The Quattro was an icon long before Gene Hunt reappeared on screen in Ashes to Ashes and asked for his to be fired up. The Quattro was the car that changed the face of the World Rally Championship forever. It wasn't the first Group B car, and it certainly wasn't the most successful Group B car, but it's the one that everyone remembers for good reasons even today.
The Quattro was Audi's answer to a change in the regulations, one that allowed four-wheel-drive cars to enter. At first it was dismissed as heavy and overly complicated, but three wins in its first season duly dispelled that myth. The Quattro would then take two consecutive WRC titles in 1981 and '82 before everyone else caught on with the scheme. But despite being overhauled and outpaced, the Quattro remains an iconic figure.
On the face of it the Quattro was just a shiny Audi 80 with four-wheel-drive. But to allow such a misnomer to fester would be to do the car a massive disservice. Sure they shared some body panels and components, but underneath the Quattro was revolutionary. There had been plenty of sportscars that had experimented with four-wheel-drive before. But at the time the chosen method of distributing power around the car was a transfer box. Audi's philosophy for high-tech engineering made a bulky transfer box distasteful, so they needed to find another way.
After much head scratching and a couple of prototypes (one even based on an Audi 80 with the underpinnings from a military vehicle) the engineers plumped for a central differential, to distribute power around the car. That philosophy is what became quattro (lower case q) today.
The road car had 200bhp (there was a homologation special, the Sport Quattro, with over 300), using the turbocharged 2.1-litre, five-cylinder engine from an Audi 200 that had been given a fancy intercooler. That engine was deliberately mounted way forward, to make up for the bulkier nature of the transmission, to give the Quattro a spot-on 50:50 weight distribution, and with 285Nm (210lb ft) of torque the Quattro would hit 60mph in just 7.1 seconds. This first Quattro, now referred to as the Ur-Quattro (Ur roughly translates to first) might have looked at first glance like the slightly plodding 80 coupe that had spawned it, but the overall image was totally different. Outside the Quattro looks the very definition of the 1980s. It's boxy and white, with a boatload of plastic through the grille and light surrounds and on the square rear there's a small spoiler.
In fitting with the futuristic nature of the transmission the Quattro was fitted with a digital dash, which still looks like it's from twenty years in the future today. Even the rev counter is digital, which just adds that extra bit of fun to the drive.
Climb in, turn the key and you hear a burble that once was the mainstay of everything Audi. That's a five-pot under the bonnet – it doesn't scream at you, but as you do get going it's one of life's now rare pleasures. The seating position is good, even for someone over six foot, but the gearbox, a five-speed manual, is an interesting effort, the throw slightly longer than that an aircraft carrier and you need to anticipate changes a little in order to complete them in time given the sizeable amounts of turbo lag.
Lag in a car from 1980 should be expected, so once you're up and away it's almost a pleasure in 2019 to experience that anticipation as everything gathers together before you're away. Today the Quattro still feels fast in a straight line, even at nearly 40. The power all comes in a lump at the top of the rev range, as you would expect with an early turbo car, but when it does come it's an absolute rush, and you feel the need to keep everything in that range. The long thrown of the 'box makes it a tad difficult but it just takes a little timing to pull everything together.
But the most surprising thing isn't actually all that power, it's the way this thing moves. In a straight line you sort of expect it to pause, pick up the revs and go, but in a corner you have to adjust your driving from any other classic car. You see that clever centre diff and four-wheel-drive system means there is oodles of grip, but rather than it being a balance of entry lifting and late corner power, the grip comes with the throttle at all times. So you find yourself readjusting. Rather than trying to lift on entry to bring the car around, although it will dance when you're hard on the brakes, you go into the corner already getting back onto the power. A balance of throttle through the mid corner will bring more and more grip and the Quattro begins to feel like it's on rails rather than tyres. It's all down to that quattro system underneath, which feels clever even today. It feels eager in the corners, like it wants you to push on, to gather more and more grip, rather than squirming as you ask more of it.
Once you become used to the vagueries of this system, it becomes one you can really exploit. You learn to jump back on the throttle earlier and earlier to bring the car round, until you're pretty much powering into corners in a style you'd expect to induce either colossal early-corner understeer, or a snap of oversteer, but one that in the Quattro just incites grip.
Our time with the Quattro was all too short, and soon it's at an end. But you walk away from this car feeling like you drove something that truly changed the game. There's a lot of cars that made a big difference to motoring, but that if you jump in them today the rate of change of technology will make them feel a little flat. The Quattro feels fresh and exciting today, like it's still ready to change the world, even though time has moved on.