I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but I wasn’t in a complete tizzy about testing the Audi Sport Quattro for our new PH Heroes video series – the now semi-regular tribute to our automotive icons. I wasn’t unexcited, or indeed apathetic, I hasten to add. But I wasn’t having kittens about the imminent arrival of the Sport Quattro. Marketing chieftain, Ben Lowden was. Crikey, when Ben heard that the short-wheelbase, Group B, homologation special was being dropped off at my place, in North London, he said was happy to drive up from Kent on the weekend just to see it in the flesh. And when I told him I was driving it to Wales the next day, he said he’d make the trip up there as well. That’s commitment for you. Sadly, it was being collected the Friday after filming, so he never got the chance to meet his hero up close and personal.
Why wasn’t I as excited as Ben and others on the team? Well, I’ve just never been that bothered about older Audis. As a kid in the 80s, I thought the original Quattro was a fantastic-looking car, but the engineering behind it – that engine, plonked out ahead of the front axle – just seemed wrong. It is wrong. More wrong than the Porsche 911’s flat-six being stuck out the back. I’ve always loved 911s, and I can justify my hypocrisy on the grounds that Porsche’s refusal to mount the heaviest single component within the wheelbase does at least bring one advantage: traction. Audi’s nose-heavy cars just create unwanted understeer. But you know what? It turns out I was wrong to be underwhelmed by the Sport Quattro. It turns out the Sport Quattro is, indeed, a brilliant car.
This one is Audi's UK heritage car. Audi has owned the car since 1985, when it was bought new from Audi AG. Despite my initial apathy, the car’s rarity and value hadn’t passed me by. And nor had Audi’s very relaxed attitude to me driving it. This wasn’t an hour’s loan with a chaperone. The Sport Quattro turned up at the beginning of the week we were due to film it on the back of a lorry. The driver took it off, pointed out the odd mark here and there, handed me the keys and said “See you on Friday”. That was it. I was now in charge of a car that is said to be one of just five of the original imports into the UK, one of 164 road cars ever made, and has a value approaching half-a-million pounds.
There was no talk about mileage limits, either. We were upfront about our intentions. We told Audi I was going to drive it from London to Wales, and spend a day there driving it around the Brecon Beacons in the expectation of making a pretty (and hopefully interesting) video. All in all, I reckon I must’ve added over 320km to the 69,000 it had already racked up. Audi’s attitude, though, was "what’s the point in having a heritage fleet if it’s not being used?" I think we can all give that attitude the thumbs, can’t we? Other OEMs, take note.
This gave me a long time to get to know and understand the Sport Quattro. The first point being it’s so easy to live with. On the drive from London to Wales the ride was comfortable on the motorway, and while the Sport Quatrro doesn’t cruise as quietly as a Rolls-Royce, it's far from raucous. I hear that road-going versions of the Ford RS200 are quite the opposite: clunky, recalcitrant. And while the Ford is quick, with its 250hp translating to 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds and 142mph, that’s all beaten soundly by the Sport Quattro.
Yet the Sport Quattro feels like a very everyday road car. As well as being civilised to drive, it’s very much an Audi inside. The dashboard looks much like any other Audi's of the period, only finished in leather with a few more dials. It has heated seats, and a radio – well, there was one at one point because it has an aerial at the back. The seats are bolstered Recaros, but they're upholstered in leather and velour and very comfortable for every mile of the three-hour drive west. It even has normal seatbelts and deep-pile carpets.
The only problem was the heater. There’s no air-conditioning, of course. That’s fine, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to the 1980s, and most things weren’t air conditioned back then. If you watch the video you’ll see that I get progressively sweatier and that's not the stress of driving such a valuable car. It’s simply that it was a hot and muggy day and I couldn’t turn off the flipping heater. Even with the temperature slider set to cold and the fans off it was still pushing heat into the cabin, and, thanks to the way PH is funded, I had to have the windows up while I was recording.
The other thing I wasn’t too keen on was the Sport Quattro’s five-speed gearbox. It’s balky and unsatisfying, and on top of that it felt like bushes are worn. Even if fitting some new ones solved that, it still wouldn't solve the long throw. Nope, sorry, the gearbox is just not a strong point of the car. It's one of the few bits that isn't, mind, because otherwise the Sport Quattro is a gem. A genuinely lovely car to knock about mountain roads. It was like it was made for them - which, I suppose, it was.
It has power steering, of course, and that's a little bit vague at first. After less than a quarter-turn of lock that sensation’s gone, though. By that stage, you’ve used up any flex in the relatively plump sidewalls and the suspension, and what’s left is a sense of kinship with the front wheels. The steering develops a lovely amount of weight, which feels true to the forces building through the front contact patches. There’s plenty of grip, too. Now, obviously, I wasn't going mad and driving the wheels off such a valuable and near-irreplaceable car, but I wanted to dip a toe into the deep pool of its talents. And of the many it is blessed with, grip is definitely among them: I never ran out of the stuff, that’s for sure.
It's not a playful car, in the way that something with similar power and just two driven wheels would be. But it rewards in other ways. The suspension set-up is just superb. Unlike a low-riding sports car, this rally-bred homologation special has a lot of wheel travel, but it uses this to soak up the bumps beautifully. This means there’s some roll, pitch and dive, of course, but it is merely a background accompaniment. Stability and suppleness is very much front and centre of its impressive cross-country credentials. So you can really lean on the old girl. Trust her. And the same is true of the brakes, which I doubt would last long on a track, but out in the Welsh wilderness, they were strong, effective and dependable.
And what about the mighty five-pot? Well, that doesn’t disappoint, either. Not in the slightest. It’s not a very noisy motor – road cars tended not to be back then, before the advent of trick exhausts and synthesised pops – but it’s still a five-cylinder. It still has that distinctive discordant tone, yet the mechanics of the engine are smooth. Much smoother and classier than a raspy, buzzing four-pot, and once you’re past the lag – the epic lag that’s more 80s than Gordon Gekko’s braces – woof! This thing is quick. Not by the standards of the day, but by the standards of today. If you're in the wrong gear it can take an age to climb to 4,000rpm, but once it's there, it lights up and punches you down the road. The power delivery is what you might describe as exciting.
What must this have felt like in 1985? Well, let's just put it this way: back then there were, I believe, just three cars that dipped under five seconds on the sprint from zero and sixty. One was the Lamborghini Countach, the other was the Porsche 930 Turbo, and the last of that triumvirate was the Sport Quattro. What made this car a legend is Group B and its wins at the Pikes Peak – the competition cars that were pumping out up to 600hp. But as a road car it's no less thrilling.
This engine was specially developed for the Sport Quattro to make it lighter, more powerful and more competitive against the might of the mid-engined RS200 and Peugeot 205 T16. It was lighter because it was all-alloy instead of the iron block used in the long-wheelbase Quattro. It had a new cylinder head, too, with 20-valves, and a massive KKK turbocharger to force the air through them and fill its 2.1 litres fully. And if you had £50,000 in 1985, you could buy one: a car that even de-tuned for the road, developed a massive 306hp – enough to do 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds and hit 100mph in 12.
For me, though, it’s not simply the Sport Quattro’s amazing performance, which still shakes off the cobwebs today, that is so compelling. It's the completeness of its package. That's what pushed me from appreciating it to absolutely loving it. The engineering principle of the engine's positioning may be flawed, but the execution of excellent engineering elsewhere is plain to see. It's evident in the performance, the body control, the brakes, the ride comfort and the everyday usability. And because it’s a car that you can get stuck into on a drive it rewards. It puts a smile on your face. And I love nothing more than when a car is better than expected and makes you smile. This is definitely not just some old Audi, that's for sure. It's a hero, pure and simple.
Specification | Audi Sport Quattro
Engine: 2,133cc five-cylinders, turbocharged
Transmission: 5-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306 @ 6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258 @ 4,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 sec
Top speed: 155mph
On sale: 1985
Price new: £50,000
Price now: £500,000
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