the dollars were very much on its side. Plus, I'd be happy with the technical sophistication of the unique Miller Cycle engine and four wheel steering - and I could always improve on the twin intercoolers and maybe up the supercharger boost....
I found a 1994 Eunos 800M - stickered at a laughably high A$55,000 - which had 71,000 kays on it, and took it for a drive. The salesman dropped the price to A$39,000 - still about five grand too dear - but what really put me off was the total lack of power; this earlier model felt at least a second slower in a 0-100 time than the AutoSpeed press car. In fact, it was hard-pushed to keep up with a 1.6 Ford Laser that happened to be exiting the same suburban corner that I was traversing! But it was smooth, spacious, had at an excellent Bose sound system, and filled most of the other (now modified) criteria.
And what about the Honda Legend? I looked at one - 1995, 50,000km and immaculate. It had nice leather, a nice sunroof, nice looks, nice instruments.... maybe too nice all 'round. I might've been able to tell people that the Legend has the same rear suspension as the NSX (apparently it's almost identical) but what else was good about it? But hold on, what did it matter what other people thought?....this was a car to cosset me, not to be a hard-edged performance car! The salesman obviously saw my internal wrestling, trying to talk me into a new Honda S2000 instead of the used Legend. A drive decided me - the 3.2 litre V6 was much stronger than the sampled Eunos 800M, but the ride was poor, the car clunked and groaned, and the interior - seen from a driving perspective - looked old. Brakes were terrible, too.
I then decided to look at the Audi S2. The S2 is based on the first 80-series Audi (a shorter wheelbase than later 80s) and uses exactly the same drivetrain as the S4. That puts 179kW into a two door hatchback car about as big as a WRX, though weighing more than a Rex at about 1400kg. Still, with huge torque and the six speed trans, it should go pretty well. It's very rare (all these bloody Audis are rare!) and one of the attractions was that there was an S2 for sale in Adelaide. At Solitaire Automotive....
The salesman and I were pleasant to each other - he wanted me to take the S2 for the night straightaway - but my initial impressions were the car was simply too small and hard-edged: my head brushed the roof and the ride seemed too firm for a comfortable, long-distance car. Still, with a rolling 60-90 km/h in 2.1 seconds and an overseas test figure of high fives for the 0-100 run, it is a damn fast and refined performance car. Pretty anonymous, too.
(There's only one Australian road test of the Audi S2 - in Wheels, March 1994. They compared it with the BMW M3 but recorded incredibly slow performance times for the Audi. They didn't question why the lighter S2 with basically the same drivetrain was so much slower than the S4 they had previously tested....)
The S2 had a turbo and leather and sunroof and constant four wheel drive - of all the alternative cars that I'd looked at, this best fitted the bill - pity it wasn't just a bit bigger. As big as the S4 in fact..... But what really put me off was that a Subaru WRX was probably 80 per cent as good - and could be bought brand-new for less than the five year old Audi S2 would cost. But then the WRX wouldn't be anonymous, would it?
BMW x 2
Then there was the BMW 540i. With 210kW of 4 litre V8 under the bonnet, the 5-speed auto Bee Em might have 'just' rear wheel drive but it looked about the right size, had a sunroof, trip computer and leather, and, while it was getting a bit ostentatious, it had another advantage - a few were for sale in Adelaide. My lady and I went along to a dealer that had one at A$57,000. It had a not-inconsiderable 100,000km on the clock and also sprouted a few rough edges during the inspection. We drove the car, and Georgina loved it. However, I had reservations. The car had a clunk under braking, the interior trim on one door fell off, and the aftermarket cheapy mags and poor tyres that had been fitted didn't do much for me. But the pokey V8 engine was a delight - torquey but creamy-smooth right to the redline. The cabin was a bit cramped too - much smaller than the FWD cars like the Legend and Eunos. If it had been A$15,000 less it might have warranted further consideration.
With her delight in the BMW, I thought I'd spring another BMW at her. I've always wanted a 750iL - and in fact had been looking very seriously at buying one when instead I'd bought the GT-R. As it happened, there was a private sale 1988 750iL on offer, and so we rang the man. With a 5 litre V12 under the long nose producing no less than 220kW and 450Nm, even this 1920kg car has some get-up and go - 0-100 in 7.6 and the standing 400 metres in as fast as fifteen seconds flat. And that's faster than the 540i.... The car was in immaculate condition, had full service books and a modest 140,000km on the odometer. Every single electric feature (from the rear head restraints to triple memory front seats) worked, the tool kit and first aid kits were complete - and the guy had a genuine reason for sale. I loved it. It felt like it had a railway locomotive engine under the bonnet, and rode and handled well. And while it had once cost a cool quarter million dollars, here it was for just under A$40,000.... But I discovered that there was one major problem - lease companies won't finance a car more than seven years old...
Back to Japanese
About this time I had to travel a hundred kilometres or so northwards of Adelaide, photographing an AutoSpeed feature car in the South Australian Barossa Valley. It was a Sunday, the weather was superb, and Georgina and I thought that we'd make a full day of it. The roads are bumpy and narrow bitumen, but the scenery is lovely. It was to be a relaxing day out, though ending with the full-on work of doing the photo shoot and interviewing the car's owner.
After a day of bouncing around in the Skyline - controlling its wayward tramlining; constantly subjected to its gearbox, road and engine noise; opening and closing windows to try to get more in-cabin airflow (the rear quarter windows on a GT-R don't open); shuffling my position in the seat to compensate for the lack of lumbar support - I felt totally stuffed. And then I had to do the AutoSpeed work and drive all the way home. What's this? He should count himself so lucky to be able to drive home in that car! But I used the GT-R's power and handling only twice during the whole day of driving - once when performing an overtaking move, and once when I played through a series of tight, right-angled bends on a deserted backroad. All the rest of the time, a Magna, Commodore, Falcon, Eunos, Audi S4, et al would have been more pleasant. The trade-off of comfort for performance had never been more obvious.
So luxury and comfort would be more than nice - they'd also improve my work productivity! I started wondering - what if that Eunos 800M that I had driven had been filled with normal unleaded, not the premium brew that its high boost demands? Would that've knocked off an appreciable amount of performance as the ignition timing was dragged way back? I rang a Mazda mechanic friend and he suggested that the Miller Cycle engine's performance would be substantially downgraded with just ULP in the tank. He also said - as he had previously - that I'd never be happy in a car as slow as the 800M.... I wasn't sure that I agreed.
I rang the Mazda salesman - could he give me a price on the Eunos, on the basis that I traded-in the GT-R? Yes, certainly, he replied. It was 9 am on Monday - when could he give me an answer? By 11 am he promised. At midday his boss rang. Did I realise that the amount that they were prepared to offer on the GT-R would not match its lease payout figure (A$56,000)? Yes I was. Was I aware that the value of the GT-R had dropped because of the direct imports from Japan? Yes, I was. Was I aware that the Adelaide Nissan dealer who had sold me the GT-R valued it at A$35,000? When I pointed out that the same Nissan dealer had an Australian-delivered (albeit highly modified) R32 GT-R on their showroom floor for A$65,000, and that the Eunos that he had on offer seemed well over-priced, he lost the plot. "We're not here to debate the value of different cars!", he bellowed down the line. Well, that stuffed me. What exactly were we doing, then? From there, it was all downhill. Scratch the only available Eunos 800M.
An S2 for 300 Quick Kilometres
It was back to the Audi S2 - small, but four wheel drive, turbo and leather. Late in the afternoon I rang Solitaire - could I have the S2 overnight, please? Yes certainly, came the answer - and we'll even put half a tank of premium unleaded in for you. I rang Georgina. "What, you feel ill? That's sad. I've got the S2; we're going for a drive; and I want you to decide whether you reckon it's the car for us!" I rang Brendan Taylor to confirm that AutoSpeed was looking fine for launch - it was a Monday, our deadline night. "Where's the text of the two last feature articles?" came the uncharacteristically terse request. Gawd, they were emailed Friday, but mebbe they'd bounced - better email them again before I jump into the S2 - and pity the Melbourne team doing two full story layouts just hours before launch! Forty minutes later we'd loaded and unloaded luggage into the hatchback - finding just what would and would not fit - and were heading out.
Four hours - and 300 kilometres later - we were back home. The headlights were lousy, the headroom just unacceptable (some fiddling with the seat mounts would probably fix it), the engine unbelievably flexible and strong, the low and high speed handling exemplary, the car utterly relaxing to drive fast over both good and bad bitumen. In fact, while sitting on 160 km/h on a windy road, Georgina had actually curled her legs up under herself to have a quick nap, thinking that we were drifting along at 120 or so. And from a woman very used to quick cars, that was some compliment. But the brakes had a question mark over them - they didn't seem to be up to the rest of the car's performance - and the fuel consumption was a little high. But the trip computer that allowed the readout of the consumption was undeniably superb, and the car felt utterly confidence inspiring, even when I started to throw it around.
Sure, in an-out-and-out cross-country race, the GT-R have been home first - the driver taut and wound-up. But only a little later, the rested, relaxed driver in the S2 would have arrived....
Next week - finding the car!
Julian's New Car Part 1 - Goodbye GT-R
Julian's New Car Part 3 - The Audi S4