I love cars that shouldn’t exist. History’s filled with them. Take for example the Bugatti Royale, the most imposing luxury car ever sold. The Type 41, as it was known, was designed for the richest kings of Europe (no, really) but as it launched during the Great Depression, only three of the seven built (out of planned 25) were ever sold. Despite the failure of the model, the 12.75-liter straight-8 engine lived on to be used by trains (yes, really) and the Royale project ended up in the black, financially. There’s also the Cadillac CTS-V wagon that arrived two years after GM emerged from bankruptcy, (probably) codenamed WTF. Hey, you make Maximum Bob Lutz your product czar, you get 556-hp manual-transmission station wagons.
We’re here today, however, to talk about a much smaller automobile, the Audi Sport Quattro. Imagine the meeting when the engineers said to the accountants, “The plan is to cut a foot from the Quattro’s wheelbase, widen the car overall, and lighten it with expensive stuff like Kevlar and aluminum, while also radically reworking the engine to extract more than 100 additional horsepower. Oh, also, we’re thinking white wheels, heated Recaros, and a full-leather interior.” The crazy part? The meeting went quite well!
What Makes a Sport Quattro?
Group B rally racing deserves the lion’s share of the credit, however. That utterly wonderful, doubly insane rally series from the heart of the Reagan era produced some of the most desirable cars the world’s ever known. Fire-breathing, massively turbocharged, AWD maniacs like the Ford RS200, Lancia 037, Lancia Delta S4, MG Metro 6R4, and the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. Let’s not forget the cars that were gonna race in Group B but never got a chance to due to the fatally dangerous series being cancelled in 1985, such as the Ferrari 288 GTO and Porsche 959. Did you know that the Lamborghini Countach 5000QV was issued a Group B homologation certificate? I would have given a limb to have seen that. Chief among these frenetic objets d’art is the Audi Sport Quattro S1. Dominant as a race car, the “short version” of the Audi Quattro gained immorality after French driver Michèle Mouton flew above the clouds of Pikes Peak, setting a course record as she did so. Bobby Unser set another record with an S1 the next year. Two years after Mouton made her immortal run, no less a legend than Walter Röhrl was the first to reach the clouds in less than 11 minutes behind the wheel of an even more evolved version (three wings!) of the Sport Quattro, called the S1 E2. You’re looking at the street version.
The Sport Quattro is based upon Audi’s Ur-Quattro coupe, the first production car to combine permanent all-wheel drive with a turbocharged engine, and a car my MotorTrend forefathers really liked. “Conventional automotive superlatives simply don’t do justice to Audi’s ultracar.” Weight reduction was a key concern for the Sport version, so in a shed away from the corporate eye of Ingolstadt, engineers cut 320 millimeters (12.6 inches) out of the 99.4-inch wheelbase, ending up with a stubby 86.8 inches between the axles. Why shorten things by that specific number? Because doing so allowed them to use the less raked A-pillars and stubbier doors of the 5000 sedan. Hey, at least they did something to keep costs down. The more upright glass came at the request of drivers who wanted less glare. The track was widened for the (absolutely fantastic looking) 9-inch wide, white 9J-15 R8 Ronal wheels. Body panels—including the swollen arches—were built from composites like carbon-Kevlar and fiberglass. The surgery worked, as the Sport Quattro weighed nearly 200 pounds less than the conventional Quattro coupe, at slightly over 2,800 pounds.
Power output from the 20-valve, cross-flow, turbocharged 2.1-liter inline-5 was 302 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, up from 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque on the stock engine in U.S. spec. (Euro Quattros made 195 horses and 210 lb-ft.) Interestingly, Audi had to reduce the 5-cylinder’s size by 11cc to comply with Group B’s rules. The total of 2133cc multiplied by 1.4—the allowance for the turbo—equals 3.0 liters. Quaint performance-car numbers by today’s ridiculous standards, but nearly unimaginable back in 1984. We’re talking nearly 144 horsepower per liter! For comparison’s sake, the contemporary Ferrari 288 GTO made do with only 137.8 hp per liter from its likewise turbocharged 2.86-liter V-8. The Sport Quattro’s long-travel suspension was all new, and the antilock brakes could be deactivated via a switch on the dashboard. Did I mention the heated seats?
Group B rules stated that no more than 200 street examples had to be produced, though Audi wound up selling 164 of them to customers out of a total production run of 214 Sport Quattros. Why not the full 200 street cars? Remember, Group B got itself canceled in 1985. Therefore there were no homologation rules left to follow. Because one of 164 isn’t rare enough, this car, owned by well-known Los Angeles-based car collector Paul Zuckerman (full disclosure, Zuckerman and I are cast members of Spike Feresten’s podcast, Spike’s Car Radio), is one of 10 ever sold in the United States. Paul was kind/naïve enough to let me have a go. For good measure, we brought along the Sport Quattro’s current analogue, a contemporary Audi TT RS, but really the modern car was there to round out the pictures.
Just Bleeping Look at It
The first time I saw this particular Sport Quattro in the flesh was in my rearview mirror. I was on my way to Zuckerman’s house, and I nearly did a spit take when I saw the rectangular headlights and all 10 grille openings. There was no way a Sport Quattro was roaming around L.A. But then I realized that if anyone would have this car it would be Paul. He got in front of me, and I followed him to his driveway where we spent about 45 minutes going over every inch of it. There’s so much to love. The asymmetry of the hood, for example. It vents heat where the big turbo is, on the passenger side. Open the hood, and you’ll see there’s heat shielding, but only on the left over the turbo. When done right, asymmetry beats balance every time in my book. Peek to the right of the engine—where the word “Turbo” is stamped out in massive font—and you’ll see a composite fan shroud made from the same fiberglass material as the engine fan on a Porsche 917. Beyond cool.
Then there are those white wheels! Hard to believe they’re even real. They’re as good as wheels get, and wrapped in killer Pirelli P700-Z rubber. The size is almost comical these days: 235/45R-15. Remember, unlike the first and last numbers, the middle number on a tire size isn’t a direct measurement. It’s an aspect ratio. That’s why there’s so much sidewall. Even better than the four wheels you can see is the fifth one mounted in the trunk. I recommend you stop reading right now and click through the image gallery right now. In fact, just look at all the photos. Done? Good.
I asked Zuckerman what he likes about the Audi Sport Quattro. He said, “I love the car because of how daring it is in both concept and execution. Putting AWD in a rally car and winning was a fresh concept. Seems obvious today, but in those days it wasn’t. And then they used fiberglass, aluminum, and Kevlar? What were they thinking? Also, I love the look of the car. It’s so strangely pugnacious, with the squared up, boxy looks. What else looks like this f***ing thing?” Good point. Zuckerman thinks his car was one of three press car Sport Quattros brought into the States for Röhrl’s 1986 Pikes Peak attempt. This Sport Quattro was originally registered in Vermont as a 1986 model by mistake, probably because that was the year it entered the country. Oh, and the price? I didn’t ask what Paul paid, but a cool half-million is the going rate.
What’s It Like Driving a Sport Quattro?
My first impression is that the Sport Quattro drives like a 2006 Subaru WRX STI. This is not damning with faint praise. Remember, 15 years ago the STI was a game-changing performance car. As our technical editor Frank Markus said after a brisk run up Pikes Peak, “[A]ll of Subaru’s WRC racing pays off handsomely in the civilian STIs.” The amazing thing is that Audi managed to get to this level of performance two decades earlier. The Sport Quattro’s awesome sounding turbo 5-cylinder engine is strong, but there’s plenty of lag. You need to drive it like any small, turbocharged motor. Keep the revs up over 4,000 rpm and all is well. Just like old STIs. Actually, current STIs, too. The Audi wins the power-to-weight ratio—9.3 pounds per hp versus 11.2. However, the Subaru happily out-torques the Sport Quattro, 290 lb-ft versus 258. My point is, there was something familiar about the driving experience. The claim is that the Sport Quattro could hit 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. I see no reason to doubt that, as the 500-pounds-heavier STI needed 4.8 seconds.
As for handling, the shorty wheelbase makes it a riot. It looks like it’s shorter than me (I’m five-foot-eleven), even though it’s a tick over 7 feet. Still, that’s tiny. My first hour or so of driving through Los Angeles on the way to Angeles Crest Highway, the Sport Quattro felt like a car from 30-plus years ago. An exceptionally well-maintained old car, but old nonetheless. However, start pushing it and the magic happens. The wide stance, the wide wheels, the AWD attack—I can think of a few brand-new performance cars this Audi would embarrass. I also love that you can switch the ABS off by flipping a switch. Who needs it? What about the traction control? There ain’t any! As in any WRX or STI, I never felt like I needed traction control, as the Audi is so masterfully planted. There’s a pull control to lock the differentials, but being as I was on dry Los Angeles pavement, I didn’t get to try that out.
It was the steering more so than anything that reminded me of a Subaru. A bit loose, a tad vague, but plenty of accuracy and correctability once you’re mid-corner. You can tell the car was engineered with dirt and gravel in mind. You know how some modern vehicles with 48-volt systems powering active anti-roll bars can stay perfectly flat through turns? Not this one! I haven’t experienced lean like this since DJ Screw. It’s hysterical. Now, I’ve long gone on record stating that I prefer cars that “take a set,” a fancy way of saying I like cars that lean into turns (less succinctly, cars that lean just the right amount), but the Sport Quattro is a bit dramatic even for my tastes. Was it this door-handle-polishy from the factory? Hard to say, although this example did go through a major, six-figure restoration by Canepa, so I imagine that, yeah, this is what ’80s rally dampers were like. Bad? Naw, super fun! Also, the Sport Quattro is faster than I expected. I looked down a few times and saw triple digits. I was at about 5,000 rpm in fourth gear. This thing could probably get to 160 or 165 mph no problem.
The Sport Quattro is just so damn charming. You wonder why Audi isn’t building something like this now. Sure, the TT RS or even the RS3 come close, kinda. But I’ve long described the former as, “My First Supercar.” There’s something like riding a bike with training wheels about it. See, I’m talking about a chunky, widebody rally machine with god-level power and locking diffs. Cut two doors and two feet out of an RS7 and lift it several inches. Might as well make it 800 horsepower—know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying. Perhaps when it’s time to permanently retire its 5-cylinder engine (blame EVs/the human desire to leave the earth habitable for our grandchildren) Audi will have a new Sport Quattro once again in the cards. After all, massive power is easy to extract from electric motors, and the e-tron GT would look bonkers-cool as a two door. Then again, perhaps not. After all, there were only 166 Sport Quattro road cars in the world. It’s not like they need to become more valuable.
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