Road impressions: Audi 80 Quattro

In three short years the Audi division of Volkswagen has set the motoring design world on its head, seizing the leadership in four-wheel drive and turning it into a commercial success. Sceptics of the Quattro were confounded, first by favourable test reports and public reaction, then by rally successes which forced other manufacturers to rethink their entire competitions strategy, so that in the future a “conventional” two-wheel drive stage car will become the exception.

Capitalising on this design breakthrough, Audi have now launched the 120 mph 80 Quattro on the British market after a scramble to catch up with demand on the home market, and we imagine that the four-door saloon will become an equally sought-after model in the UK despite an inevitably high price ticket of £11,269. For that, the customer will have a high-performance, luxury model with improved adhesion on wet roads, and transformed abilities on snow.

Ferdinand Piech, nephew of Prof Porsche and now head of Audi’s Research and Development department, does not take personal credit for the four-wheel drive development which was inspired from within the ranks of his department, but he had the characteristic tenacity to persuade his fellow directors, and more important, the entire board of the Volkswagen-Audi Group (and perhaps against their better judgement) that the project would be a technical and commercial success. As the basis they took the centre-lock differential of the Iltis cross-country military vehicle — a development which had first appeared at the Frankfurt Show in 1977— and commenced trials in an 80 saloon in the spring of the following year.

The team soon found that the 3% increase in transmission drag is almost exactly offset by reduced rolling resistance and wheel slip losses, whilst the slight weight penalty could be overcome with ease by using more powerful engines. Even when the Quattro appeared in 1980 few rivals, in the manufacturing or competitions fields, would take it seriously, so the rally programme which was undertaken two years ago was a vital part of the process of convincing the world that it wasn’t a mere gimmick. History was repeating itself, for Harry Ferguson found it necessary to engineer a four-wheel drive racing car with which Stirling Moss won the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1961. In that case the world refused to be convinced . . . with Audi’s resources it was to be a different story.

In reverting to the 80 saloon (a much revised model, in fact, since the prototype stage) Audi also adopted the 2,144 cc 5-cylinder power unit which is not otherwise available with a 136 bhp rating. In the Coupe Injection the engine develops 130 bhp, the saloon’s power advantage coming from a three-branch exhaust manifold which improves the breathing. The Coupe weighs 1,050 kg, however, while the 80 Quattro is substantially heavier at 1,190 kg, the drive system accounting for 75 kg of the difference and the four-door bodywork the remaining 65 kg.

The 80 Quattro has in common with the Quattro Coupe the 100 in wheelbase floorpan, the five-speed gearbox (though with different internal ratios), the central differential, rear subframe, suspension, springs, propeller shaft, and even the 14 in diameter alloy wheels. The speed-related power steering is also identical. The main differences are in the front suspension, which adopts lighter struts with different spring and damper rates, and in the brake system which has ventilated discs at the front with Audi 100 calipers, and solid discs at the rear with Quattro calipers.

Normally the 80 Quattro runs with four wheels driven, but with the centre and rear differentials unlocked. A two-stage pull-out control on the sub-fascia locks first the centre differential and then, for maximum traction, the rear differential as well, with green lights warning of these operations. During the period of our test we enjoyed fine weather conditions so that we hardly tested the 4-wd system effectively, let alone the diff locks and their effectiveness. It is apparent though that the car has a slight tendency to understeer, normally, just as a front-drive machine would. With the differentials locked the handling becomes absolutely neutral, neither pulling nor pushing, and the car feels altogether more taut.

To some extent we have to take the 80 Quattro’s properties for granted in a summertime test. As for the car, the adoption of the Bosch K-Jetronic inducted 5-cylinder engine gives it a “big car” feel, fully of lazy power and torque, but still a rapid mover when the occasion arises. The engine has a characteristic beat, pleasant but not so silkily refined as a good six-cylinder engine (and today, some four-cylinder units can rival it for smoothness).

With a top speed of 120 mph, and standstill to 60 mph acceleration in 9.1 sec, the 80 Quattro is certainly in the high-performance class, holding its own with the Golf GTi and Coupe stablemates with ease.

Hung right out ahead of the front wheels, the engine is patently in the wrong position to endow the car with inherently good handling. Yet, just as Porsche overcame the disadvantage of an overhung rear engine in the 911, under Mr Piech’s management, so Audi have worked away to such good effect that, even on the front-drive models, the handling is better than average in the fwd class. Four-wheel drive is the icing on the cake, the expedient that makes the Quattro so absolutely neutral.

The five-speed gearbox has four fairly close ratios and a high “overdrive” fifth, the lever movement feeling very positive. At first the steering feels almost too precise, small movements of the wheel inducing quick reaction in steering, but as the road speed increases the power assistance is diminished, so we soon felt at home driving the 80 Quattro quickly. Braking is powerful and reassuring (more so than in the Golf GTi, which could benefit from a similar system).

Altogether, the 80 Quattro is a highly equipped family car which features electrically operated front windows, sport seats, the driver’s being height adjustable, central door locking, headlamp washers and interior adjustable twin mirrors. If conventional, it would be highly priced and, if you take the similarly equipped Coupe Injection for comparison, the advantage of four-wheel-drive is valued at around £1,700.

Averaging an exemplary 28.2 mpg during the test, the 80 Quattro’s 15-gallon fuel tank gives it a range of well over 400 miles in normal driving, something else that will appeal to many potential customers. In the first six months of production Audi’s Ingolstadt plant had produced 6,500 examples, now turning them out at the rate of 300 a week. The British VAG organisation plans to import 1,000 in the next 12 months, and we imagine that for the novelty value alone they will have no difficulty in selling them. — Michael Cotton