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Audi blends 4-wheel drive, high performance in 'baby Quattro'

If the turbocharged, 4-wheel-drive Quattro has helped Audi establish a ''performance image'' on the highway, the new ''baby Quattro'' will help it expand that image.

The so-called ''baby Quattro,'' due in the United States around the first of the year, is a 4-wheel-drive, turbocharged version of the Audi 80 now being sold in Western Europe. The European Audi 80 is sold in the US as the Audi 4000. The senior Audi Quattro has a 5-cylinder engine, while the ''baby Quattro'' has 4 cylinders.

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The two 4-wheel-drive cars are part of Audi's ongoing drive to alter its image from that of a maker of staid, yet ''all right,'' kinds of automobiles to one that is ''with it'' when it comes to performance on an international scale. Ultimately, Audi could have 4-wheel drive across its entire range.

What Audi has done is combine 4-wheel drive with high performance, something that other 4-wheel-drive builders have yet to do.

Both the larger Quattro and the smaller Audi 80 are designed to give the company a technological advantage over its parent, Volkswagenwerk AG.

As it upgrades its image as a builder of competitive cars, the Audi management wants motorists who are thinking about buying a BMW, for example, to take a look at Audi as well.

Audi's position as a vehiclemaker has suffered as it saw its European market share shrink from 9.4 percent in 1979 to 5.6 percent last year even though it's done well in the US. By stepping up the performance of its cars, it hopes to recapture its position in the European marketplace.

Meanwhile, hailed by Volkswagen of America Inc. as the first high-performance sports coupe sold in the US with full-time 4-wheel drive, the spirited 5 -cylinder Audi Quattro need make no apologies to anyone - even for its $35,000 sticker price.

Expectedly, at that price it's not a big seller. Even so, in the first three months of 1983, Audi sold 177 Quattros, 73 in March alone. Last year 289 were sold although the car didn't reach the US market till the spring.

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The upcoming ''baby Quattro'' should produce far higher sales because of an anticipated sharply lower price - maybe in the $15,000 range - but still with plenty of punch beneath the hood.

Powered by Audi's turbocharged 5-cylinder engine and with a top speed of around 130 m.p.h., the big Quattro zips from 0 to 55 in little more than the blink of an eye, yet it can be handled in heavy traffic or at the legal US speed limit with ease. In other words, it isn't hard to keep the car under control.

Still, there is the risk of unintentionnally topping the speed limit if you forget even momentarilly the potential of the car. On the highway, it's a good idea to rely on the cruise control.

In West Germany there is no such problem because of the autobahn system, or no-speed-limit expressways.

The Quattro is designed for the motorist who wants a car with innovative German engineering, the kind of performance for which the Quattro was designed, and the wherewithal to pay for it all. It does indeed put fun and flair back into the driving game.

Derived from the Iltis, West Germany's military Jeep, the front and rear drive shafts distribute the power in a conventional manner, left to right, while a third differential at the back of the transmission distributes power evenly betweeen front and rear.

What all of this adds up to, besides great engineering, is superb traction on the road, plus the functional luxury of the new car's interior and exterior design.

Where the car's engineering really shines is on slippery roads. Tap the brake pedal - and the car is under control. Even so, don't try to drive beyond the car's capacity to forgive.

A bad feature, however, is its appetite for fuel. After a week of commuter-type driving with the Quattro, I found the gas consumption was in line with the Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 miles a gallon, even though Audi says the car has a highway potential of 28. With highly conservative driving, the figure may get into the low 20s. The gas tank holds 23.8 gallons. That says a lot.

Too, the trunk is deep from top to bottom but shallow from front to back.

In total, however, the macho-image Audi Quattro and the capable driver make a good pair.

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