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AUDI LANDS ON ITS FEET, ER, TIRES

I recall fondly the first time I saw an Audi Quat-tro Coupe. It was back in the '70s, and Audi had been making quite a splash in the European road-rally circuit - a form of off-road racing that has never really caught on in this country. The coupe was the civilian version of those racers.

The Quattro coupe looked like nothing else on the road at the time, and its all-wheel-drive capability - "Quattro" - made it unique in an age when most four-wheel drive vehicles were Jeeps and pickup trucks with ungainly transfer cases and front wheel hubs that had to be manually locked.I don't remember the price of that coupe, only that it was thousands more than any other Audi of the time, making it about as obtainable to folks like me as Porsches and Ferraris. Funny thing, though, no one seemed to think the Coupe was overpriced. After all, four-wheel drive in a passenger car made the Audi a semi-exotic. Of course it was expensive.

A decade later, Subaru would bring four-wheel drive to the masses with a relatively inexpensive all-wheel-drive sedan and station wagon. Like the Audi, the Subaru system worked full-time, involved no balky transfer cases and did not require getting out in a blizzard to lock the hubs.

(All-wheel-drive has come to mean vehicles whose four-wheeling system is engaged at all times; four wheel-drive means the driver has to do something, even if it's just push a button, to shift from 2-wheel to four-wheel drive. Audi uses a full-time system that automatically distributes power front and rear and side to side, as it senses which wheels have the most traction. It also has a differential lock for really slippery situations.)

In 1995, Utah garages are full of sport utilities, sedans and even minivans in which all four wheels are - or can be - powered. Today, four-wheel drive is about as exotic as power windows and cruise control.

A lot has changed for Audi, as well, following the hatchet job done on the company five years ago by "60 Minutes." The show said the Audi 5000 had a propensity to make like Stephen King's "Christine" and go on murderous rampages.

Federal investigators eventually concluded that the "unintended acceleration" claimed by some Audi 5000 owners was the result of their pushing the accelerator instead of the brake, but "60 Minutes" ignored that finding, preferring to move on to more exciting revelations of corporate misconduct.

But the damage had been done to Audi. From U.S. sales of around 40,000 in the mid-'80s, the German marque sold only 14,000 last year.

Rather than give up on the U.S. market, Audi has been trying to make back the ground it lost with a whole new line of luxury vehicles priced as much as 25 percent lower than their predecessors and with Quattro as an inexpensive, stand-alone option available even on its lowest-priced models.

It was also a move to capitalize on its strengths. Despite the plethora of four-wheel drivers today, Audi has not lost its reputation as a pioneer in passenger-car four-wheeling.

The "Laser Red" Sport90 I've been driving this past week is base priced at $26,070. With the Quattro option, that figure is $27,570 - $1,500 more and worth every penny. For that price, you get a lot of standard equipment, including a full gauge package, folding center armrest, leather steering wheel and a lavish amount of walnut (the real thing) inlays on the dash, doors and console that is the classiest I've seen this side of a Jaguar.

As is often the case with media cars, my tester was loaded with more than $3,000 in additional options, including leather upholstery, auto climate control, power seats, all weather package (heated seats and windshield washer nozzles) and a power sunroof. Those are all very nice, but they pushed the bottom line to $31,375. That's actually not bad for a loaded German sports sedan with all-wheel drive, but the car drives the same with unheated cloth seats and a manual climate control system.

Why buy a $31K Audi Quattro instead of a similarly priced sport-utility vehicle (SUV)? Because it's a car, and most SUVs are basically trucks. And for 99 percent of most people's daily driving, cars beat trucks every time. That other 1 percent is for when you actually go off road, then the higher-ground clearance of the SUV is better. Hmmm. Ninety-nine percent vs. 1 percent. Tough decision.

As noted above, my test car was "Laser Red," a vivid, orangish shade that, when combined with a tail spoiler and nifty five-spoke alloy wheels, made for a very aggressive-looking package. If you like to blend into the background traffic - away from the scrutiny of the Utah Highway Patrol and other such public servants - you might want to consider a different color.

Not that the Sport90 is a hot rod. Powered by the same 2.8 liter, 172 horsepower V6 engine found in the larger Audi A6, the Sport90 is more than adequate in the acceleration department, but you won't scare away any Mustangs or Camaros.

Off the line, the Sport90 feels almost like a turbocharged Saab - in no particular hurry to be first across the intersection. But as the revs move up into the midrange, the V6 finds its stride and pulls strongly all the way to . . . well, speeds that your law-abiding reporter would not dream of exploring.

Nor is there any pony-car rumble-jumble in the Sport90. The Audi is exceedingly smooth and quiet, offering occupants the kind of bank-vault ambience that has made German sedans the standard by which luxury cars are judged.

On the inside, the Sport90's interior is Dr. Jekyll to the exterior's Mr. Hyde. The black leather is somber and conservative, sharing nothing in common with the boy-racer look of that Laser Red body.

A word about the seats: Firm! If your idea of luxury car seating is the loose pillow look, you will find the seats in the Audi only slightly less hard than a wooden church pew. But stick with it, and you will become a convert. The fact is, very firm seating with the aggressive lumbar support found in the Audi leaves you less tired after a long drive. Your mom was right: Proper posture is good for you.

Overall, driving the '95 Sport90 Quattro is a very satisfying experience in a grown-up way. Handling is superb and the visual, tactile and aural sensations send the "Quality" message while at the same time offering some exclusivity (only 14,000 Audis were sold last year, remember?) "Refined," is the word that kept coming to mind.

Did I mention that my test car was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission? It was, and I loved it. Admittedly, most people buying $30K cars don't want to shift for themselves, but the Sport90 is a delight to row through the gears with short, crisp throws and nicely spaced ratios. Also, the polished wood shift knob feels nice. Besides, self-shifting makes you feel young and virile. I recommend it to anyone having a midlife crisis provided it's not a big one. For a big midlife crisis, I recommend a Harley-Davidson.

Fuel mileage for the Sport90 Quattro is rated at 19 city and 25 highway. I got around 22.

It goes without saying, I hope, that the Sport90 has all of the luxury and safety goodies you would expect, including dual air bags and standard antilock brakes.

Audi offers one of the most comphrensive warranties around: Three-year/50,000 mile no charge scheduled maintenance; three-year/50,000 mile limited new vehicle; 10-year limited warranty against corrosion perforation; and roadside assistance through a three-year membership in the Cross Country Motor Club.