Succeeding an icon that remains revered decades later is never easy - ask any younger siblings. That was the main issue faced by the Audi S2 back in the early 1990s. Supplanting a car as legendary as the Quattro would never have been simple, but replacing angular '80s aggression with soap-bar '90s sleekness - even with a significant aerodynamic benefit - wasn’t a great start. There would be no factory motorsport programme to add glamour, no additional performance (220hp from the 2.2-litre turbocharged five), and the use of a name that evoked the recent days of Group B glory. Nowadays we all know the S badge as the understudy of the RS flagships, but this was years prior to uber Avants. Back then S2 followed S1, as in world rally superstar. The car after it was a £30k, leather lined, wood trimmed 2+2. Talk about a tough ask.
Autocar didn’t love the S2 much - ‘it lacks greatness’ summed up their thoughts succinctly. ‘Not only does it fail to improve on the Quattro’s legendary road manners, but it actually takes a step back’. Yikes. Motor magazine was more complimentary: ‘The S2 is versatile and blisteringly fast, all achieved with barely a mutter from the now civil and almost liquidly powerful five cylinders in conscientiously designed and constructed coachwork.’ As has become motoring journalism folklore, the newer car was declared worse for being more capable.
A 1993 facelift brought 10 extra horsepower and a six-speed manual, and the S2 was also available as a saloon and estate; the latter was of course the basis for the seminal RS2. Notable features included Bosch Servotronic speed-sensitive steering, a Torsen centre diff (plus a drive-operated locking rear diff) and a KKK-K24 turbo running at up to 0.75 bar. (The Sport Quattro has used a beefier K27 on this engine, among other things, to get beyond 300hp.)
Ultimately, however, not that many sold, in any bodystyle. An early '90s recession won’t have helped flagship two-doors (especially with the handsome new look available with more affordable engines), neither would the glut of alternatives in coupe-crazed times, and the Audi Coupe range petered out in 1996. The S2 badge was never seen again; the next five-cylinder coupe would be the TT RS more than a decade later, and the follow-up 2+2 on saloon underpinnings was the A5. Strange one.
A caveat from the off: Audi’s heritage fleet S2 really is as museum-grade quality as it seems, with just 1,200 miles from new. So it’s not really representative of any other used example out there. Plenty might still look this good, however, and that really counts in its favour. The 80-based Coupe will never be as recognisable as the Ur-Quattro, sure, but in this car’s favour is a look that’s ageing supremely well because it never tried too hard. It’s confident and assured, restrained in the best fast Audi tradition because those who know, know pretty much instantly. The S2 remains a really handsome car, well-proportioned and smartly detailed. Or, as it would been back in the day, conservative and plain.
Similarly, the inside is a testament to the good old Audi days. It feels absolutely bombproof, more like you're travelling by submarine rather than anything so pathetically insulated as a car. Again some of that will be due to how little this one has been used, though the fact that those S2s that can be found for sale often sporting chunky six-figure mileages points to sturdy build quality. Everything thunks and clunks and whirrs expensively; great slabs of wood veneer sit perhaps a tad incongruously in a car of sporting intent, though they look great. Same for the leather. As so many modern classics feel delicate and almost vulnerable, even those with modest mileages, the S2 makes new cars seem flimsy. You’d use this, enjoy this and appreciate this as much as possible.
That toughness extends to the powertrain and, more broadly, the entire driving experience. This isn’t a dainty, touchy-feely kind of sports car, and it surely wasn’t even by the standards of the early '90s: the steering is remote (representing ‘dubious progress’ according to one contemporary report) and the sound surprisingly subdued. In place of a seat-of-the-pants feel, however, you get all-conquering, all-consuming cross-country speed. Which feels like an adequate substitute. There won’t have been anything rear-wheel drive back then that would have been close to an S2, surely. This arrived a couple of years before even an Impreza Turbo, don’t forget.
Once 3,000rpm is on the dial, the S2 charges forward on a surge of boost and a real appetite for the red paint, feeling far stronger than 230hp shifting 1,400kg might have you believe. The gearbox is an unexpected highlight, too, again sturdy and reassuring but also accurate and satisfying. The ride feels decently resolved and the dimensions usefully compact in 2023, so before you know it the speed isn’t best matched with what we’re warned are old tyres. But even they have more purchase than might be expected, the front-end push isn’t terminal. Soon that red snout is rollicking down the next straight, snorting up the cool autumn air and politely bellowing its five-cylinder war cry out of appropriately modest pipes. Perhaps it’s a tad one-dimensional, but golly is it effective. Back when a hot hatch was a Clio 16v this must have felt supersonic.
Tricky one. Because those after an old car for more thrills and involvement than a modern alternative might be a tad disappointed by the S2, because it doesn’t fizz with feel or turn every journey into an event. On the other hand, of course, it just works, and works really well, with the added advantages of cool '90s styling and a characterful powertrain in its favour.
Knowing that engine is eminently capable of greater things only increases the appeal, especially as the car it’s contained in feels more than up for the challenge. Something so unassuming and apparently so hardy with 300hp, 400hp, maybe even 500hp, would be a cool old classic. Especially with a bit more sound in the mix.
Trouble is getting one. ‘Twas ever thus with niche performance options from the '90s (or so it now appears), but seeking out an S2 in 2023 really is not the work of a moment. And because they were just so good at point A to point B in cool, calm, composed fashion - they must have made excellent estates even before the RS - the cars you’ll find today are often 150,000-milers. No doubt useable, if maybe not the cars to now be spending thousands on. Especially as values have inevitably strengthened of late.
That being said, any S2 you find will be significantly less money than a Quattro with the same engine, and we shouldn’t underestimate the five-pot's appeal. Even the coupe is reasonably practical, the quality beyond reproach, and the design arguably looks better by the day. Look elsewhere for excitement; for a five-cylinder fix a little different to the rest, the S2 is very easy to recommend.
SPECIFICATION | AUDI S2 (1991-1996)
Engine: 2,261cc, five-cyl turbo
Transmission: 5-speed manual, four-wheel drive (6-speed from 1993)
Power (hp): 220@5,900rpm (230 from 1993)
Torque (lb ft): 228@1,950rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 secs (claimed)
Top speed: 154mph
Price new: £30,033
Price now: £12k+
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