Home » Cars I Grew Up In: Ridiculously Underpowered 1980 VW Dasher Diesel vs Infamous 1988 Audi 5000

Cars I Grew Up In: Ridiculously Underpowered 1980 VW Dasher Diesel vs Infamous 1988 Audi 5000

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Good morning Autopians! It’s August 1st, or, I suppose, July 32nd in our reckoning. Today, I hope you’ll indulge me in a little personal walk down memory lane as we take a look at two cars my family owned when I was growing up. But before we get there, let’s see which vessel won our naval battle on Friday:

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Well, that’s pretty decisive. It’s also wrong; this is one rare instance in which the correct answer, “neither,” wasn’t a choice. Don’t get a boat. Get a friend with a boat.

This pairing brought up in the comments an interesting phenomenon that I think warrants a mention: When it comes to obscure old machinery, there will always be a small but vocal group who absolutely love it, sing its praises, and won’t hear a bad word against it. There will also be plenty who had a bad experience with it, which causes them to denounce any and all examples of such a machine as “junk.” It’s important to take both of those groups’ anecdotes with a grain of salt, because I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Our two cars today are definitely obscure, mechanically related, and both a part of my personal history. My family’s car choices were always offbeat, encompassing everything from an Opel Manta to a Fiat 128 sedan to a Dodge 600. My love of weird old slow cars, and my near-total brand agnosticism, come directly from that hodgepodge of vehicles. We had one of each of these, one of them nearly identical to the car shown here. I promise I will endeavor to refrain from too much wistful reminiscence as we check them out.

1980 Volkswagen Dasher Diesel – $850

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter diesel inline 4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Tualatin, OR

Odometer reading: 166,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but “not well”

The first number you need to know when it comes to this car is forty-eight. That’s the horsepower rating. At sea-level. At 12,095 feet, the elevation of Independence Pass in Colorado, it’s… less than that. At the top of Pike’s Peak – 14,110 feet – it’s even less. But it can climb to both those elevations; it just takes a while. I know this because we took family vacations in one of these when I was in grade school, and my mom loved the Colorado mountains. [Editor’s Note: This is such an absurd car to have grown up in. So far from where the industry is now, and where it’s headed. It’s awesome. -DT]

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This absurdly low-powered engine made for some slow Rabbits, but in the first-generation Passat (as this car was known everywhere else) it dragged the 0-60 time down to just over 19 seconds. That’s quicker than a contemporary Mercedes-Benz 240D by almost 3 seconds, but still languid. That’s the downside. The upside is that these Dashers flirted with 50 miles per gallon on the highway, and in a whole lot greater comfort than the tinny little Japanese boxes that could pull similar numbers.

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This particular Dasher has seen better days. It was an Oregon coast car, and the salt air has not been kind. That crisp Giugiaro styling is riddled with rust and dents, and it’s been sitting for 20 years. Diesels can generally handle long storage pretty well, and it does run (and presumably drive), but there will still be a lot of work to do if you wanted to put it back on the road.

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Is it worth it? Probably only to some weirdo like me who has a sentimental attachment to it. And this four-door doesn’t push the nostalgia buttons nearly as much as a two-door like our old one was. Don’t worry; I’m not crazy enough to drag this old rustbucket home. But I kinda hope someone is that crazy; I’d hate to see it go to the crusher.


1988 Audi 5000S – $1,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter inline 5, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Farmers Branch, TX

Odometer reading: 172,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep, but needs some HVAC work

This car still looks like a spaceship to me. When this generation of Audi’s notorious 5000 model first appeared in magazines in 1983, it looked like the future: impossibly sleek and completely unlike anything else on the road. To younger eyes it probably looks a lot more stodgy and old-fashioned, but there are a lot of firsts or near-firsts here, especially in terms of aerodynamics: flush-mounted windows, a seal along the leading edge of the hood, and an undertray are all common now, but they were exotic and futuristic in 1983.

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The big Audi shares some DNA with the Dasher above; both use the same canted-over longitudinal engine placement with a transaxle behind it driving the front wheels. In some of the Audis, of course, that transaxle had a driveshaft out the back end leading to the rear wheels (Audi’s legendary “Quattro” all-wheel-drive system), but here we have only front wheel drive.

This car is an automatic, the very subject of an infamous hatchet job by TV news program 60 Minutes. By 1988, when this car was built, the gearshift had an interlock that would not allow the shifter to move out of Park unless the driver’s foot was on the brake. Audi was later exonerated, but the damage was done, and it took years for their US sales to recover.

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The whole fiasco was a shame, because the Audi 5000 was a really, really nice car: smooth, quiet, solid, good-handling, and a respectable performer for its time. We owned three of them in my family over the years, one virtually identical to this one, only a year older. (It’s the car I drove to my senior prom, in fact.) All were wonderful cars to drive, but fussy and high-maintenance. That much has not changed when it comes to Audi.

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This 5000 runs and drives well, but a lot of the interior is taken apart. The HVAC controls need repair, and the driver’s side window won’t go down. It includes a whole trunkload of spare parts, three service manuals, and all the removed interior bits. This one is a whole lot more tempting to me than the Dasher. In fact, it’s probably a really good thing it’s all the way down in Texas.

So, that’s my little trip down memory lane, and thank you all for coming along. Your choices for today are a used-up slowpoke and a hot mess. Whether this lends any insight into my own oddball automotive tastes, I’ll leave up to you.


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73 Responses

  1. I would pick the dasher…. Which is exactly what I did. I actually bought that little 1980 VW Dasher, and it is fantastic. It had a fuel supply issue, my temporary fix was just wiring up a in-line fuel pump. The injection pump likely needs a rebuild, but it runs great, shifts without issues, and is well on its way to be my new daily. Don’t worry, I have another vehicle I can fall back on if it breaks down. 😛

    All that’s left is to put in the new timing belt and do a valve adjustment.

  2. Holy crap, I, too, grew up in almost that exact same VW! My dad purchased a new ’79 Dasher diesel 5-door just like this (but in what I remember being a “redder” shade of brown) — a rare sight in Detroit back in those days. Apparently, one of his friends special ordered it and backed out of the deal, so he went for it.

    Some memories include:
    – Riding home from the dealership when he got it new and I was just 4 years old — I was particularly interested in the little protruding red, yellow, and green lights on the dash.

    – Playing with the plastic gloves that the gas station provided at the diesel pumps.

    – Him flooring it and laying a “smoke screen” behind us as we inched forward.

    – Running out of Diesel and riding on his shoulders as he walked us to the nearest gas station.

    – Playing in the hatch area and messing around with the corrugated wood privacy shade.

    Anyway, thanks for the memories. You know what my vote is on this….

  3. I agree that they’re both at least $1,000 too much, but I like them both. The Dasher is probably the way I’d go if the rust isn’t structural, though. They look awesome

  4. In the early 90’s I bought an earlier styled version of the Audi as a 5000T. It wasn’t in the best shape, had a million door dinks in it, leather interior well worn, mechanically sounds though, and damn it, I just loved that car. Really handled well, smooth, very comfortable seats, and the turbo would make it get up and go. Drove it to the top of Pike’s Peak on a vacation, and flew down lonesome two-lane highways on the way home at midnight. Age started to hit it hard though, and repairs were getting expensive and regular, so it had to go.

    It would be expensive to get one running really well, but between these two choices, Audi would be the better car when done.

  5. We had one of those Dashers. Since the car before it was a Westfalia, it was actually kind of fast by our standards. The problem was if you tried to use the AC, the car over heated. It was actually a nice car otherwise. We gave up on it after a year, and my dad went Japanese the rest of his life after having VWs for about the previous 20 years.

  6. I used to have a Audi like this,they’re called Audi 100 here. I cut open the air filter to get more of that glorious inline 5 induction noise, nice car to drive as well. Anyway, the fuel injection crapped out on me when the car reached 300.000 km and I never got her running properly again,which is why I voted for the dasher. That diesel will keep running till the end of time,and the car will probably hold more of the value one you restore it.

  7. So I have to say the majority disappointed me today. You all are dead fucking wrong.
    There are few hard and fast rules with Audis:
    -They are gonna take every penny you have
    -They will fuck you at the worst possible moment
    -Never buy a fwd one, you are just buying an overpriced VW. Do that instead.
    If the Audi was manual and quattro (and you won the Powerball) it might be worth rolling the dice, but fwd auto is a parts car.

    The dasher while needing some things will run until the unibody returns to David Tracy’s driveway. Turn up the injector pump, throw on a turbo if you really must but that thing will get all the mpgs and then swap into another chassis to do it all over again. Plus the dasher is a sweet brown hatch.

    1. As the owner of a 1989 Audi 200 (Audi’s rebadge fix for the 5000 fiasco) CS quattro turbo I will agree that this car comes with the share of headaches but…. oh baby when I get on a road of any weather condition and wind through those gears I am in 1989 heaven.

      1. Best car I ever owned for the two weeks it worked (until we bought my wife’s 18 gsw 4mo 6 speed) was a 99 a4 1.8tqm avant.

        Worst car I ever owned: that B5 A4 1.8tqm avant the other three years and 5k in parts and maintenance before I sold it still broken at a huge loss.

  8. You can call it a hatchet job if you want. My friends parents had an 1985 Audi 5000 automatic.

    It looked great in their drive way, not so great after it slipped out of park and went through the wall of their house.

  9. You think the dasher is slow? I learned to drive stick in a diesel VW Vanagon in Juneau AK! I was a 17 year old nanny carrying 4 kids around in a van with lawnmower like performance. Anytime you were moving forward you had the pedal floored, and IIRC the top speed was about 55mph.

    1. I drove a diesel VW van in Germany for a year – often hauling 8+ people and equipment on 4-hour trips. The stress of deciding whether you had enough momentum to pass the (rare) slower truck on the Autobahn is something you never forget. There was always a high risk of faster traffic approaching, no matter how open the left lane appeared. Those fuckers in their Daimlers had no sympathy for any obstructions in the left lane – ever. I miscalculated a couple of times and got stuck on long hills trying to pass heavy trucks. The angry drivers behind me wouldn’t slow down to allow me to pull in behind the truck so we had a slow parade until well past the hilltop.

  10. I actually really want that VW Dasher… I’ve had a silly idea for a while now of doing a 24 hrs of Lemons build with one, and for the theme I could make it a “Rainbow-Dasher,” with a big plush strapped to the roof and everything. Slow but economical cars can actually do quite well in Lemons, and from what I’ve heard the Dasher actually has really good handling so it could potentially conserve momentum pretty well once it does get up to speed. And better yet, that one could probably be within the Lemons budget once all unnecessary parts are sold off. But I’m in no position to build a cheap race car right now, I have enough broken cars as is. Sigh… Maybe someday.

  11. Do not buy the Dasher if the temperature regularly gets over 75 Fahrenheit in your area. Not only can you not run the AC at highway speeds, you often have to run the heater to keep the engine from overheating. When my parents broke down in Michigan, they just signed it over to the mechanic and rented a car to get home. Worst $2000 they ever spent, but at least it ended my dad’s obsession with German cars.

  12. If it totals less than $3000 worth in blank ATM cards the answer is always “both”.

    If I had to choose I’d throw the Dasher a pity buck. It has tons of character and you can at least pick up the occasional load of groceries while saving your pennies for something higher-performing, like a moped.

  13. I went through a German Car phase, once. The Germans are cheap, so they chince on the chemicals to make plastic/rubber/gaskets. Eventually, they dry out and you have to rebuild the whole car. The Audi adds to this, by having the craziest form of wheel brake rotors ever made. In order to get the rotors large enough for performance, they would not fit inside the rims. The rotors were attached to the outer axle, requiring replacement/removal of the whole assembly to turn the rotors. Insanity!
    Both of these have the Bosch-Bomb Fuel-Injection system. It is (1). Multi-point. (2). Sequential. And(3). Semi-mechanical. It gives that famous throttle response, power, and fuel-economy, that gave the VAG cars of that era, a huge edge. The problem was that the German Fuel purity standards for suspended particulates in Gasoline were a low level, that was strictly enforced(in Germany). When these cars came to the U.S., one trip to the wrong gas station, and it was game-over. One grain of rust or sand would wreck these.
    These both go well with those Bayliner Boats from earlier.

  14. A diesel Dasher wagon was my first car! I concur that it would get up to 50 mpg. I owned it with a friend/roommate. We said that it was ticket-proof, because it looked so mild mannered (ok, and it was mild mannered, too, even for a couple of 21 year old guys).

    I have vague recollections about needing to run the heater to keep it cool. I remember more vividly it not starting when the temperature got down to the 30s. I lived on top of a hill outside Sebastopol, CA, and would roll down to start it. One time I forgot to put the ignition in the right position and coasted all the way down the hill, unable to get it started. I pulled off the road and then damaged the suspension. That might be when the head gasket needed to be replaced, too.

    We (wife and I, not friend and I) bought a 7th generation Sportwagen in 2019. I love it. The seats aren’t as comfortable as the old Dasher’s. I also insisted that we get the 10-year platinum warranty. If/when expensive things go wrong, VW will cover it for us, thank you.

  15. Hey Mark, we must be related somehow, that Gen-X gene perhaps lol

    My mom had a string of boyfriends in the 80s and 90s, and both these cars were featured:

    Mom had a boyfriend in ’82 with a Dasher Diesel wagon. It was red and one time with 5 people in the car on a trip to Frisco we had to turn around on an uphill street. It just couldn’t make it. 3 years later boyfriend traded that in for a new ’85 Vanagon with a stick and my mom dumped him.

    Next boyfriend had an ’85 Audi 5000S. He often proclaimed it “aerodynamic car of the year” and I liked the way that 5 cylinder yowled, but it was in the shop 1 week out of every month for something. 2 years later he traded it on an iron duke-powered 5-speed stick GMC Safari van and my mom dumped him.

    She hates vans.

  16. Thanks for opening up great memories of our younger days. The Unintended Acceleration Audi was a great car to drive and cheap to lease because folks we’re scared of it. The Dasher was fun to drive in spite of only 48 hp. It just made me a better driver. And yes, I bought an eclectic group of cars in my time. Your welcome, Mark!

  17. I’ll go with the Audi since it has far less rust and it’s a much better car to drive when it runs.

    With the Dasher, even if you fix everything, it will be dreadful to drive. And to make matters worse, diesel costs more than gasoline… wiping out much or all of the savings compared to something like my Honda Fit.

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