The best four by four by far

In 1980, Audi unleashed something that was truly different onto the unsuspecting automotive world. A car – and a drivetrain – that became a global icon

Home Road Cars The best four by four by far

From Star Wars to road wars

At the Geneva Show in 1980, there was one sporting coupe from Audi that attracted a lot of attention. The grille featured the familiar four rings, but behind it was something brand new: the ground-breaking four-wheel drive quattro system. This was the first car in Europe equipped with four-wheel drive: technology that had been previously reserved for off-road and commercial vehicles. But its looks alone were enough to make an impact: the lines were penned by Martin Smith, a 27-year-old Englishman whose previous designs included the Landspeeder X-34 driven by Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars film. Ferdinand Piech – who was Audi's technical director at the time before going on to lead the company from 1983 ¬– had asked him to design a car that would turn Audi into something more than just “a little car company from Bavaria”. And so the exciting new quattro project was born in the winter between 1976 and 1977, following on from the tests of the Volkswagen Iltis off-roader, which was designed for the German army and developed by Audi.

The best four by four by far 01
The best four by four by far 01

How an army truck took over the world

Making the most of the remarkable performance of the Iltis on ice and snow, Audi's engineers led by Roland Gumpert (and Jorg Bensiger on the chassis side) decided to fit the same all-wheel drive system to a standard Audi 80. The results were remarkable – and it was this car that was the real inspiration behind the Audi quattro: so-called  because of the innovative four-wheel drive system. The original (or ‘UR') quattro was equipped with a 200-horsepower five-cylinder 2.1-litre turbocharged engine, launched in March 1980. The new car would go on to become famous in motorsport, making its official international debut at the Janner Rallye in Austria in 1981. The four-wheel drive system pioneered by Ingolstadt was a revelation, winning not only several world rally titles but also touring car championships in both Europe and America, as well as several times the legendary Pikes Peak hillclimb in America, last entry in 1987 courtesy of the legendary Walter Rohrl at the wheel of a specially-adapted version of the S1.

From strength to strength

Typical of Audi, the firm never stopped improving the basic concept: optimising the car's efficiency, stability and performance by managing the torque split through the four driven wheels more efficiently. In 1986, a central Torsen differential arrived to replace the previous manually lockable  centre differential.  The new design of differential was specifically designed to achieve a variable torque split between the axles, improving the handling. The very first TDI Quattro – in other words, diesel-powered – came in 1995, with four-wheel drive also featuring on the compact A3 in 1996 and sporty TT models four years later. In 2005, the differential design was improved further to provide permanent asymmetric four-wheel drive thanks to the ‘type C' Torsen differential, able to send all the torque to one wheel if required, but operating with a 40-60 front to rear bias normally.

With the R8 supercar in 2007 a front viscous coupling arrived. Audi then introduced its ‘ultra' technology – with a front-wheel bias – to the quattro concept in 2016, while two years later the electronic four-wheel drive system was born with the very first Audi e-tron.

The best four by four by far 02
The best four by four by far 02

Electric four the future

Four-wheel drive remains as one of the central pillars of Audi's technological offering today, and it's offered in five different versions, according to the characteristics and performance of the models it is fitted to. The most sophisticated version is attached to the e-tron: the two electric motors that form part of the drivetrain are ideally suited to a four-wheel drive configuration as they provide extremely precise and almost instant power delivery. The bias is towards the rear, and throughout Audi's history there's never been a quattro system that reacts so quickly. But the skills of Audi's engineers can also be seen in the powerful R8 V10, where the quattro with a dual plate clutch is integrated into the front differential, ahead of the mid-engine layout. Just imagine what four-wheel drive technology will look like by the time Audi celebrates its next significant quattro milestone, in 2030…