I recently had the opportunity to put two of the 80s most 80s cars to the test back to back on a 250 mile tour of the West Midlands. I paired a red Saab 900 Turbo with our new addition, an original Audi Quattro in, of course, red.
Back in the 80s, when hair was big and shoulders were padded, the hip and swingin' family man had a fairly limited choice of quick coupes at his disposal. If you wanted something a bit more upmarket than a Manta or Capri only a Quattro or Saab Turbo really fitted the bill.
These two cars were different but remarkably similar back in the day. It may be hard to believe now but back in the 80s Audi was a genuinely cutting edge car maker. The evergreen Vorsprung Durch Technik reflected the engineering innovation obviously at play in cars like the super slippery Audi 100 and the Quattro. Saab, with less money to play with, was no less innovative, evolving the pedestrian 99 into the 900 with cutting edge turbo technology.
The Quattro was a proper tour de force, a car that entered stage right to a fireworks fanfare. Like many great 80s cars it made its mark on the world's rally stages before the showrooms, revolutionising snow and gravel driving after a decade of rear wheel drive domination. The rally thing was an inspired marketing idea by Audi because it demonstrated why road users needed a technology more commonly associated with tractors. The Quattro's quirky 2.2 litre 5 pot motor, 200 bhp turbo power and four wheel drive made mincemeat of the straight and corners. All in a flared-arched package bolted together neatly and competently by Germans. It was a virtually flawless package. Save for the price - at £20,000 in 1983 the Quattro was twice the price of a standard Audi Coupe. Gosh.
The Saab 900 Turbo was a more everyday road weapon for the press-ahead executive. Sure, it was expensive, but not unattainable so. Just as well because despite 175 bhp on tap the 900 was essentially just a stretched Saab 99 with its origins in the 1960s and it lacked the top flight competition heritage. None of which should seriously detract from what was a distinctive and highly competent package. The Saab was quick by contemporary standards and like the Audi supremely practical win space for four and, unlike the tiny-booted Audi, space for all their luggage too. It was well equipped and intelligent, with plenty of safety features and that funky wrap-around screen.
My Midlands Tour started off in an '89 3 door 900 Turbo, in red with obligatory whale tale. I've always had a soft spot for 900s, which may explain why I now own four. This 223,000 mile example is my favourite, a standard car on relatively skinny tyres. The 900 is a distinctive but I think good looking car, long and slender if a little short in the wheelbase compared to its overall length. Despite its antiquated underpinnings the Saab doesn't feel ancient, it's cabin being narrow but intelligently thought out if not exactly stylish and with everything to hand. The Saab is supremely comfortable with an excellent driving position and great visibility. It steers well, direct and communicative, with only the slightly clunky gear change detracting.
On the road the Saab thrives on being driven. This is a car you can pootle around in but it clearly wants to go. Keep your foot in and give the car it's head and the Saab just gets quicker and quicker. There's no great dollop of power, just a gradual sense that the turbo is building and building power to the wheels. That power progression is probably just as well because with 175 bhp the front wheels are only just managing to head in the direction instructed. The Saab is a good handling car rather than a brilliant one, but it communicates with the driver and rewards planned progress. Passengers may dislike the slightly jumpy ride though, a consequence of that short wheelbase perhaps. On the varied, busy B-roads from Droitwich to Bridgnorth to Shrewsbury the Saab excelled, combining swift overtaking with rewarding cornering and all in reasonable comfort.
Jumping into the Quattro straight after the Saab I was instantly taken by the sense of a complete, fully integrated package. Where the Saab feels like an old car that's been gradually improved the Quattro obviously started from a clean sheet. Clearly that sheet was one allergic to curves, because the Quattro is remarkably straight edged. I quite like the Quattro's boxy, squat lines with its wing spats and colour-coded bumpers. The wheelbase is surprisingly short like the Saab, with dinky wheels barely filling the arches; it's a design that feels more about function than form.
The origami exterior is carried into the interior where only the steering wheel stands out amongst the straight lines. But the Audi's designers did allow themselves some creativity when it came to the seat material; anyone familiar with Golf GTIs of the period will feel at home here. Audi liked it so much they put it on the roof too.
The Audi, like the Saab, Is spacious for four, although passengers might want to leave their luggage behind. The boot is tiny, thanks to Audi running out of places to out the fuel tank because of the rear diff. Behind the wheel the car's humble origins tend to shine through. It feels remarkably like a grown up Golf GTI, with its plasticky dashboard - complete with fiddly rocker switches - and almost square windscreen. It's all very stock Audi Coupe, save for the diff lock and boost gauge of course.
All of which may be part of the Audi's party trick. Where Cosworth-powered Fords of the era - and the Saab - make do with big spoilers to signal their intent, the Quattro, even with its blistered arches, is altogether more subdued. And that makes firing it up and hitting the road all the more exciting.
Back in the early 80s Audi decided, apropos of nothing, that cars should have an odd number of cylinders. In the Quattro's case, five. Illogical as it may seem on paper, on the road the benefits at immediately obvious. Four cylinder cars, in general, tend to be more responsive from standstill than the six cylinder cars, and more free-revving. Six cylinder cars are smoother and torquier. Far from falling between two stools the five pot Quattro delivers the benefits of both. In spades. This example had over 168,000 miles on the clock. But, like the Saab, felt like it would go on and on.
Initially, I have to say, I found the Quattro disappointing. I may well be the only person who's ever driven one to say that. The Audi's sheer Teutonic competence makes it feel very modern. There is no drama, no turbo whoosh. Just an overwhelming sense of solidity. But it is the Quattro's sheer accessibility that makes it so good. It is quick, but doesn't feel it, delivering a lag-free rush of acceleration with none of the nose-up drama of a two wheel drive car. The gearbox is a joy, the engine a thrumming beast, the steering nicely weighted and direct. The lack of drama extends to corners, minor inconveniences in the Quattro's way that are dispatched with alacrity and barely any loss of speed. Modern Audis achieve much the same trick, certainly faster, but seem to have replaced engagement with competence. The Quattro is highly skilled but still leaves enough room for the driver to feel involved.
It will tempt you into trouble far quicker than the Saab. The Quattro munches miles at an astonishing pace. It conveys a go-anywhere, do-anything skill, delivered with so little drama, that it is tempting to be drawn into testing its limits. I didn't and as a result have no idea where they are. Whereas modern super cars are too fast for our roads, the Quattro feels just fast enough. Which is probably just as well.
The Audi is, in virtually every respect, the better car. I drove it much further but emerged more relaxed than I did in the Saab. I really enjoyed it and can't wait to drive it again. It is probably the most competent, all-round classic car I've ever driven.
The Saab isn't. A few years ago I bought a Mars Red Mk1 Golf GTI to complement my Alfasud Ti. I drove it once and immediately sold it. It did everything better than the Alfasud but I am a contrary sod. I like flaws. I like cars that thrive on missing the mark. My day in the Saab and Audi reminded of that experience. The Saab is noisier, bumpier and more easily unsettled. Which is probably why you can buy five good 900 Turbos for the price of one Quattro. And also why Audi dominates middle class motoring while Saab no longer exists.
So I'll stick to my Saabs but enjoy the occasional blast in the Quattro. I know which one will be more popular on hire and frankly, with good reason.
You can hire both of these cars from us - the Quattro is based in Shropshire and the Saab lives at our Cotswolds site. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk. Prices start at just £95.