Although we always pride ourselves on providing sensible consumer advice, sometimes a car is so revolutionary that we have to make an exception.
Back in 1982, the Audi Quattro won our Sporting Car of the Year despite being left-hand-drive only and costing nearly twice as much as the Audi Coupé upon which it was based.
To really hammer home just how ahead of the curve it was, the Quattro managed to win Best High Performance Car a staggering nine years later in 1991. Throw in a big boot and usable rear seats (we couldn’t totally get away from our sensible urges), and you’ve got a car that’s well worth revisiting. That meant driving both the original 10-valve and the later 20-valve version. Excellent.
Where it all started
The Quattro story starts in a very unlikely place. After an Audi chassis engineer found that the Volkswagen Iltis military vehicle was crushingly effective at dealing with slippery conditions, work began on putting its four-wheel drive system into a road car.
After three years of development, the Quattro was introduced in 1980. With a 200bhp turbocharged five-cylinder engine, it offered performance that could match or even beat many Porsches and Ferraris of the day.
To help promote Audi's new-fangled four-wheel drive system, the Quattro was entered into the World Rally Championship. To say it turned the sport upside down would be an understatement – within a few short years, you needed all wheels driven to have a shot at victory in the top Group B class.
Our 1991 Best High Performance Car
Although the Quattro had left a deep impression on us in 1982, it wasn’t perfect. Not only did its turbocharger take an age to start producing power after you'd put your foot down, but we found the handling wasn’t as sharp as we’d have liked, either.
However, the Quattro was developed over the years thanks to lessons learned in the World Rally Championship. The suspension was stiffened to make it more eager to change direction, wider tyres fitted to give even more grip and the engine was upgraded as well.
Where originally the Quattro came with a 2.1-litre five-cylinder engine, this grew to 2.2-litres to help give it more low-end shove. In 1989, the engine was modified again to switch from two valves per cylinder to four. This 20-valve model gained an extra 20bhp and could rev higher, too.
Those changes were enough for it to take victory in our Best High Performance Car category back in 1991. Naturally we had something to say about a nine year old car winning this award;
“Pardon? Has What Car? fired the retro rockets and lurched dizzyingly backwards through the continuum of car technology? This, the Audi Quattro, was the car that launched a thousand four-wheel drive imitators when, back in 1980, its flame-belching, mud-slinging rallying alter-ego redefined the parameters of World Championship Rallying.
But the roadgoing version, despite its obvious handling merits, lacked in the finesse stakes; an inability to turn into a bend at speed and excruciatingly lethargic doses of turbo lag meant the Quattro wasn’t quite the road car it should have been. Until now.
A heart transplant of twin-cam 20-valve power, pumping out a thumping 220bhp and crushing amounts of torque, has altered all that, while the handling –always gratifyingly reassuring – is now as sharp as the engine is powerful. And the Quattro is amazingly practical, with useable rear seats despite the coupe styling.
The Quattro was a superb car. Now, this monument to four-wheel drive, in its final months of production, has matured into a supercar of quite matchless ability.”
But what’s it like today?
Despite its iconic boxed wheelarches making it much wider than the regular Coupé, the first thing you notice about the Quattro is just how narrow it is. Developed in an age before Euro NCAP safety requirements and widely published crash test results, the doors are wafer thin, while the thin roof pillars give excellent visibility.
After you’ve put the old-school key in the ignition and given it a twist, the engine fires up without any of the aural fireworks of modern performance cars, just a subdued five-cylinder growl. The clutch requires a fair bit of muscle to push down while the manual gearbox has a long throw and does not like to be rushed.
So far, then, it sounds more like a tractor than what was a cutting-edge performance car. That feeling doesn’t change as you potter around waiting for the car to warm up. The brakes are almost as heavy as the clutch and don’t seem to do a great deal to slow the car down while the steering is slow by modern standards.
The Quattro is also very comfortable – not just for a performance car but by the standards of most modern motors. This may be especially true of the 10-valve, but even the stiffer 20-valve variant is easy to live with on a long journey.
If that all sounds like something of a disappointment, you’re not alone. As a lifelong Quattro lover, I was expecting a lot more. Thankfully, it turned out that I was barely scratching the surface of both the 10 and 20-valve models.
With everything up to temperature and a course set for some entertaining back roads, the Quattro just gets better and better the faster you go. Once you’re dialled into the speed of the steering and turn past a feedback free zone around the straight ahead, you get decent feel as to what the front wheels are up to.
Give the brakes a good shove and it turns out they are a lot more effective than you initially think. That’s good news, because the Quattro does feel nose-heavy when you turn in to corners. Try turning in on the brakes and you can pin the front tyres to the ground before getting back on the power as hard as you like.
The tyres might be fairly modest by modern standards, but the Quattro still grips astonishingly well. Then there’s the traction; we might be used to four-wheel drive now, but the ability to just flatten the throttle out of even the tightest of turns must have been a revelation back in the 1980s.
When comparing the 10 and 20-valve cars, the former sounds even better although doesn’t rev as freely as the latter. The 10-valve also feels more roly-poly in the corners although the narrower tyres make it even more approachable on the road. Even so, it’s the 20-valve that wins a permanent place in my dream garage.
How much do they cost now?
It seems that the days of the four-figure Quattro are well and truly behind us. Unless you fancy a project, roadworthy cars with an MOT start around the £12,000 mark for a fairly average mid-1980s 10-valve.
You’ll need to spend in excess of £20,000 for a tidy 10-valve or a tatty 20-valve, while £30,000 should get you one of the best 10-valve cars. Because the 20-valve was only built for a couple of years, it's one of the most sought after Quattros; a low mileage example in excellent condition recently went for over £60,000.
As even the youngest Quattros are more than 25 years old, we’d recommend buying on condition and service history over mileage. Body panels can be tricky to find, so make sure you check for damage. Check for water leaks in the boot as they can cause rust and also check the sills for tinworm.
When you go for a test drive, make sure you listen out for nasty clonks from the suspension when maneuvering at low speed. Get the car up to temperature and check the turbo is still delivering boost and that the car isn’t leaking fluid when you stop again.
Rather something more modern?
Like the idea of the Quattro, but want something more modern? These are our top 10 sports cars on sale today.
10. Jaguar F-Type Coupé
The hard-top version of Jaguar's F-Type is among our favourite sports cars. It represents real value for money, too, because, with the range starting from £51,450, you get plenty of car and power for your money. Entry-level cars get every bit of kit you're likely to need, which makes up for the fact that the F-Type's boot and overall space isn't among the best in this class. Our favourite version is the 375bhp V6 S.
Our pick: 3.0 V6 SC
Bentley's Continental GT is stylish, powerful and offers the kind of pace you'd usually expect from a sports car - even if it doesn't quite handle like one. Its interior is luxurious and comfortable, giving owners the perfect environment to cross entire continents with ease. Bentley customers can specify just about any luxury item they can think of, too, although the standard specification is very comprehensive.
Our pick: V8 S
James Bond fans will like the Aston Martin DB11, because it's every bit as suave and sophisticated as 007 himself. Its V12 engine delivers massive performance, and despite its considerable weight the DB11 feels agile through corners. Its interior is much better than other Aston Martins, too. Just watch out for its high price tag, because at about £160,000 the DB11 is unattainable for most of us.
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