What's the most desirable Audi RS currently on sale? The reinstated R8 RWD must be in contention, proving once again that there's a sports car beyond a 911. Or the RS6, perhaps? There's every reason to think it so. By combining everything that's been good about the uber-wagon for a decade and a half - performance, practicality, suave good looks - with some genuine dynamism, it's about as good as an RS Audi as there's been. There's a downside, though. For all the talk of this being a "new chapter" in fast Audis, it's enormously heavy: with a driver on board, the new RS6 is said to weigh 2,150kg. That's a manufacturer figure, too; it could well be 2,200kg. For reference that original RS6, also powered by a twin-turbo V8, was 1,865kg.
Why mention the RS6? Well, it's arguably the face of Audi RS in 2020, 40 years since the Quattro made its debut. In 2010, when Ingolstadt was celebrating its 30th anniversary, the singleframe face of Audi belonged to another pretender: the Quattro Concept. Designed for the Paris Motor Show it was intended not only to evoke the original Quattro, but also to firmly point the way forward for production flagship Audis.
What did that future mean? It meant light weight - really light weight. Aluminium and carbon were used extensively, with Audi claiming that the technology "will characterise Audi's entire production model portfolio in the future". Well, the Quattro Concept was 1,300kg, and there hasn't been a fast Audi since that's got close to that figure. Even the teeny-tiny Audi S1 was a little heavier, with not much more than half the Quattro's power. Now we're another decade down the line, and while comparing coupe concept with production estate seems a little unreasonable, it seems precious little has been gleaned from all the cleverness shown back then. Granted, the five-cylinder did get lighter through a new crankcase a couple of years back, but a TT RS is still a 1,450kg car. And, well, it's no 21st century replacement for the quattro, is it?
The concept promised so much more. Based on an RS5 platform, it had 150mm hacked from the wheelbase - to "enhance agility and reduce weight", a tweaked TT RS engine making more than 400hp, a six-speed manual gearbox and 2010's best version of the quattro hardware. All while looking absolutely superb, it must be said, squat and pugnacious yet not gratuitously aggressive in the way that modern day Audis so often are.
It looked like there was something for everyone here. Those people who wanted an Audi for the look and the interior were served well by the Quattro Concept - that's Col de Turini White over Rally Beige, sir, with Quattro-esque dial graphics and some very nice seats - as were those who bought an Audi for its characteristic performance. At the time it was claimed that 408hp and 1,300kg gave it a power-to-weight ratio equivalent to the range topping R8 V10, as well as 0-62 time of less than four seconds.
The Quattro Concept promised something for the R8 fans who loved driving, too. In 2010 the original R8 had only just spawned its V10 variant, taking the Audi sports car towards 200mph territory and attracting a whole new swathe of fans. The B7 RS4 lingered in recent memory, too; a car that redefined a whole era of Audis. Faith in Audi's ability to actually deliver a proper driver's coupe, one that combined the best bits of V8 RS5 and five-cylinder TT RS, seemed to be well founded ten years ago.
Moreover, the car was going to get the Sport Differential that had been introduced in the S4 not long before (and taken on in the RS5), presumably to quite drastic effect with the turbo torque, a 40:60 front-to-rear torque bias and that savagely shortened wheelbase. Audi wanted "uncompromisingly precise" handling from the Quattro, with "finely differentiated feedback" from the steering; to that end it went about shedding unsprung mass wherever it could, with aluminium in the suspension, ceramic brakes and cast aluminium centre-lock wheels.
Audi even allowed the concept to be driven, proof if ever it were required that they were keen on the project. "I can't help thinking it would be a belter", came back one report, praising its direction changes and acceleration, or at least as far as was possible with a one-off concept. It was suggested that the Quattro Concept could make limited production in a fitting homage to the original, with that 1,300kg kerbweight made a real priority.
And who wouldn't be keen on that? Presumably it would have been costly, perhaps somewhere between an RS5 and an R8 given the expensive materials involved, but as an industry missive on what should have been graded as important in a 21st century performance car, it would've been some statement. Largely because it was improved by its commitment to small, lightweight efficiency, not in spite of it. An Audi of such stature would likely have gone a long way in answering so many of Audi's criticisms - the dynamic aloofness, the hesitancy, the lack of involvement - without jeopardising the quality, sense of occasion of prestige image. All at a price point below the R8, perhaps rivalling base 911s instead.
Then, when it all seemed genuinely doable, the Quattro Concept disappeared. An RS Q3 turned up after 2010, as did another RS4 and a SQ5; all perfectly decent cars, though nothing to break the established mould. Then, a few years later, we got the Sport Quattro Concept, this time celebrating the iconic (and much shorter) Quattro that became a poster child of Group B, and hope was back. It had had a minor facelift, a respray in Energy Yellow and came with the promise of handling "as dynamic as it is stable."
This wasn't the Quattro Concept, though, because now it was fit to burst with a hybrid V8 powertrain - Audi back to its bad old habits of solving problems with more of everything, basically. "700hp", they cried, "and 94mpg!" to the satisfaction of no-one. The previous claim of 27mpg made for the inline-five was believable - achievable, even. Worse than that, weight had inevitably ballooned to 1,850kg, and with it all hope of a genuinely light, immersive, rewarding Audi coupe.
Then, in 2017, the entire notion of anything Quattro Concept-related was halted by then-CEO Stephan Winkelmann. "I think we have so much in front of us that the most important thing is to get the line-up where we need it. I think there is the opportunity for a very limited car, but this is not my top priority at the moment", is what he told Car and Driver. That line-up, as we've now seen, features two types of RS Q3, the RS Q8 and an R8 moved further away from the reasonably normal sports car roots from which it made its name.
This isn't to begrudge changing priorities, or Audi pursuing new sales and new customers, because both are necessary. The disappointment in the Quattro's demise was that it had the potential to usher a new type of enthusiast toward Ingolstadt, without risking the success of its other models. It could be priced far enough from a TT RS so as not to risk plundering that car's buyers, and a 250kg weight saving would surely make it a totally different car. A manual gearbox would have differentiated it from an auto-only RS5, and the V10 only R8 would have remained leagues ahead; leaving the sports car niche available below it.
Then there is the affect it might have had on branding, the one exercise that Audi appears to value beyond anything else. Mercedes indulged itself in exotic opportunities like the CLK AMG Black Series, and reaped the mouth-agog acclaim from any enthusiast in clicking distance. Audi Sport, incredibly for a division clear-sighted enough to know that it could make a mid-engine supercar work, failed to read the waters - or failed to enter them with real ambition, at any rate. Sure, it might not have sold a manually geared, lightweight, driver-focused five-cylinder coupe by the truckload - but it would have had the concept to point to, and the acknowledgement it had once again made something pioneering and special. Something worth celebrating in another 30 years.
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