How the forgotten sports sedan Audi 90 tried to beat the mighty BMW 3 Series in the 80s | Taza Khabre


  • The Audi 90 was launched in the late 80s and was considered futuristic and aerodynamic at the time, although it can look boxy and unimaginative by today’s standards.
  • Audi suffered a significant drop in sales and reputation in the mid-90s due to reports of unintended acceleration problems with the Audi 5000, which affected the success of the Audi 90.
  • Although the Audi 90 had great specs and high performance, it suffered from drawbacks such as limited boot space, mediocre acceleration and handling that didn’t match up to rivals like the BMW 3 Series. In addition, it was relatively expensive compared to its predecessor and struggled to regain public acceptance.

Audi 90 Sports sedan some might call it square and unimaginative by today’s standards. Keep in mind this was a late 80’s piece. At that time, the design of the Audi 90 was considered futuristic, aerodynamic and, at the same time, restrained.

With all this in mind, one would think that Audi had a winner on its hands, especially considering its equipment list and competent internals on paper, but that wasn’t quite the case. While it’s true that Audi gave the 90 a fighting chance, there were external factors that hindered its chances of success compared to its rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

All information in this article was taken from YouTube videos by MotorWeek, Curbside Classic and Audi World.

Audi had big problems in the mid-90s

The Audi 90 (and 80) debuted in 1987, but it wasn’t just any ordinary update for the German automaker. Up until this point, Audi had counted on buyers to focus on the new launch as something new. It was something Audi desperately needed.

The reason for this is the Audi 5000. Back in 1984, Audi was on a roll. Sales have grown significantly thanks to the success of the 5000, but the brand is about to hit 180. There have been numerous reports that the Audi 5000 has had “sudden unintended acceleration problems” which has ultimately led to a significant drop for Audi in more than just sales terms , but also, very importantly, in terms of reputation.

“…those Audis had a mind of their own. No matter how hard Mom pressed the brake pedal, the Audi kept charging, right through the garage door with Grandma on its nose. This despite the fact that the small five-cylinder mill produced only 130 horsepower. A top-of-the-line four-wheel disc brake system can probably generate more than 600 equivalent horsepower. Apparently, the brakes failed at exactly the same moment that the gas pedal decided it had a mind of its own.” – Curbside Classic

This was very bad news for Audi, obviously. As reports of unintended acceleration piled up, fewer buyers came into Audi showrooms. From a sales high in 1984, when sales reached almost 75,000, by 1991, Audi barely reached 12,000 units. Apparently to try and limit the damage, Audi quickly added an automatic transmission lock, making it impossible to shift into drive or reverse without a foot on the brake. But, unfortunately, the damage has already been done.

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The Audi 90 took aim at the 3-Series and C-Class

Needing a fresh start, however, Audi pulled out all the stops and debuted the 90 sedan in 1987. This, of course, was aimed squarely at competing with the BMW 3 Series E30 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class of the time. It featured flush door handles, interesting design elements such as headlights and grille that flowed into the hood, and slim pillars that indicated a new design direction compared to its predecessor.

Technical characteristics of Audi 90



90 Quattro


Inline 5-cylinder/4-cylinder (automatic only)

In-line 5-cylinder


130 horsepower

130 horsepower

A turning point

140 lb-ft

140 lb-ft


5-speed manual/3-speed automatic

5-speed mechanics

Wheels and tires

195/60 14

195/60 14

0-60 mph

8.5 seconds

8.5 seconds

(Characteristics taken from Audi World)

As for what it feeds, the 80 model had a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, which produced 108 horsepower and 121 lb-ft of torque. However, the 2.3-liter 5-cylinder engine is what you get when you equip the 90 Quattro with a 5-speed manual transmission. This allowed it to produce 130 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. You can also spec the 90 with the option of front-wheel drive, and a 3-speed automatic transmission will become available in addition to the 5-speed manual.

MotorWeek had this to say about the interior: “Considering its high cost, it’s good that the interior of the 80s and 90s is as fresh as its exterior. A smooth exterior replaces the boxy theme of the previous car… And among the bells and whistles is Audi’s ‘I’m OK’ system for checking and reading warnings. Despite the minimum adjustments, the seats provide sufficient support, and the leather used here is not suitable for sliding around corners. The steering wheel is fixed, but does not block the instruments.”

Features of the Audi 90 interior

  • Leather upholstery
  • Electric windows
  • Electric door lock
  • Power steering
  • Air conditioning
  • Wood application on the dashboard and center console
  • Red illumination cluster
  • Heated front seats (option)

This shows that Audi put a lot of effort into making the 90s sedan stand out from its troubled predecessor. However, everything in the 90s was not as good as it seemed.

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The Audi 90 was mostly good, but the damage was already done

Via: Audi

While the Audi 90 had many good points, there were a few flaws that kept it from potentially being as good as Audi thought it would be. For example, while the rear seat was a step up in terms of space compared to its predecessor, the trunk lost some space. According to MotorWeek, it was quite deep, short, and “the floor is not level at all.”

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Also, they say the manual shifter is a little bumpy, and combined with the nearly 3,000-pound weight, acceleration is just about adequate for what’s really meant to be a sports sedan. According to their test, the 90 quarter mile took 17.4 seconds and the 60-mph sprint took 10.3 seconds. Even in the handling department, they describe it as adequate, and they go on to admit that “the car doesn’t handle itself with as much firmness as, say, a 3 Series.”

Audi 90 was not cheap either. At the time, the price started at $24,300, which was about $2,000 more than the Audi 5000, according to MotorWeek. The test car they were looking at, however, cost just over $26,000. According to the used car aggregator, the Audi 90 has an average price of $7,872. Still, the damage had already been done to Audi, and no matter how competent the ’90s sedan might be, it took very little time for people’s perceptions of the brand to change.

Source: Motorweek, Audi World,, Curbside Classic

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