It was more by luck than judgement that I found myself testing the latest model in Audi’s four-wheel-drive performance car canon – the RS6 – within a week or two of also driving the very first. More fortuitous still was that exactly 40 years separated the Ur-Quattro – the iconic coupe with set-square styling that introduced four-wheel drive technology to the mainstream in 1980 – from the 2020 RS6 Avant. And so, purely by chance, I saw for myself exactly how the basic principles upon which Audi built its brand have developed over four decades.
Not a lot is the answer. Or an enormous amount, depending on how you look at it. Viewed from a distance, Audi is doing the same thing now that it was in 1980: using four-wheel drive and turbocharging to underpin a premium-market performance car, one that favours stability and security over outright handling precision, while combining all that with a luxurious, highly-specified cabin. Every word of that applies to both the Ur-Quattro (Ur meaning original in German) and the latest RS6. Dig a little deeper into the details, however, and you see just how much has changed in 40 years.
DRIVING THE UR-QUATTRO
The Quattro that I drove on a misty day in South Wales is a UK car, a 10-valve model first registered in 1981. It’s left-hand drive, because right-hand-drive cars weren’t made available to UK buyers until 1982. I wrote about this car in some detail in a separate report, but it’s worth covering the basics here again. It was by no means the first four-wheel drive car – various off-roaders and the Jensen FF got there before it – but it certainly did introduce four-wheel drive to the mass market.
For the most part, only agricultural workhorses such as Land Rovers had used four-wheel-drive systems before 1980, but that all changed when Audi unveiled the Quattro at the Geneva motor show in March that year. An Audi UK press release clarified that the Quattro was a road-going sports coupe and absolutely ‘not an off-road vehicle’.
It’s easy to forget that as well as four-wheel drive, the Quattro arrived early on in the turbocharging revolution as well. I expected the engine to feel hopelessly laggy with a narrow power band, but in fact the turbo application feels surprisingly modern: the turbo spools up quickly and begins boosting at around 2,000rpm, throttle response is sharp enough and the usable power band reaches all the way to 6,000rpm. With 200bhp the Quattro is brisk, but not effortlessly accelerative. The gearshift, meanwhile, is light and slick, foreshadowing several decades of Volkswagen Group manual gearshifts to come.
THE HEIGHT OF LUXURY
With plush upholstery, a heated driver’s seat and electronically adjustable door mirrors, the Quattro would have felt like the height of luxury in 1980. It’s still a comfortable place to sit today. But what defines the Quattro experience is, of course, the four-wheel-drive system. Even on a greasy road grip and traction levels are enormous, which means the car simply clings on resolutely in bends that would cause lesser machines to slip and slide. There isn’t a great deal of playfulness engineered into the Quattro’s chassis, but there is almost limitless stability and security, which must have made this car feel like a whole new thing 40 years ago.
DRIVING THE 2020 AUDI RS6
Leap forward to 2020 and you arrive at the fourth-generation RS6, the newest model from Audi Sport. This car, along with every four-wheel-drive performance car built in the last four decades, owes a great deal to the original Quattro. Up front is a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 with 592bhp, which is supported by a mild-hybrid system (a new addition for this most recent model) that helps tickle the mpg figure up slightly to 22.1 combined. The gearbox is an eight-speed automatic and drive goes, of course, to all four corners. UK cars come with the sport differential in the rear axle as standard. With torque vectoring capability, it makes the car more agile when driving away from corners.
In fact, this is far and away the most agile and responsive RS6 to date. Whereas previous versions have been imperious at high speed on a derestricted autobahn and immensely practical in family use, they’ve mostly been pretty hopeless when shown a twisty country road. This version, though, with its sports differential and rear-wheel steering, feels so much keener in bends, to the point that it’s actually quite fun to drive. Nonetheless, stability in corners and security in all weathers is still the order of the day.
The 2020 Audi RS6 is fast, too. Audi says it’ll reach 62mph in 3.6 seconds and, if you pay £9,700 for carbon ceramic brakes and another £1,550 to have the speed limiter raised, it’ll do 189mph flat out (otherwise the top speed is limited to 155mph, although this can also be raised optionally to 174mph). The basic price is £92,750, which undercuts the £100,050 Mercedes-AMG E63 S Estate. Unlike the Mercedes, the Audi is not offered as a saloon.
In years gone by Audi has preferred a subtler, more understated aesthetic for the RS6, but with this latest model that goes right out the window. Enormous wheels, swollen arches, big air vents and a contrasting apron around the rear end will leave even the most casual observer under no illusion. The cabin, meanwhile, is a masterpiece with plenty of space, comfortable seats, one of the best infotainment systems in the business and a very modern dashboard design.
The 2020 Audi RS6 comes as standard on air suspension, but for £1,300 that can swapped out for more conventional coil springs with adaptive dampers (Audi calls it RS sports suspension plus). The ride even on those steel springs is very good while body control is vastly improved, making the sports suspension a no-brainer (as long as you won’t miss the variable ride height that’s made possible by the standard-fit air springs – useful for very rutted driveways, for instance).
THE SAME, BUT VERY DIFFERENT
Air suspension, rear-wheel steering, mild hybrid drive, touchscreen infotainment… None of that was available on the original Audi Quattro 40 years ago. A great deal has changed in that time, then, but what remains the same is the underlying set of characteristics that defines both the Quattro and the 2020 Audi RS6. They are luxurious cars with bundles of driveway appeal and strong straight-line performance. They deploy four-wheel drive and turbocharging to devastating effect on wet country roads, and where two-wheel-drive cars would feel nervous and unsettled, these Audis are shot through with poise.
But they are also united by the undeniable fact that other cars of their type are more thrilling to drive. With the exception of the R8, though, that’s never really been Audi’s thing. Instead, the company has tended to favour a more dependable set of handing traits – and they’re traits that were first set out by the Quattro in 1980.
Price: from £14,500 (1980)
0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
Top speed: 137mph
Fuel economy: n/a
Audi RS6 Avant
Price: from £92,750. As tested £134,615
0-62mph: 3.6 seconds
Top speed: 189mph
Fuel economy: 22.1mpg (combined)
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