Once upon a time, when the German car companies had only just begun one-upping each other with continually increasing horsepower numbers, Audi’s 80/90-series was the 97-pound weakling of the small-sedan crowd. Its buffest competitors, the 158-hp Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 and the 168-hp BMW 325i, boasted in-line sixes that made mincemeat of even the most powerful Audi 90 — that is, until 1990, when the Audi 90 Quattro 20V showed up to challenge the big boys.
Ten extra valves pumped up the power output from 130 to 164 hp, dropping the four-ringed contender right into the thick of the fight — and the 20V had something its rivals didn’t: four valves per cylinder and a tachometer that didn’t turn red until after it reached 7000 rpm.
Of course, the Benz and Bimmer engine blocks had one thing the Audi was missing: a sixth cylinder. Thumping under the hood of the 90 was a five-cylinder — the divisive engine layout that seems to incite either love or disgust among critics. Some deride it as a lose/lose proposition that offers neither the smoothness of an in-line six nor the fuel economy of a four-cylinder. Others, upon hearing its gnarly, haunting exhaust note, are helplessly transported to a rally stage where a Group B Audi Quattro might pass a throng of frenzied spectators, creating thick clouds of dust as it claws for traction in full opposite lock.
European bureau chief Georg Kacher clearly wasn’t feeling the rally-legend Michèle Mouton vibe when, in his October 1988 review of the Audi 90 Quattro 20V, he posed the question, “After all their diligent work, might the folks in Ingolstadt have better spent their time developing a smooth, torquey, potent in-line six?”
Well, if they had, their work would have been in vain, because a look under the hood of an Audi 90 confirms that a six would never have fit. As it was, the five-cylinder engine was practically wedged between the firewall and the grille. Space was so tight that there wasn’t even room for a radiator up front — it had to be located to the side of the engine. Besides, everybody loves a good six, but a great five would play directly into the hearts of Audi’s rally fans.
Sadly, those fanatical fans turned out to be few and far between on American soil. Audi wasn’t able to tell us just how many 90 Quattro 20Vs it sold here, but the number might not have even broken the four-figure mark. Finding one today is difficult — and locating a relatively unmodified example for photographs proved to be quite a challenge. Luckily, once we climbed inside twenty-year-old Janne Rapakko’s pearl white metallic 20V, we remembered why we’d spent so much time looking for one.
The 90’s all-business cabin is pure Germano-functional luxury, with leather and wood and an automatic climate control system sourced, oddly enough, from General Motors. The interior also contains a trio of gauges made by VDO that were common to the era’s autobahn missiles, but closer inspection reveals two buttons that you’ve never seen in a BMW or a Mercedes: one to disengage the antilock brakes and one to lock the rear differential. Holy hairpin, Batman — what are those doing here?
It’s safe to say that the 90 20V was conceived at a time when Audi was struggling to find its identity — the brand was still buzzing from its domination of the World Rally Championship, but it was also trying to make inroads into the luxury-car market. Of this existential struggle, there is no better example than the 90 Quattro 20V.
Four-wheel drive wasn’t yet en vogue with American luxury buyers, so it’s not surprising that the original owners of this 20V aren’t typical American luxury-car buyers — they’re Rapakko’s Finnish parents. Finns, you’ll note, are a people obsessed with rally driving — and Rapakko volunteers that he spends a lot of time playing on mountain roads in his 20V. “I’m Finnish,” he says. “That’s what we do.”
The 20V engine was paired only with all-wheel drive, a sport suspension, and a five-speed manual transmission, confirming this as the driver’s car of the 80/90 lineup. The 2.3-liter five-cylinder demands that you keep the tachometer needle aimed high, and its heavy flywheel requires a big stomp of your right Piloti to blip revs between gears. There’s a stiff spot in the accelerator pedal’s travel that tells you when you’ve begun to open the secondary throttle butterfly — and that’s when the real music starts.
In a television interview, Michèle Mouton once said that if she had one emotion about rallying, “of course, it’s the noise of the Quattro. I mean, nobody can forget the noise. Even today, I think we miss this kind of noise.”
We, the rally fans, most certainly do. But Kacher was right — luxury-car buyers clearly prefer smooth, torquey, low-revving six-cylinder engines. The 90 Quattro 20V survived only two years, and when a high-output version of the 90 returned, it did so with a wheezing, twelve-valve, six-cylinder engine. A V-6, in fact, was chosen because its short length meant it could easily fit where no in-line six could.
But in Audi’s book of heritage and history, there’s room enough for only one hot 90 sedan-the one with five cylinders, twenty valves, and an ABS kill switch.
Engine: 2.3L DOHC I-5, 164 hp, 157 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Strut-type, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Weight: 3180 lb
Years produced: 1990-1991
Number produced: Likely fewer than 1000 for the U.S. market
Original price: $27,500 (1990)
Value today: $1000-$3000
The 20V was a high-strung, all-wheel-drive, 135-mph autobahn stormer that derived its coolness from Audi’s rally heritage. Sadly, that didn’t matter to luxury-car buyers, making this a very rare car indeed. The 90 Quattro 20V’s powertrain was also installed in the slightly more common 1990-91 Coupe Quattro, which is heavier and more expensive.