Celebrating 40 Years of quattro

As intrinsic to the modern Audi brand as the four rings which symbolise it on the grille of the vehicles it builds, quattro all-wheel drive has been the premium auto manufacturer’s drivetrain of choice for 40 years.

During the 1970s, the idea of an automotive manufacturer pitching the concept of a mass-market all-wheel drive passenger vehicle seemed thoroughly at odds with reality. But Audi changed all that at the 1980 Geneva International Motor Show.

The concept of integrating chassis and powertrain technology more efficiently became fundamental to Audi’s primary notion of Vorsprung durch Technik even today. 

All-wheel drive systems were, after all, generally the explicit reserve of commercial trucks or, at best, dedicated off-road farm and recreational vehicles. But underpinning a family sedan or sports car? It simply wasn’t a consideration. 

Well, not for any manufacturer headquartered outside the German city of Ingolstadt anyway… 

At the 1980 Geneva International Motor Show (see image below), Audi turned the concept of the conventional 4x4 on its head. From underneath a silk car cover appeared a sporty, turbocharged new Audi; the Coupé – and quattro – had arrived. 

Not only was the fastback Coupé a true head-turner from the get-go, it was also the first high-performance vehicle to be offered with drive to all four wheels. And it was the endpoint of a design and engineering journey that had begun several years prior. 

The idea for an all-wheel-drive passenger car came about when Audi engineer Jörg Bensinger and his team spent the winter of 1976/77 helping Volkswagen test its Iltis off-roader; a Haflinger-style cab-forward troop carrier which was being developed for the German army.  

The excellent driving characteristics of the off-roader, especially on ice and in snow, led the Audi engineers to the idea of installing the same all-wheel drive system from the Iltis into a series-production Audi 80.  

The tinkering paid off and subsequent tests were impressive enough that the project got the green light to proceed from secret skunkworks endeavour to mass manufacturing. But rather than debut as a facet of the humble Audi 80, the technology was destined to underpin much more thrilling metal. 

Before long, the sporty Audi Coupé was better known by the all-wheel drive system that helped it stick to the road: it was the Audi quattro. Taken from the Italian word for “four” (well, the Audi ‘Vier’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?) the Coupé featured iconic wedgy 1980s lines, a futuristic LCD dashboard and a 147kW/200hp 2.2-litre longitudinally-mounted five-cylinder turbo engine under the bonnet.  

But it was the drivetrain that made the Ur-Quattro (“Ur” being German for “original” or “primordial”) thoroughly different from every other sports coupe on the market. And successful beyond the city streets as well… 

Following a World Rally Championship rule change that allowed four-wheel drive in competition cars, the Audi quattro made its motorsport debut in 1981 at the Jänner Rallye in Austria. All-wheel-drive Audis would go on to revolutionise the international rally scene and create heroes out of those that piloted them to victory as well: Michéle Mouton, Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Walter Röhrl. 

The Audi quattro stayed in production for over a decade (and remained almost unchanged in design throughout those years). But new ideas had to come through as the concept of integrating chassis and powertrain technology more efficiently became fundamental to Audi’s primary notion of Vorsprung durch Technik

Today, smart interlinking of various systems means the Electronic Chassis Platform (ECP), innovative chassis systems such as electromechanical Active Roll Stabilisation (eAWS), predictive active suspension and Dynamic All-wheel Steering (DAS) are able to work together to magnify Audi’s all-wheel drive dynamic potential. 

Since the technology’s debut, Audi has produced some 10.5 million cars with quattro all-wheel drive to the end of 2019. Forty years on from its arrival, quattro is as much an icon of engineering as many of the famous models that have benefited from its prowess both on and off the road. 

Words Cameron Officer 

Related Articles

Audi quattro in the age of the EV

We deep dive into Audi’s new electric drive architecture and EV quattro systems that see optimised torque distribution mated with zero tailpipe emissions to satisfy drivers keen to conquer terrain but add only tyre prints behind.

Read More

Compact firepower

Benefiting from a redeveloped, driver-focused cockpit and a powerful 2.0-litre TFSI engine outputting 228kW, the new Audi S3 Sportback furthers the legacy of the premium compact sports model which began 20 years ago.

Read More