‘Faster than the McLaren F1’. That’ll be the 240mph, Gordon Murray-designed, V12 supercar, McLaren F1 then? So what, in the mid-nineties, dared to step forward and give this legendary automobile a cheeky slap round the face?
I mean, it was an estate for crying out loud – exactly how fast do you need to get to the gymkhana? Little did we know that not only had Audi created a beast in a rather old-fashioned suit, but it had reinvented itself as the creator of seriously fast (usually load-lugging) executive cars.
The RS badge was new and what it meant was that Audi had completely lost it, but in a good way. Frankly, the 80 had been around for too long already, but this was to start a trend of pushing the boundaries of what is capable by way of a run-out model.
It was nothing less than a Frankenstein’s monster, but was destined to be an instant classic. Look at Audi’s RS models now and you’ll see a cohesive blend of visual performance features and improved components that work in harmony with each other.
The RS2 looked like the creation of the A-Team when they were locked in a barn with a written-off Porsche 993, an Audi 80 and a welding kit. But that’s why it looks so good. There is something so right about the way Porsche parts have been bolted on – the 993 wing mirrors, the 993 Turbo’s brakes, the Porsche indicators, the rear reflector panel that apes a 911 – to create a mind-boggling hybrid of two manufacturers.
Power was provided by a heavily reworked version of Audi’s 2.2-litre five-cylinder unit, as found in the Quattro coupe turbo. Porsche fitted a larger KKK24 turbocharger (boosting at 1.4 bar), along with a heavy-duty intercooler, improved induction system and exhaust, a redesigned camshaft and a new engine management system.
This 80 now had 315bhp and 302lb ft of torque, which were big figures in those days, and pushed the car to 60mph in a barely believable 4.8 seconds, almost on par with a Porsche 993. Bespoke tyres were made for those Porsche Cup alloys (which have a slightly different diameter hole in the middle), the suspension was tweaked, dropping the car 41mm lower, and top notch Recaros were bolted into the cabin.
The result – nothing quite like anyone had seen before. The RS2 set about smashing everyone’s preconceptions about performance, estates, Audi, life in general, and duly took the world by storm. Only available in Europe, it was known across the world, a masterplan of this German carmaker’s ambitions.
All this was 14 years ago now and while most 80 Avants languish in the bargain pages of Autotrader, good RS2s command £20,000 and above – hardly surprising though, considering they were almost £50,000 new. The RS2 is a fascinating car and I couldn’t wait to find out how much of the legend is true.
It is the mark of a very special car that gets people talking when it appears in the car park underneath PH Towers. The RS2 did exactly that, creating a chatter through the office and drawing people from their PCs to the window. This particular example is in mint condition and owned by Jeremy Copp. And if you think owning an RS2 is lucky, try owning one to use as a tow car to drag around a Caterham.
We head out of the urban sprawl and find some back roads to see how quick this Audi 80 really is. It’s time for my go and as I get myself comfortable with electric seat adjustment, I’m a little nervous that the RS2 will be impossibly overstretched and unruly. I’m wrong; the RS2 couldn’t be easier to drive. The five-pot growls away in that fabulously off-tune way and while the gearbox is light and initially feels a little vague, each gear snicks in accurately and with no fuss.
The steering is light, perhaps a little too much, but again, under the surface there is a reassuring directness. The car rides reasonably well for what it is too, and while we chat I almost forget why I am here, content with just feeding the RS2 through villages the same way I would any other estate.
But there is a reason for much of this docility, and that is known as turbo lag. What happens when you do plant your foot down is frightening, and for more than one reason. Try overtaking in third and you are faced with that why-the-hell-aren’t-I-moving kind of millisecond that seems to happen at the wrong moment - i.e. on the wrong side of the road.
This is followed by such a sudden and overwhelming swell of power that spits you down the road so quickly your mind is still in the why-aren’t-I-moving moment. The acceleration is savage and unrelenting. The RS2 goes from a heavy car that seems uninterested in moving its own mass, to an unstoppable steam train. It’s fantastic.
It works, and before long I’m holding on for dear life as the RS2 devours large chunks of tarmac. It’s quite softly sprung, which can be a little disconcerting given its mass, but after a while this works in its favour. The car soaks up bumps and is more forgiving when you carry too much speed into a bend, which normally results in understeer.
But pile in some power at the apex (preferably over about 3,500 revs) and the power seems to get directed rearward, tightening your line considerably, and balancing the car. To me it is an absorbing experience because at first you drive it like a modern, high-powered four-wheel drive, throwing it into bends and letting the chassis sort the rest out.
This won’t do in the RS2, the driver has to be involved and take responsibility in a very old school way. Grip is phenomenal and the car will cover ground at an astonishing rate, but the driver is always at the helm. The brakes are fantastic, as you would expect, but for all the progressive race car feel, you can almost forget they need a decent shove when you are crawling through town. The RS2 is a unique experience. Not as polished as today’s super-fast German estates, and almost a crude test bed for the concept, but it works exceptionally well. Tow cars don’t get much better than this.