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Buyer’s Guide: B5 Audi A4 — Audi’s First 3 Series-Fighter

If you’re a young Audi enthusiast, or a car enthusiast of any kind for that matter, and you want to get into a small, fun sport sedan for little money, the B5 Audi A4 is tough to beat. At the moment, there are loads of them on classifieds throughout the country, with every variant available, and they’re all shockingly cheap. So we though we’d put together a little bit of a buyer’s guide for anyone looking to.

 

To do so, we’re going to talk a little bit about the history of the B5 Audi A4, how it began and what it was supposed to be. Then we’ll talk about which models were available; body styles, engines, transmissions and drivetrains. Lastly, we’ll tell you what to look for and what to avoid. So let’s dig in.

 

A Brief History

 

Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, BMW was essentially dominating the small, premium sports sedan segment. The 3 Series was nigh untouchable and Audi really couldn’t keep up. Sure, the Audi 80 was a good car but it was simply not as good as any generation of 3 Series it competed with. Which is why, in the early ’90s, Audi realized it needed to do better and replaced it with something more competitive. Thus, the B5 Audi A4 was born.

 

The B5-gen A4 was Audi’s first ever A4 and it’s the car that allowed the four-ringed brand to take on the blue and white Roundel at its own game. It was a massive step up from the Audi 80 that preceded it in virtually every way. It was more premium, better looking, it handled better and was overall just more befitting of the segment Audi wanted to compete in.

 

It wasn’t perfect, the B5 A4, and it still couldn’t take down the E36-generation 3 Series in terms of sales, but it was certainly a close competitor and put Audi on the map in that segment. Since the B5, the A4 has been Audi’s most popular car and it’s consistently been among the brand’s best-selling vehicles, if not it’s very best-selling vehicle.

 

Available Models

 

Because we’re based in the US market, we’re mainly going to discuss the models that were available here. They’re essentially the same, just without a few of the diesel and smaller gasoline engines that were available in European markets.

 

In America, the B5 Audi A4 was sold in either sedan or Avant (wagon) form. The fact that Audi sold an A4 Avant in the ‘States was interesting because BMW didn’t sell the E36 3 Series wagon here. However, the 3 Series offered a coupe and the A4 did not.

Audi RS4 Avant for Reference

 

Powering the B5 A4 was a choice of two different engines in Americas: a 1.8 liter turbocharged four-cylinder or a 2.8 liter naturally-aspirated V6. The little four-pot made about 170 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque, hardly the big turbocharged numbers we see today. While the V6 made about 190 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. It’s funny to see the naturally-aspirated engine having more torque than horsepower and the turbocharged engine having about the same for both. In today’s world, it’s typically the opposite.

 

Both engines were available with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed “Tiptronic” automatic. The latter had a manual-shift ability, with a separate shift gate that allowed the driver to just click the shift lever forward or backward, for upshifts and downshifts, respectively. It was among the first of its kind but we’ve come to expect that sort of feature in every automatic-equipped car today. Front-wheel drive was standard but Quattro all-wheel drive was optional.

 

What to Look For

 

To be honest, there are a couple of good configurations of the B5 Audi A4 but the best one is probably the A4 Avant with a 1.8T, a five-speed manual and Quattro all-wheel drive.

 

The 2.8 liter V6 engine is great but it doesn’t have a ton of tuning ability. While the 1.8T might be underpowered stock, it has immense tuning potential and can easily push over 200 hp with just a simple ECU tune. It’s also easier to work on because of its size and its parts are a bit cheaper and more plentiful.

 

You’re also going to want the five-speed manual over the automatic. Even though the auto ‘box is Tiptronic, its shifts are hilariously slow by modern standards. In the ’90s, they were fine but compared to modern cars, the Tiptronic is just dim-witted, slow and frustrating. Also, what’s the point of getting and Audi that’s front-wheel drive? Get a Quattro model.

 

As for whether or not you should get a sedan or Avant, it’s up to personal taste. We recommend the Avant, simple because it’s cooler, unique in the American market and more practical. But we wouldn’t disagree with anyone buying the sedan because they thought it looked better. In fact, the B5 Audi A4 is one of the more handsome sedans Audi’s ever made and looks great even today.

 

But if we had to pick our Goldilocks version, it’s be the one mentioned above: Avant/1.8T/Manual/Quattro.

 

What to Avoid

 

As with any VW/Audi product of this era, make sure the car you’re looking at has had its timing belt and water pump replaced if it has over 100,000 miles. Both parts are usually replaced in the same job and it’s one that isn’t fun to do. It’s also very expensive to have done because there are a lot of hours involved. So avoid any car with no record of the timing belt/water pump job being done.

 

Also, check for wheel bearing issues. They’re known to fail often on the B5 Audi A4 and aren’t exactly cheap to replace. They’re not super expensive but it would just be frustrating to have to dump the money into them soon after buying the car. So just listen for any squealing from them on your test drive.

 

Audi’s of this era typically don’t rust too badly but there can be some spots that suffer, such as the rear wheel arches. Unless paint is chipped deeply, an Audi of this era shouldn’t be too rusty, so if you see a lot then obviously back out.

 

Another thing to check before buying is the PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) valve. If the PCV or any of its hoses are bad or broken, there will be a considerable amount of oil visible under the intake manifold and/or behind the engine near the firewall. If this is bad and has been for some time, it could spell trouble.

 

What to Do Immediately

 

If you’ve just purchased yourself a B5 Audi A4, there are some things you should do to your car almost immediately. Firstly, check the timing belt and its tensioner to see if they look okay. If so, you know the person probably had them replaced. Then replace your catalytic converter with either a stock one (not recommended) or a high-flow cat (recommended). They get clogged pretty easily, and they’re restrictive enough when healthy, and rob the engine of power. Replacing the old one with a high-flow cat will immediately make the engine feel more responsive and give it a few extra horsepower to boot.

 

It also can’t hurt to check the PCV even if it seemed okay before buying it. The hoses become brittle, crack and even break (especially the one at the back of the engine, as it’s made of a hard plastic that can literally just break from heat over the years). It’s not too expensive to replace it all and it’s only about a day’s worth of work but entirely worth it.

 

Also, check for suspension and subframe bushings, as they tend to wear over time and become loose, causing sloppy handling. In addition, one of the easier fixes is to replace the engine snub mount. It’s the engine mount that connects the engine to the front locking carrier and it almost always goes bad. It’s cheap and only takes about 30 minutes to replace but it makes a world of a difference, allowing your engine to accelerate without clunking and jerking around.

 

Overall

 

The B5 Audi A4 is one of the best cheap Audis to buy. It’s very cheap; with even really clean examples going for well under $5,000; relatively cheap easy to maintain, comes in wagon form, easy to tune and fun to drive. If you do your due diligence and really check out the car you’re buying to make sure it doesn’t have any major problems, your first Audi can be inexpensive and (relatively) headache free.

Nico DeMattia

I've been in love with cars since I was a kid, specifically German cars. Now I get to drive them talk about them on the internet.