Audi celebrates 40 years of Quattro

The original Audi Quattro made its debut at the Geneva motor show in 1980.
The original Audi Quattro made its debut at the Geneva motor show in 1980.
Image: Supplied

Audi goes on about four-wheel drive so much, you would think they invented it. They didn’t. If you consult your trusted friend Google, the honour of the world’s first four-wheel drive car powered by an internal combustion engine goes to the Dutch Spyker of 1903.

Heck, even when it comes to sporting GT coupés with leech-like grip, they were beaten: ever heard of the Jensen Interceptor from 1966?

And yet, when you think about the concept of drivetrains sending torque to both axles, few names resonate quite as strongly as Subaru.

Sorry, Audi – the brand that forged an entire identity based on the benefits of all-wheel traction, spearheaded by a model rather aptly named Quattro. Which is Italian for four.

Defiantly, Audi has always insisted on an all lower-case typeface, completely shunning that one law of punctuation about proper nouns starting with a capital letter.

The Audi RS2 Avant also benefited from Quattro all-wheel drive.
The Audi RS2 Avant also benefited from Quattro all-wheel drive.
Image: Supplied

Unfortunately for them, our subeditors refuse to bend the rules. Yes, even if the year 2020 does mark a four-decade celebration of their prized technology.

Recently we joined an exclusive, virtual event at which executives from the Ingolstadt brand discussed the past, present and future of all-wheel drive in the Audi context.

Let’s start in the past. The winters of 1976 and 1977 were responsible for the conception of Quattro at Audi. A series of test drives had taken place in Scandinavia, at which a Volkswagen Iltis all-terrain vehicle, which was developed by Audi, was included. Word has it that its adeptness over snowy roads “impressively demonstrated the potential of its all-wheel drive”.

So it began ...

The original Quattro made its debut at the Geneva motor show in 1980. According to the company, the lightweight, compact and efficient set-up used by the 147kW machine was suited to an agenda of fast, sporty cars and high-volume production from the outset.

The Quattro system is still used in Audi's sportiest road-going models
The Quattro system is still used in Audi's sportiest road-going models
Image: Supplied

In 1984 the “short” Sport Quattro (225kW) joined the mix. Then came the Audi 80 Quattro, ushering in the first self-locking centre differential for the brand, providing a 50/50 torque split, while being capable of sending as much as 75% of twist to the rear axle when needed. Launched in 1995, the A6 2.5 TDI was the first diesel passenger vehicle with permanent all-wheel drive. Then the technology filtered into the compact range, when Audi introduced an electrohydraulic, multi-plate clutch arrangement in the A3 and TT ranges.

Audi says its next big step came in 2005. It plied a centre differential with asymmetric, 40:60 power distribution between the front and rear axles. Then came the 2007 R8, with its viscous coupling on the front axle.

In 2016 they launched Quattro with Ultra technology. In simple terms, quasi-Quattro: the system disengages so that the vehicle operates as a front- or rear-wheel drive, thus saving fuel. In 2019 the company released its first production electric vehicle, the E-Tron, with Quattro.

Fair enough, the technical minutiae of differentials and couplings might drive the average person to snooze. But all motorists can relate to the benefit of Quattro and its ilk. An assured sense on slippery surfaces, primarily. Understeer? Even the most committed performance driver will concede that the current crop of Audi Sport S and RS models are as pliable and nimble as a person could want. “The name represents safe driving and sportiness, technical expertise and competitive superiority,” says the firm.

The 2007 R8 sported a viscous coupling on the front axle.
The 2007 R8 sported a viscous coupling on the front axle.
Image: Supplied

Lest we forget, Audi also broke its own rules and experimented with tail-sliding mirth in the R8 Rear Wheel Series (RWS) a few years back.

Nobody can accuse the Quattro moniker of lacking in sound provenance. It is, after all, steeped in a motorsport heritage spanning across terrains. They first entered the World Rally Championship in 1981, kicking off a streak of glory with the Sport Quattro S1, in which drivers like Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist (his real name) and Walter Röhrl dominated the scene.

More recently (2012), Audi enjoyed success in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), fielding the Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro with a hybrid drivetrain.

So what’s next? Naturally, electrification is forming an increasing part of the strategy, as is the case among virtually all manufacturers worth mentioning. Audi refers to Quattro 2.0 in terms of electric all-wheel drive and electric torque vectoring.

They talk about a system that is fully variable. The E-Tron, for example, has a trio of electric motors. Each of the two rear electric motors actuates one rear wheel directly and can shove the bounty of torque to the wheel that needs the most traction in as little as 30 milliseconds. That’s faster than you can say Quattro.


Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

X