How many times have you heard a car described as revolutionary, innovative or game-changing? More often than not marketers have spun the addition of three more cupholders or a pass-through for skis as a wonderful new feature that will change the world as consumers know it.
However, there is no question that the Audi Quattro—sans cupholders—was revolutionary when it was introduced mid-year 1980. The handsome coupe featured full-time four-wheel drive with a minimal weight penalty. With the exception of the very expensive and limited-production Jensen Interceptor FF, Audi had created the first street legal performance car with full-time all-wheel drive.
At first glance, the Ur (original) Quattro looked very much like what was sold in the United States as the Audi Coupe, although it appeared to have overdosed on steroids. The fenders bulged and the thick louvers on the right side of the hood looked a lot like the rippling of a weight lifter’s “six-pack” stomach.
The steroid analogy applies equally to the inline single-overhead camshaft five-cylinder engine. In the 5000 four-door sedan, the engine produced 100 horsepower. With the addition of single turbocharger, power for the road-going Quattro doubled.
It wasn’t long before the Quattro found its way into competition, along with another 100 horsepower boost—now up to 300 hp. But instead of the popular German Touring Car series, FIA Group B Rallying was the target. In the team’s first season, 1981, it secured three wins, with Hannu Mikkula and Michèle Mouton combining to earn fifth place in the championship. The car was fast enough to be competitive, but wasn’t a consistent winner.
For 1982, the Quattro received an alloy block and another 60 horsepower, which was enough to propel the team to first place in the championship. The Quattro continued to be very competitive in ‘83, although the team slipped to second-place finish despite a points tally equal to the prior year.
The big news for Audi’s Rally team came in 1984 with the debut of the Quattro Sport, which was substantially shorter than the original car, with 12.6 inches missing between the B and C pillars, making it much more nimble and lighter. A much larger KKK turbocharger meant that what had started as a 100 horsepower road engine was now up to 450 horsepower in full competition tune. The new car was dominant and propelled Audi to another championship. With only 214 completed for homologation purposes, these Sport Quattros are very rarely seen.
Very often companies pursue competition purely as a marketing tool. It’s true that the Quattro gained great publicity for Audi, but it also proved the effectiveness of full-time all-wheel drive. By 1984, the Quattro all-wheel drive package was available on the production 4000S Quattro, joining the Quattro coupe on the showroom floor. In 1986, the North American lineup was further strengthened by the 5000CS Turbo Quattro.
By the late 1990s, the vast majority of all A4 and A6 Audis were equipped with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system. But unlike the 1980s, now Audi has real competition in the all-wheel-drive luxury segment, with offerings from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche, while Subaru is the dominant all-wheel drive contender among low- and mid-price cars.
There is no question that the original Quattro pioneered affordable all-wheel drive technology, sold it to the public through a successful competition program and then marketed in ceaselessly until “Quattro” became synonymous with full-time all-wheel drive. So if you enjoy the go-through-anything mobility of an all-wheel drive car (not SUV or truck), you owe thanks to Audi and its now immortal Quattro, which really did change the automotive world as we know it.