Capsule Review: 1998 Audi A4 (B5)

Mike Solowiow
by Mike Solowiow

60 Minutes nearly killed Audi in North America. After “Unintended Acceleration in the Audi 5000” aired in 1986, Audi sales dropped from 74k sales a year in 1986 to less than 12k by 1991. Sales remained constant until 1996, when Audi debuted a car that would finally tackle the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes C-Class head on. With its still unusual all-wheel drive system, classic German styling and interiors that set the industry standard, the A4 single-handedly revived sales in North America. An Audi fan since birth (when I was driven home in an Audi Fox GTI), I viewed them from afar; Roswell’s nearest Audi dealer lay eight hours away in Dallas. So I rejoiced when I signed the paperwork to purchase the first of the 5-valve V6 powered A4 quattros. Little did I know the next year would be filled with Germanic Sturm und Drang.

“Lola” was a 1998.5 (as Audi always introduces models in the half-year cycle) A4 2.8 V6 with quattro and a 5-speed manual. The blue paint and khaki interior with matching blue piping on the seats really set off the beautifully proportioned car, despite numerous rock chips from several Colorado winters. She was German to a T, right down to the goofy lever by the turn signal to turn on the lights, and the complete lack of cupholders.

I fell in love at first sight. The joy continued as we blasted down I-70 in the cold snow towards Breckenridge. Having driven Plymouths, Dodge Neons and other ChryCo products growing up, I was astounded by the Audi’s steering feel, suspension taughtness and the little Audi’s sheer verve whenever a curve presented itself. I was sure I’d found the perfect car, front-wheel bias be damned.

But as with all affairs, this one didn’t last. Lola loved to torment me with her various “glitches,” for which Audi became justifiably notorious in the late 90’s. Sometimes the climate control would become possessed, and the taillights would refuse to work (at least only one side at a time). However, it was the sunroof that doomed her. The novel rotary dial switch would malfunction, opening the roof at random. It was this problem that led me to find her insides full of two feet of snow. There was no hope after that, and she left me on a tow truck, and I left her in a Mazda6.

Mike Solowiow
Mike Solowiow

More by Mike Solowiow

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 59 comments
  • EFraelich EFraelich on Jul 14, 2011

    I had a 2000 A4 1.8T Quattro and loved/hated it. I bought it in 2003 with about 50k miles on it for about $16,000 so I missed most of the depreciation (intentionally). Thank you to whoever bought it new though, lol. For about the first year I loved this car so much I honestly almost got the Audi logo tatooed on my bicept. This car just fit like a glove. Every knob, every switch, every trim piece just looked, felt and worked amazingly. The little touches like the 3rd visor over the rear view mirror, motion sensor shut off button for "windows down" parking, auto dimming rear AND side view mirrors, seat warmers that have more than "barely on" and "Fire", an arm rest that is useable while driving, a moonroof that has a suggested stop for noise and pressure OR lets you open it all the way, etc. It's as if the designers actually treated us like a grown up and put some common sense touches into a car. I also liked how they skipped less critical options (in the 1.8 A4) in favor of better ones. I never minded that my seats weren't power because no one else drives my cars. Once the seat is adjusted, i'm good to go! Now on to the bad. Please understand however that when I complain, I am talking about stuff that is not maintenance related (brakes, tires, belts, hoses, o2 sensors, etc) but I'm talking about stuff that fails that shouldn't or that fail long before they should. Don't get me wrong, this car did require much more time and money in maintenance than most cars however I knew that, accepted it and prepared for it before I even bought it. I am not one of these jerks who trades in their 1992 Camry they had for 20 years and then get mad when a fine German Automobile requires a little more pampering. The trade off was well worth it for me. That all changed after about 90k miles when my check engine light started coming on about every 3 months. It didn't help that whatever the issue was never cost less than $1,000. Wheel Bearings, Rear Speakers, suspension parts, leaky differentials, etc. Then I got the dreaded "oil pan sludge" issue around 120k miles. After going to battle with my local dealership, they repaired the motor bearings under the sludge recall but it took an amazing amount of energy despite perfect maintenance records. At least they did that though. Audi corporate was just short of rude to me when I contacted them. Like someone else said they first tried to blame it on me. When I produced perfect maintenance records they then claimed it was because of the mileage. They basically said something like "well no car lasts forever". Then I drove my 1989 Audi 80 up there that had 210k miles on it and still ran flawlessly. That was when I finally got some help. That ALMOST did it for me however my infatuation with this car made me want to think that I had already faced the worst case scenario and made it through. I loved the car too much. Then about a month after this fiasco... my friend "old yellow" (aka the check engine light) came on again. This time it was the catatlytic converter. Hey at 132k miles... it can only be expected right? So no biggie... then they tell me what it is going to cost... $1700!!!! I told them that I would rather just put that down on my next car and that was exactly what I did... on an Acura. Now years later, I have never loved another car like I did my A4 however I have also only spent a fraction of what I spent on that car. My 2003 TL now has 123,000 miles on it and the only "repair" I have ever needed was a transmission at around 80K miles... which Acura covered with very little fighting. Would I buy another Audi? Let me put it this way... I pray every night to 3 different gods that someday Audi can produce a car with the same level of quality and function that my A4 had, with the reliability of a Toyota or Honda. THEN I honestly will get their name tatooed on my bicept!

  • JPNev1 JPNev1 on Jan 06, 2013

    I realize this is an old post, but I just now read it =-). The B5 certainly had a reputation for being flaky, but I feel that Audi came around with the later B6 model, and certainly the B7. I have a B7 (2008 2.0T Quattro Tiptronic), and it has been stupendous. I'm quickly approaching 90,000 miles and have had no issues with the car. I realize it could all change tomorrow, but the car has not given me any indication that it's going to be difficult to live with. The maintenance is kind of expensive (though what car isn't really), but that's because I'm paranoid with all of my cars and I tend to over-maintain them, so anything I own would be expensive to maintain. Perhaps that is why I have NEVER been stranded anywhere in any of my cars. I am extremely picky about the finest oils, fluids, and filters being used and I will pay extra for the stuff with Audi rings on the bottle instead of crap from the auto parts store. These cars like ZF fluid for the automatics, the specific green power steering fluid used by Porsche and Audi, the pink VW/Audi anti-freeze, and fully synthetic 5W-40 engine oil if you have the turbo four like I do. I can't speak for electrical glitches on earlier A4s, because I know they suffered plenty of them, but my 2008 has been flawless (including the sunroof dial). I had a brief scare when I replaced the battery with the ESP light coming on and the remote keys not locking the car, but once I started the car and drove it ten feet everything re-adapted and was fine again. The A4 is definitely more of a luxury car than the BMW 3-series, which I owned before the A4. The BMW was fantastically reliable (270,000 miles), and nothing drives better than one of those, but the ride is relatively harsh and there are not as many creature comforts. The A4 retains most of the handling one would use every day and has a much nicer ride. The equipment is much more generous than you normally see in a BMW, and the seats are WAY more comfortable (I just did two 1,500-mile trips in the Audi with no back or rump pain; the BMW would have killed me, haha).

  • MaintenanceCosts "But your author does wonder what the maintenance routine is going to be like on an Italian-German supercar that plays host to a high-revving engine, battery pack, and several electric motors."Probably not much different from the maintenance routine of any other Italian-German supercar with a high-revving engine.
  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.
Next