When Porsche Built an Audi and a Mercedes

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro

I must start today’s article with an announcement: this is a big day. That’s because today is, in fact, my birthday. To celebrate, I will take a rare day off from writing a story of great importance to everyone, like the one about that woman crashing her Highlander into a house.

Instead, I believe I’m entitled to one story of intensely detailed automotive history that will be appreciated by approximately nine people, all of whom will quickly correct minor details I’ve gotten wrong. Of course, being a Millennial, I also believe I’m entitled to a lot more than that, but I will address those concerns on my tumblr.

Anyway, today’s subject is one of my favorite automotive topics of all time: incredibly obscure cars from the 1990s. I enjoy this topic almost as much as I enjoy walking up to people at Cars and Coffee and starting sentences with: “When I had an E63 AMG wagon…”

The obscure cars in question were manufactured by Porsche. But they aren’t sports cars, or even ungainly SUVs with frog headlights. Instead, they’re the Audi RS2 and Mercedes-Benz 500E. If you’re with me this far, I implore you to read on. If not, see if I get you anything for your birthday.

Some History

Let’s start with a little background. As I’ve written before, Porsche was in dire straits in the late 1980s. That’s because their product portfolio largely consisted of old cars: there was the 911, which came out decades earlier, the 928, which felt like it came out decades earlier, and the 944, based on the 924, which was initially developed decades earlier … as a Volkswagen.

To put it in perspective, here’s an interesting statistic: Porsche sold more cars last month than they did in the entirety of 1993. In other words, Porsche in the early 1990s probably felt a lot like Lotus today: you were just waiting for the moment where they would announce it had been sold to a much larger automaker, who would invest a lot of money in bastardizing the brand name.

The RS2

In order to round up some extra cash, Porsche drew some inspiration from the teenager who mows your lawn and began taking on side projects. The first was an Audi station wagon called the RS2.

Here’s what’s important about the RS2: it is the single coolest vehicle ever produced. I base this highly factual statement on two important qualities. First, it shares its wheels and mirrors with the Porsche 964, and its brake calipers say “PORSCHE.” This makes it immensely cool. Number two: it is not currently available in the US. This makes it stratospherically cool. For proof, just ask anyone who likes the R34 GT-R.

Seriously, the RS2 was a neat car. To create it, Porsche and Audi took an Audi 80 Avant, chosen because it was the most boring car they could find, and dropped in Audi’s 2.2-liter turbocharged five-cylinder, which made 311 horsepower. The result was the birth of the hot station wagon, which is something that we car enthusiasts endlessly talk about today, but would never actually buy. (Except, of course, for me. I had an E63 AMG wagon. Just ask the people at my local Cars and Coffee).

Of course, a sporty station wagon wasn’t enough to save Porsche, which is why they took on a second side project, like when the kid who mows your lawn offers to shovel your snow. (Or, if you’re in the south, when he offers to rake your leaves. Or, if you’re in Arizona, when he offers to kill your scorpions). That brings us to…

The 500E

The 500E was a rear-wheel drive Mercedes sedan based on the W124 E-Class. But it wasn’t a typical E-Class: instead, it had an enormous V8 under the hood.

Of course, when I say “enormous,” I mean five liters and roughly 300 horsepower. But you have to remember that, back then, the competing M5 had a six-cylinder and Cadillac’s “performance” model was a 200-horsepower convertible that they inexplicably built in Italy. As a result, the 500E was very cool.

The 500E was also very cool because, once again, Porsche built it. Actually, that isn’t strictly true: Mercedes built it, then transported everything to Porsche’s factory where the workers were sitting around, presumably contemplating striking, because that’s what you do in Europe. Then they assembled everything and sent it back to Mercedes.

Every 500E was left-hand drive, and every 500E had only four Recaro bucket seats. Every 500E was also tremendously fun to drive. I know this because I actually owned a one-owner, 72,000-mile 500E, which I purchased from a Fiat dealer in 2011 for $10,000. I only had it a month before I got a much higher offer from someone in Ohio. To date, after owning more than a dozen cars, it’s the only one I really miss.

After the 500E

The 500E and RS2 may not have been enough to save Porsche, but they certainly kept the brand afloat. Of course, we all know what happened next: The 500E helped jumpstart the “fast sedan” game that continues to this day. Porsche gave us the Panamera, whose best quality is that you don’t have to look at it when you’re driving it.

And the RS2 faded into automotive obscurity, unless you’re me, who actively counts down the days until it becomes legal to import. Now that will be a happy birthday.

Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

Doug DeMuro
Doug DeMuro

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  • Doud1987 Doud1987 on May 23, 2013

    Thanks for this great article Doug! I too can't wait for the RS2 to be 25 years old to import it in the US. Some tried to import it under the "show and display" rule, but the NHTSA did not consider it rare and significant enough, and it is now on their black list for show and display... I grew up in France where a friend of the family had one on the French Riviera and was a "spirited" driver. I have great memories being in the back seat while he was racing another friend in a Audi S3 on twisty roads. The turbo kicks in at 3500rpm and gives you a big kick in the ass, then the 5-banger roars until the redline at 7000 rpm (or more, there is no rev limiter..), then the dump valve (stock) whistles like in a rally car when you shift up. What a car! If you don't have the patience you can built a sort of replica based on an Audi 80/90, by swapping a 2.2L AAN engine from a urs4/urs6 and tuning it up to around 310hp with a bigger turbo and ECU remapping. Those engines are overbuilt. According to the Wikipedia page of the RS2, it's the RS2 that replaced the 500E: "Although much of the car's underpinnings were manufactured by Audi, assembly was handled by Porsche at their Rossle-Bau plant in Zuffenhausen, Germany, which had become available after discontinuation of the Mercedes-Benz 500E, which Porsche had manufactured there under contract." It makes sense since the 500E was sold from 91 to 94, and the RS2 from 94 to 95.

    • Doug DeMuro Doug DeMuro on May 24, 2013

      I was SO sad when, years ago, I checked the Show & Display list to discover it was expressly forbidden. The problem with building a replica is that they didn't even sell the 80/90 Avant in the States. So even if you did everything right, you'd still have to base it on a sedan or that Quattro Coupe we got for a few years in about 90-91ish. RS2 was after the 500E, but I actually think they may have overlapped by a bit. Brendan's reference to his photo of the cars together at Zuffenhausen probably confirms that. It's said but in 1993ish, the best cars coming out of Zuffenhausen probably had four rings or a three-pointed star on them!

  • Jimbob457 Jimbob457 on May 25, 2013

    Took the wife's 996 cabrio in for routine service yesterday and discovered that the little fellow is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. The rear tires are a foot wide. The brakes are enormous. Internet search shows about 1000 of these little 996 beasties are currently listed for sale, mostly in Germany. Its oddly low market price as a used car seems unrelated to any sort of quality problem that I can detect. Our example has 94K miles and seems almost new. Have I unwittingly fallen into the honey hole? Or is there some disaster lurking right around the corner?

    • See 3 previous
    • Jimbob457 Jimbob457 on May 26, 2013

      @Doug DeMuro Any reliable data on the IMS lifetime failure rate for the 996? I have seen numbers as low as 5% and as high as 10%. Since you have been a Porsche executive, I was hoping you might know something others don't.

  • THX1136 Short answer: nope.
  • Jalop1991 No.
  • THX1136 I'm guessing I'm not as 'monitored' as other folks. No smarty pants phone, no insurance company provided plug-in monitor and my car is a 2013 Charger (V6). I'm probably wrong as I saw an increase last year. I very rarely drive at night. My miles driven has decreased big time since I don't have the 45 min. each way commute any more. No tickets, no accidents, no speeding. It could be the increase is due to the cost to repair damage from a collision, but who knows.
  • Picard234 Nice review. This reminds me of the Fiat 500e...cute little city car, WAY too expensive for the range and other limitations. Fiat has a nicer looking more modern interior though. Both cars will have a very limited audience I would guess.
  • Picard234 Would it really be too much extra work to just write a proper full review? These lists of bullet points aren't exactly the stuff purchases are based on. Example, the two points about the interior (cupholder space and door tops) are not accompanied by supporting pictures. The "mileage" is noted but is that observed or EPA? As others have asked, how's the ingress/egress? How much stuff fits in the back? Not trying to be personal here but if you had the thing for a whole week you should have more for your readers than 16 bullet points.