It was not so long ago that Audi was perceived as a maker offering worthy, well-engineered, slightly upmarket, but ultimately unexciting cars, a cut above the larger Volkswagens, perhaps, but the likes of BMW need not feel threatened. So far as some models were concerned, it might appear a harsh assessment of the company, but we are talking here not of the hardware, but of the image. The fastback Audi Coupe of the early Seventies, for example, was nobody’s idea of a serious sporting car and it was slightly amusing to look at its pretensions.
Recently, however, one’s perception of the firm has altered radically. The success in rallying of the Audi Quattro Coupe has helped that change (“Quattro” with an upper case “Q” refers, incidentally, only to the turbocharged coupes, the rest of the quattro range has the lower case “q”); the extraordinary combination of advanced aerodynamics and graceful styling of the Audi 100 has built on the rally successes; and the introduction of the 200, reviewed enthusiastically in last month’s Motor Sport, confirmed that here is a manufacturer one must take very seriously.
At recent car launches, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to directors of both Audi and BMW and it is clear from what the Audi people say (for they are the challengers) and.by what the BMW people don’t say (for they are the challenged) that the two companies are now fighting for the same market. It’s no secret that BMW is developing a 4wd car and a little birdie told us of a BMW competition 4wd car under development at Porsche. Our little birdie, usually a very reliable source, mentioned a 400+ bhp output which suggests a rally car. It is generally believed that BMW has a V12 flagship model under development, could it be that the company intends to use a modified 4wd version of this to try to beat Audi at its own game?
On the other hand, a senior Audi executive did not dismiss the idea of a new flagship model bearing the name Horch (a company which, like Audi, was part of Auto Union) but he stressed that it would have to represent a level of quality synonymous with the name. BMW today, Mercedes-Benz tomorrow?
Since we are considering not just hardware but also image, it might be useful to remark that BMW has recently launched a range of products, sweaters and the like, which bear the ”M” symbol which appears on the firm’s F1 and F2 engines and the M535i and M635i cars. So potent is this logo that in Germany you can see ordinary BMW cars with the “M” symbol on the back. Audi has responded with the use of the name “quattro” on a rival range of products which, like those of BMW, are of a very high quality.
The idea is to make a quattro not just a car one would quite like to have, all things considered, but to make it a car one aspires to. No doubt the marketing men of both companies watch the sales of these products with as keen an eye as they cast on car production figures, for Jurgen may currently drive an elderly Kadett but if he wears an “M” sweater it means that one day he hopes to drive a BMW M635i. If Helmut drives a clapped-out Taunus but wears a “quattro” scarf, then that looks promising for Audi – in the future.
When two such serious manufacturers are involved in direct rivalry, the result must be good news for those of us who appreciate fine engineering and fine cars.
In December, journalists were invited to St. Moritz to sample the four cars which complete the Audi range and which allow the firm to claim that it is the first road car manufacturer in the world to offer 4wd at every stage of its range. They were: a 100 saloon quattro, a 100 Avant quattro, a 200 Avant quattro and a Coupe quattro. Unfortunately the schedule was arranged to suit journalists from many nations and we Brits, being made of stern stuff, actually like to spend our time driving cars. The schedule did not allow more than 26 miles driving per car, sharing with another driver. Motor Sport will not commit itself to comment seriously on high performance cars driven for an average of 13 miles apiece on unfamiliar roads.
We were, however, given an extremely impressive demonstration of the quattro range. Audi laid out a course on compacted snow parallel with, and a few yards from, the Cresta Run. Had we been on the trip a week earlier, we would have been allowed to drive up the course of the Cresta run itself. As it happens, we had an Audi Coupe quattro and found we negotiated the course with no problems at all. We were even able to drive into six inches of virgin snow and drive out again with little drama. We were then invited to repeat the exercise with the front engined, rear wheel drive product of a rival manufacturer (no names, no pack drill, but guess who it might be) and found we got all of eight yards before hitting terminal wheelspin. One of our number did almost make it with a Peugeot 305, however, but it was a case of dedicated effort. The Coupe was effortless.
We then drove the Coupe quattro over the Julien Pass which was covered by icy snow (skimpy on the Armco is your Switzer, odd considering Jackie Stewart is a resident). “Impressive” is a weak word for the way the car behaved driven hard in conditions we rarely meet in England. It was like driving an ordinary car on a frosty morning, you took special care, of course, but pressed on. The car felt astonishingly secure at over 7,000 feet on several inches of solid snow. You could even chuck it around hairpins.
We felt less secure in the larger cars, for the shape requires more than 13 miles on unfamiliar roads before one feels sufficiently at home to position them on narrow roads and drive them as they are intended to be driven. Besides, the two versions of the 100 range which we drove were on clear tarmac so comparisons are not easily possible.
The Coupe, which has a claimed maximum speed of 125 mph will cost around £13,500 in the UK. The 100 Avant estate will cost around £16,000 and the 200 Avant estate about £24,000. Audi is to increase its quattro specialist dealers from 60 to around 100 though all Audi dealers will be able to take orders.
It is unfortunate we were not allowed greater acquaintanceship with the cars, for they are dearly exceptional, the sort of cars which, given time and the right conditions, extend a driver. As we’ve said before, some cars reveal themselves within a few minutes, others require time as one builds up a relationship. The quattro range is definitely in the latter category and we feel that a long term relationship would be a rewarding experience. M.L.