By now you surely know the story of Quattro, Audi's all-wheel-drive system.
You remember its beginnings with a small Volkswagen-built military vehicle called the Iltis, the way it changed rallying forever, how it's proven itself on the racetrack so comprehensively that all-wheel drive has been banned in virtually every category, and the way the very greatest drivers in the world have used Quattro technology to run rings around pretty much everyone and everything put in their path.
When you read and digest all of that stuff, you sort of wonder why everyone doesn't drive a Quattro. And when an immaculate Audi Sport Quattro rolls out of the back of a transporter right before our eyes, followed by a showroom-fresh RS2 and an RS4 that looks like it wants to head-butt anyone who gets within 20 feet of its bulging bodywork, you really start to get the Quattro bug.
If you want to understand where this crazy enthusiasm for the Quattro Way comes from, take a look at these cars, the story of Quattro told at high speed: Audi Quattro coupe, Audi Sport Quattro, Audi RS2, Audi RS4, Audi RS6 5.0 TFSI, Audi S4, Audi TT RS and Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10.
Audi Quattro Coupe
Hard to believe this upright, squared-off coupe had such a profound effect on the world. This is what's called the ur-Quattro, the ancestral ("ur" in German) one from which all things Quattro have come.
The 1980 Audi Quattro Coupe looks almost delicate, all spindly cabin pillars and tiny wheels. Its turbocharged 2.1-liter inline-5 produces 197 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, and while acceleration to 60 mph from a standstill in about 7 seconds and a top speed of 137 mph aren't too shabby, the truth is that this king of point-to-point cross-country travel now feels about as fast as a semi-warm hatchback.
The inline-5 starts with that familiar deep whoosh, while the offbeat warble that follows is strangely relaxing. You expect a lot of turbo lag, but because the performance isn't huge, the wave of power comes on with smooth predictability that surges harder as you pass 3,500 rpm. The ride is initially busy, crackling awkwardly over broken surfaces, and then there's also lots of body roll as you turn into a corner. Once the Quattro settles into a corner, it's nice and neutral, and you can jump on the accelerator with impunity. It has total traction, as you'd expect.
More of a surprise is the steering. It's quite light and very slow, but it also has bags of feel. It buzzes and shimmies, weights up beautifully under load and gives you real confidence. Somewhere this little dynamic trait has been lost in modern Audis and that's a great shame.
Audi Sport Quattro
It's 1984 and Group B cars are about to really light up the world of rallying. The Audi Quattro coupe is riding high from an easy championship in 1983, but the adoption of Group B regulations is threatening its dominance. A new generation of extreme rally cars — light, agile midengine cars like the Peugeot 205 T16 — will be just too fast for the bigger, heavier and more cumbersome Quattro coupe.
An extreme solution is required and that extreme solution is the 1984 Audi Sport Quattro with a wheelbase 12.6 inches shorter (!) than the standard car. It weighs 2,860 pounds and there's 302 hp to motivate it, so 60 mph arrives in 4.8 seconds. The extra air intakes on the hood and the slash of ducts to let hot air escape are evocative clues to the intense development behind the automobile that produced Audi's most famous rally car. It is, without question, the most glamorous, most fascinating Quattro ever produced.
The steering is heavy but still fizzes with feedback, the clutch is heavy, too, and the engine hits hard as it swings past 3,500 rpm. There's not much body roll and lots of handling response as you turn into a corner. Thanks to its short wheelbase, the Sport Quattro really wants to change direction, and it has a keen appetite to change its balance depending on throttle position or braking inputs. Get really aggressive and turn in hard on the brakes, and then you can even coax the car into a drift at the rear. Then you plant the throttle now and ride out a proper powerslide. What a stunning machine; this is four-wheel drive as it should be.
Audi RS2 Avant
This is where classic and modern intertwine. The RS2 feels tiny and upright, there's great visibility afforded by thin pillars and yet the overall build quality has taken a huge leap forward from the Quattro coupe. You can sense the first seeds of Audi's beautiful modern interiors in here — big planks of carbon-fiber trim adorn the dash and doors, and silver instrument dials gleam in the austere dash.
A joint project between Quattro GmbH (Audi's high-performance division) and Porsche, the 1994 Audi RS2 was based on the Audi 80 Avant. Porsche developed the engine, suspension and braking systems and the car was modified at Porsche's Rossle-Bau plant in Zuffenhausen. Produced from March 1994 to July 1995, the RS2 became a legend because of its turbocharged 2.2-liter inline-5, which has been comprehensively re-engineered with a bigger KKK turbo running higher boost, a new intercooler, more aggressive cams and larger fuel injectors. With 315 hp and 302 lb-ft hooked up to an all-wheel-drive system with a Torsen center differential and an electronic lock for the rear diff, the RS2 proved capable of getting to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds.
Yet today the RS2's structure itself feels quite flimsy, shuddering and shaking over rapid-fire bumps. Over anything but a smooth surface it's out of sorts — fast but clumsy, effective but a bit joyless. The engine is a real monster when it's on boost over 3,500 rpm, so the RS2 is still an event, but not the car we dreamed of back in the mid-1990s.
Audi RS4 Avant
Twelve years separate the RS2's turbo inline-5 from the RS4's 4.2-liter V8. There were hot Quattros in the intervening years, yet these cars were fast but devoid of finesse, wonderfully built but frustratingly blunt instruments. On the other hand, this 2006 Audi RS4 based on the B7 generation of the Audi midsize sedan gave the BMW M3 the scare of its life. Indeed the RS4's V8 could have been developed at BMW's M division, since it produces 414 hp at a heady 7,800 rpm. The car cracks the 60-mph mark in 4.8 seconds just like the Sport Quattro, but it feels quicker.
And what a chassis. This is the first Quattro to alter the long-standing torque split in the Audi all-wheel-drive system of 50 percent front/50 percent year, and it changes the proportion to 40 percent front/60 percent rear in order to create a handling balance more like a rear-wheel-drive car. This RS4 Avant also has roll control, a hydraulic system to stabilize the body's attitude in roll or pitch but not interfering in steady-state cruising so the ride is still good.
The RS4 rides with real suppleness, yet controls its 3,638 pounds brilliantly. It feels agile and athletic, but rather than pummel a road into submission, it breathes with it. The steering is a shade light although consistent, the eight-pot brakes are stout and the V8 with its peachy six-speed gearbox encourages you to let it kiss the rev limiter at 8,250 rpm. To be able to fully engage 414 hp so cleanly is a rare thing; to do it with such subtlety and poise is frankly amazing.
Audi RS6 5.0 TFSI Avant
Once again engineered by Quattro GmbH (as all RS models are), the 2008 Audi RS6looks irresistible on paper. It has the all-wheel drive with the 40 percent front/60 percent rear torque split, plus a twin-turbo 5.0-liter V10 that makes 572 hp. Though the RS6 packs 4,378 pounds, it's capable of reaching 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. To be honest, this car feels much, much faster than the RS4, maybe even faster than the R8 Spyder, such is the immediacy and scale of the torque it serves up.
It's no RS4, though. No, the RS6 is a wonderful car, an incredible car to unleash through the gears, but it simply doesn't have the lightness of touch that so defines the RS4. At the same time it proves that all-wheel drive — helped by huge tires and massive brakes — knows no equal when it comes to delivering relentless performance in any weather. The RS6 can take full throttle in 1st gear without troubling its stability control even in the wet, so you can liberate the engine's 479 lb-ft of torque any time you fancy squishing your internal organs against your spine. This is a fearsomely fast car, although it's hampered by its sheer size and weight.
The 2009 Audi S4 looks unremarkable. Indeed, next to the RS6 or the clenched-fist RS4, the S4 is a sober, somber sort of sedan. But it's a significant car, and a much more intelligent car than the heavy and inefficient RS6. It ditches the big V8 from the old S4 and adopts a supercharged, direct-injected 3.0-liter V6. It's lighter and much more efficient, yet more powerful, too, with 328 hp and 324 lb-ft of torque. It has the now-familiar torque split of 40 percent front/60 percent rear for the all-wheel-drive system, plus a torque-vectoring differential for the rear axle that can divert power to the outside rear wheel to reduce understeer.
Most S4s are specified with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, but this car has a six-speed manual with the same lovely, mechanical shift action as the RS4. The supercharged V6 is a great unit, strong from low revs and smooth as you move toward 7,000 rpm, and it has a really deep-chested howl. You don't miss the softer-edged V8 from the old S4.
Thanks to the sport differential and the Drive Select electronics that let you adjust the steering effort, throttle response and suspension settings, the S4 captures much of the old RS4 magic. It rides even better than the older car, the steering gives remarkable turn-in precision and now as you feed in the engine's power you can feel the rear axle drive hard out of the corner, keeping the S4 pinned on its line. It's a spooky feeling but also delicious, as you really feel you're riding a fine line on the edge of adhesion, yet getting absolutely everything from the grip on offer. A much underrated car, the S4.
Audi TT RS
The 2009 Audi TT RS shamelessly presses the emotive Quattro buttons despite being something of a technical oddity at Audi because of its front transverse engine and the use of a Haldex all-wheel-drive system. It has the brand-new, turbocharged, direct-injected 2.5-liter inline-5, which sounds like a digitally remastered version of the original Quattro coupe's engine, only with a harder edge. This is a seriously fast little coupe. The turbo-5 pushes out 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque and it has only 3,197 pounds with which to contend, so 60 mph comes up in just 4.5 seconds. This is an angry, hard-core little car and it thumps across the ground at a frightening pace.
In practice the TT RS feels just like a front-driver with astonishing traction, as the rear wheels are there essentially only to stop the bodywork from dragging along the road. It's a mighty effective piece with masses of mechanical grip and immense performance, but don't expect much entertainment or any interactivity. It bounces and bumps when the pavement turns rough, the steering is heavy, dull and a bit sticky, and while the brakes are superb they don't have an ounce of subtlety. The TT RS sort of bludgeons its way from A to B, beating you up in the process.
Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10
With its high-revving V10 in a midengine chassis derived from the Lamborghini Gallardo, the 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10 looks nothing like the Ur-Quattro. And yet it expresses everything that Audi and Quattro GmbH have been trying to accomplish all these years.
Never mind the supercar stuff; just concentrate on the basics. The R8 is superb in every respect. The ride is quite dumbfounding, not only better than any other car here but also better than many midsize luxury sedans. The steering is light, smooth and yet also accurate, and it keeps you perfectly informed about everything happening at ground level. Although the manual transmission's Ferrari-style metal shift gate is intimidating, the shift action is light and snickety-click quick. At low speeds, the R8 is sublime.
As is often the case, what's good at low speeds is great at higher speeds, too. The car's supple ride doesn't compromise control, so the R8 corners without much roll and stays on line even when the surface is trying to unravel it. The balance is typically Quattro with mild understeer, yet this is just an opening gambit, not the end game. The all-wheel-drive system allows you to drive through the understeer and find a neutral balance, or to swing into neat, controllable oversteer.
But what of that supercar stuff, the sense of occasion, the performance, the sheer exuberance? Well, here the R8 delivers pretty well, too. You sit right down low but more upright than you expect, the view ahead familiar in the Audi style but served up in a new context. You certainly feel like you're in something exotic. The R8 doesn't have that typical swoopy interior that you used to see in old supercars, so it doesn't wow you when you sit inside, but crucially there's nothing here to distract from the driving experience.
If the chassis is slow-burn magic (many people first think the R8 a little clinical, but once you've driven the car hard you know that's total rubbish), then the V10 is instant, in-your-face mental. It sounds softer, more melodic than in the hard-barking Lamborghini, but it also offers supercar-scary performance with silky, hypnotic relentlessness.
It's only when you've spent a few minutes sucking in all these sensations that you realize you've barely registered that this is a convertible. Of course you can hear the V10 even better, you can feel the engine superheating the air swirling around you, but in terms of what you feel there's little between this and the Audi R8 5.2 FSI coupe.
The Audi R8 Spyder is the final proof-of-concept for the Quattro Way, the end of 30 years of continuous improvement. It began as simple hardware meant to provide off-road mobility, evolved into a useful tool for all-weather driving, and now has become the preferred strategy for making ultra-high performance possible on the open highway. When you look back at the Audi R8 Spyder, Audi TT RS, Audi S4, Audi RS6 5.0 TFSI, Audi RS4, Audi RS2 and Audi Sport Quattro rally car to the original Audi Quattro coupe, you can see just how far we have come.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.