The contract between car manufacturers and the press is simple. We use their cars to sell our magazines and papers, they use our papers and magazines to publicise such cars in the hope the public will buy them. But not this time. Audi’s plan in letting just a handful of journalists loose in its new Quattro concept is not to help convince the public to buy it, but — less conventionally — to help convince the board of Volkswagen to build it.
Bizarrely for a car that looks so right, the deal is not yet in the bag. “We all want to build it,” says Stephan Reil, head of Audi’s Quattro GmbH division whose project it is, “but we have to convince the management there is a business case.”
This should not prove difficult. Ever since it was shown to the world in Paris in September, the new Quattro has been lionised by all who have seen it. We know Audi plans only to make a few, probably less than 1000, but we know also it intends to charge over £100,000 and perhaps as much as £150,000 for each one. And yet expressions of interest, 150 in the UK alone, continue to pour in.
You can see why. Visually it’s not only the most arresting-looking Audi in history, its shape and short wheelbase summon the spirit of the most fabled and rare of all Audi road cars, the Sport Quattro built in 1983 to homologate the Quattro for Group B rallying. Were Audi to build this new Quattro, deliveries would start in 2013, precisely 30 years on from the old. It would seem this is not a coincidence.
To Audi, however, the new car has another purpose. Having first used all-wheel drive as a means to stand clear of the crowd and then adopted a heightened sense of style to build further on this work, Audi is about to add a third distinguishing feature.
Although I have known for years the lightweight revolution is coming, I never expected Audi to be in its vanguard. But as things stand right now, Audi is not only talking an impressively good game but also using the Quattro to showcase its ambitions in this area.
The Quattro’s single most impressive statistic is that it weighs just 1300kg. That’s 300kg lighter than the all-aluminium R8 supercar. And that’s not the weight of the concept car, but production-ready. And that’s despite the retention of four-wheel drive and an ironblock engine.
There is an irony here, and one that I was cruel enough to put to Herr Reil. His Quattro GmbH subsidiary is to Audi what M is to BMW or AMG to Mercedes — but is it, I suggested, conflicted by its very name? Surely losing that all-wheel drive hardware which is so rarely used would mean further weight loss? Naturally he was not in favour, though good enough to admit a two-wheel drive Quattro — if such an oxymoronic machine could exist — would weigh just 1220kg, and there are Vauxhall Corsas heavier than that.
Even at 1300kg, I’d have been prepared to drive the Quattro with its 402bhp, five-cylinder motor in a supermarket car park. But as luck would have it, Audi handed it over on a road that ran up the side of a canyon into the hills above Malibu and then persuaded (read paid) the California Highway Patrol to close it for me. And just as I thought that I couldn’t be any luckier, I spotted an original Sport Quattro they’d brought along as a static exhibit. So I took that too.
I climbed into the old car first, partly to benchmark the new one, but mainly because I didn’t want Audi to think twice about letting me loose in such an old, rare, valuable, important and, let’s face it, tricky piece of machinery.
It’s exquisitely ugly with its comical wheelbase and squared off ends. Inside the cabin is laughably cramped and full of clonky switchgear and an entire battery of old-world dials. The old straight-five motor is quieter than you’d think, the clutch gentler and gearbox easier too. It’s not a hard car to drive slowly.
It seems to have no power at all. Foot down in second gear at 2500rpm makes a barely discernible difference to your rate of travel. You sit and watch as 3500 and 4500rpm come and go, and then, just as you’re concluding someone has slipped the engine from an Audi 80 under the bonnet, it hits 4800rpm. The boost piles in so fast that you’re at 7000rpm almost immediately. And having spent so much time travelling slower than you wished, you’re now going much faster.
This road is peppered with hairpins but the old brakes don’t do much of a job shedding the speed, so you turn it in hoping more than believing it’ll grip. The chassis feels odd — very aggressive in its steering yet soft in its suspension. But grip it does and with no traction issues to worry about cannons away from the apex howling that inimitable off-beat five-cylinder tune. It’s a car that will take more time than I have to get used to, but even a few runs up and down the mountain show what could be achieved 27 years ago.
Although Reil describes the new Quattro as being “95 per cent production-ready” there are still many things about it that will change between now and the time that deliveries — if the car is approved — commence. It will have an all-carbon body whereas right now it carries aluminium doors, and he doesn’t even know if it will be manual like the concept or a double-clutch auto. All he can say is that there won’t be a choice.
What I can tell you is that the concept is not some show stand beauty queen, never intended to be driven at more than 10mph. From its carbon ceramic brakes to its 402bhp motor, it is the real deal.
Gratifyingly, it sounds just like the Sport Quattro. Their engines are entirely unrelated and the modern twin-cam, 20-valve, 2.5-litre unit produces precisely 100bhp more than the single-cam, 10-valve motor used by the old car, but that unique timbre is common to both.
However despite its higher specific output and the fact that it is a unique prototype, the new Quattro is a far easier car to get in and drive. The cabin is spacious, the driving position quite excellent. What’s more the engine delivers meaningful boost at half the revolutions required to stir the Sport from its slumbers. And when it goes, it goes even harder.
In fact in the way it blitzes it way up the road, all wastegate woofle and snatched gearshifts, it has the character of a rally car. You sprint through the lower gears, short ratios making it barely worth returning your right hand to the wheel between shifts. The brakes are imperious but it’s the chassis that leaves the most lasting impression. Grip is abundant, but if you do run wide in a corner, the nose bites straight back into the apex on the merest lift of a throttle showing the car’s potential and agility of its ultra-short wheelbase. It takes no imagination to see how it could be developed into a devastating asphalt rally car, but as Audi is already up to its ears in sports car and DTM racing, there are no plans for a return to the special stages.
But we should not get ahead of ourselves: the hurdle of convincing VW remains in place. Which is why they flew me to California, shut that road and let me go. The more of us who say it should be built, the more likely it is to be built. The entire event was an exercise in press exploitation and I’d just like to say that if anyone else wishes to exploit me in that way again, all they have to do is make a car as good to look at and drive as the Quattro and I’ll confirm my availability right now.
ENGINE: 5-cylinder 25-litre petrol
TOP SPEED: 186mph
POWER: 402bhp at 5400rpm
FUEL/CO2: 33.2mpg, g/km N/A
Just when I thought Citroen was rediscovering its form and confidence with excellent cars like the C3 Picasso and DS3, it goes and fluffs the most important of them all, the C4. This is the car that will affempt this coming year to compete with the outstanding VW Golf and all-new Ford Focus, not to mention ever-more convincing efforts from names we’d have once laughed at like Skoda and Hyundai.
It disappoints in many ways, but mainly because it is so unadventurous. In the past Citroen could always be relied upon to take a chance, but the only risk it has exposed itself to this time is to produce a car so dull to drive that customers may well turn to one of many more responsive, rewarding alternatives.
Citroen will counter this by saying its customers aren’t very interested in how a car handles, but the C4 doesn’t even ride properly, its springs being set so soft it wallows around on country roads. Its static qualities are beffer: the interior design looks good (even if it is complicated to operate) and it has the largest boot in the class. But none of this is nearly enough for it to pose any threat at all to the likes of the Golf, a car which competes strongly across the board.
It is clear that Citroen has saved itself a lot of money by means of comprehensively reengineering the old C4 rather than designing a new car from scratch. Whether that will turn out to be a smart move in the long term is a rather different maffer.
ENGINE: 4-cylinder 2-litre turbodiesel
TOP SPEED: 134mph
POWER: 148bhp at 3750rpm
FUEL/CO2: 56.5mpg, 130g/km
Porsche 911 GTS
You and I might associate the phrase ‘run-out special’ with cars such as a Ford Fiesta Finesse, but the issue of how to maintain interest in an extant model as the world wakes up to the existence of its replacement remains a delicate and tricky issue for all car makers to negotiate.
Porsche’s approach in the twilight years of the 911 has been particularly interesting to watch. First, it started to rebuild interest in the car with an ever-more enticing stream of hardcore versions such as the GT3, GT3RS and GT2RS, designed not simply to make money but to act as a halo product to improve sales of more humble versions. Then came the specials: last year we saw the 911 Sport Classic, of which just 250 were built and sold for an outrageous £140,000, and now Porsche has exhumed the Speedster name for a two-seat, shortscreen, wide-body version of the Cabriolet. And because just 356 will be made (no, that’s no coincidence) it can sell for £144,100 more money than a GT3 and a Boxster Spyder combined.
I drove the Speedster recently and found it to be quick, rigid, responsive and fun. Which would have been fine were such adjectives not equally applicable to a 911 Cabriolet optioned up to Speedster mechanical specification. It’s not a car I object to, because it doesn’t pervert the 911 philosophy in any way, but nor is it my kind of 911 either. It’s a car for completists and collectors, not those who buy the best driving machine their circumstances permit.
To Porsche all these 911s are largely ornamental devices to entice customers back to the brand. The car that’s going to be doing all the work is the Carrera GTS. This is no limited-edition special but the latest and last addition to the mainstream 911 line-up before the ‘991’ series replaces the current 996/997 series that’s been with us since 1998.
Based on the Carrera S, the GTS adds the wide body from the Turbo and an engine upgrade that fills out the torque curve, bumps power up by 17bhp to 402bhp and would cost over £8000 as an option on the standard car. It has a wider rear track, wider rear tyres, centre-lock wheels, sports seats, active suspension management, revised front spoiler, bespoke suspension settings and an Alcantaralined interior. Yet it costs £76,758, just £2152 more than the Carrera S which must now be obsolete.
Even if you only drive the GTS gently, you never doubt the value. The suede seats are probably worth the extra on their own, but despite more sporting suspension settings, this is the most comfortable-riding 911. Seven hours on the road felt like three in a normal car. The only disappointment was that it didn’t feel notably quicker or more responsive.
At least, not at first. If you plot the line of the GTS’s power curve against the S, you’ll discover it’s not higher, merely longer. So it’s only when the S runs out of puff above 6000rpm and the GTS keeps going up to 7300 that you really notice the difference. Which means you have to be driving very fast to feel it. Likewise, the chassis feels no more lithe or delicate until you’ve turned off the electronics and started exploring the limit.
And how often do we do that? Well, even if it’s a rare occurrence it will be worth it, because driven like this the GTS performs immaculately. There aren’t many cars that can make me retrace my steps, but having thrown the GTS over a mountain and reached the other side, there was no alternative but to do it all over again. That drive, with the engine singing at maximum effort and the chassis earning its living, was a highlight of 2010.
What a lovely way for only the second clean-sheet design in the 46-year history of the 911 to bow out. This is no extrovert like the GT3, and the improvements over a Carrera S are subtle, but they are no less valuable for that. In all the years I’ve been driving run-out specials, I’ve found none more convincing than this.
ENGINE: 6-cylinder 3.8-litre petrol
TOP SPEED: 190mph
PRICE: £76,758 (manua)
POWER: 402bhp at 7300rpm
FUEL/CO2: 26.6mpg, 250g/km