At the end of 2013, we enjoyed a very exclusive drive in one of the most interesting cars ever to come from Ingolstadt, or anywhere for that matter. Audi held its Land of Quattro Alpine Tour event, a 4,440km sprint through Europe, across the Alps from Switzerland all the way down to the coast and Monaco.
The tour was held using a convoy of Audi’s finest – its RS models – with the fleet made up of the RS Q3, RS 6 Avant and RS 7 Sportback plus two heritage models: The original Audi quattro (or ‘ur-quattro’) of 1980, and its legendary son, the Audi Sport quattro of 1984.
That car is the homologation special of which only 214 were built for the express purpose of qualifying for the FIA’s Group B rally rules.
Why bring up the past? Well a very low-mileage Sport quattro model has appeared for sale courtesy of auction house RM Auctions and it’s expected to fetch up to $624,000. That’ll only give you $80,000 change from a storming, modern RS 6 Avant in Singapore, but it still shows just how special the Sport quattro is.
While our Malachite Green test car was obviously more used than the white example heading to the auction block, it’s even more special: Only 214 were ever made, but only 15 examples in Malachite Green.
Check out our short video of a blast with the Sport quattro through the magnificent Julier Pass here then read our epic drive through the Alps, excerpted specially from CB213, below:
Audi Alpen Tour 2013
Our lunch stop involves a ski-lift and massive amounts of pork and cheese. I’m not afraid of heights – although some people are (inside joke, sorry) – but it’s a stroke of luck/something else awaiting us when we descend from the lofty heights of the mountain restaurant, which was apparently used by Boris Becker for his wedding.
The words ‘homologation special’ make a person’s brain erupt into anticipation, fear or the heady mixture of both. Letters flood into your frontal cortex, straight from the amygdala, usually involving lots of ‘RSTGTGSTSGRGS’. If there were a God Of High Performance, that’s the sort of onomatopoeia he or she would emit.
It turns out we get to drive the Audi Sport Quattro. It’s arguably The Audi, after the ur-quattro, with just 200 units built from 1983 onwards, it followed the original Audi Quattro Coupe (aka the ‘ur-Quattro’) but was geared towards competition in rallying to pass the FIA homologation requirements. Stig Blomqvist won the 1984 WRC championship in it, although the version everyone remembers is the insane Walter Rohrl Group B S1, which came with enough wings to start its very own Jurong Bird Park.
The key difference you can see. While the ur-Quattro is long, angular and almost DeLorean-like in its profile, the Sport Quattro is short and snouty, almost like a Lancia Delta, and does the whole mean-ass blistered arches thing. In fact they should be steroided arches, because if your blisters are like that then something is obviously wrong.
As the racing special, the car is 80kg lighter and has 306bhp (86 more than the ur) from its 2.l-itre turbocharged engine. It’s also got 32cm less metal between the wheels, ostensibly to make it turn quicker. You can peer inside the car and see that the rear will seat two adults in comfort, if the said adults are stacked in a 69 shape transversely. Or should it be perversely?
Anyway, it smells like an old car and feels like an old car. In other words, ergonomically you only have to adjust the seat a little to find a good driving position – what is it about modern cars that after diddling the sixteen way adjustability to oblivion you still feel uncomfortable? The waffle-shaped headrests don’t force your gaze down either, the pedals in easy reach, as is the gear stick. Also it has an ‘Audi Design’ cassette player, and all that means it’s already scored major points in the appearance department.
The ignition is one the steering column, one twist of the fiddly key and the car starts up, vibrations flooding the cabin, but not very much noise. As the car’s not warm yet, the clutch is fiddly and bites in strange places, so there’s a lot of slip as we tiptoe through town in order to get to the first pass of the day. On a steep urban slope, I discover the handbrake doesn’t work very well at all and keep sliding back, to the consternation of a light goods vehicle, which doesn’t know the meaning of personal space – apparently, we’re back in Switzerland.
It’s not all work, though. The steering is light, the controls easy to use and while the gearbox is vaguer than any government press release relating to cars in Singapore, I learn to negotiate some kind of mechanical sympathy with the Sport Quattro.
After more toeing through more towns, the terrain finally lets up and gives us a huge reward. The thing about Alpine passes is that they sneak up on you, almost imperceptibly. One moment you’re yawning through another row of very-close-together houses on the village main street and a 30km/h limit, the next you’ve somehow wandered into Gondor, except with tarmac snakes instead of orc-trodden paths.
The Julier Pass turns out to be the most magnificent driving road of the trip. First the terrain opens up vastly, then it goes from pine forest to a sort of barren, grey-orange landscape. The mountains tower up into the sky even further, but the clouds aren’t that far away, in fact they’re cruising between the peaks, hovering past craggy rock faces that look like they’ve been in a titanic fight with a someone, or something. That thing is the weather, of course, but it’s no wonder stories of mountain giants appeared.
In contrast to the environment, we couldn’t ask for lovelier roads. Julier has the kind open terrain which give rise to fast, sweeping turns alternating with interwoven, stacked hairpins. It means you’re never driving blind and can always ‘see as fast as you go’, so carrying speed on the faultless tarmac is easy.
The Sport Quattro shows its true nature here. It’s got a lovely balanced ride that again, only old cars seem to have. The steering is not particularly feelsome but very accurate and light and you pick up enough from the rest of the machine to make up for it. The funniest (and funnest) part of this is the 2.1-litre five-cylinder engine. With one whacking great old turbo, it takes what seems like forever to spool up. Before the turbine kicks in, it feels normal, but if you want to carry speed then gear selection is vital and keeps your right hand and leg busy. Below 3,500rpm it just mutters along, and then explodes into power with a heady growl.
Overtaking is thus a strategic assignment, and you cannot follow a simple aggressive instinct – get it right and you’re flying past modern cars. Get it wrong and you’ll languish behind that lorry while the beautiful Julier Pass whistles by.
In fact the roads are so good, we turn around for another go, but not before some colleagues in the RS Q3 roar past us – for the third time. Junkies.
But I don’t dare push it too hard. Our car is in a dark shade of green (don’t say ‘British racing green’) called ‘Malachite Green’. As a sure sign this is an über-cult car and purist crowd pleaser, ‘Big’ David Khoo, who is on me with this leg, can’t stop going on about. So, as it turns out there are only 15 cars of the original 200 in this shade, the ‘launch colour’ being the 1980s equivalent of Misano red. So I take extra care, not wanting to be known as The Guy Who Did In Malachi.
After Julier, the weather starts to close in again, and it’s really quattro country once more. The Sport Quattro, like the ur-Quattro, has a 50-50 torque split, but you can also lock both differentials if required. We leave it alone, remembering the support vehicle for Audi Heritage, a Q7 packed full of spares.
In some places the Sport Quattro feels almost fragile. The interface is solid enough, but the engine shriek at 7,000rpm will make you back off if you’ve any sort of mechanical sympathy, while in right-handers we can feel the front right suspension making a creak and slight hint of wobble – compare this to the RS 6 where the computer told us about the puncture. What did Mr Prost say about the romance of driving?
The next pass we don’t see much of. Climbing the Oberalp is probably fun, given the numerous hairpins and sweepers, aside from the fact that the road is much tighter and there’s so much fog (or cloud cover) that we can’t see more than three car lengths. Eventually we break through to the summit and discover the massive Oberalp Lake. Temperatures are dropping and the sun’s going down, since picking our way through Julier and the first part of foggy Oberalp has taken quite some time.
But the Alps have one last, nice surprise for us. Crossing the dark side of a mountain, despite the cold and rain, we round one bend and come straight into a magnificent sunset – one made all the more beautiful by the mist and clouds.
The Sport Quattro isn’t difficult to drive in these conditions – it’s easily judged and biddable once you get the gearing right, but our GPS also decides to call it a day, likely because of the 12V socket giving up the ghost in the machine, and we’re forced to tail our RS Q3 colleague to the final stop of Interlaken, Switzerland.
The final hours of the tour are taken in near darkness, with the nearly 30 year-old headlights and cat’s eyes for company. I can only tell we’re reaching Interlaken when I spy the insinuation of the town by the lights ringing the shape of the lakes from which it gets its name.
At the end of our marathon sprint across the mountains, I’ve found that I’d rather have all-wheel drive than not, no matter what you call it, although the fact that Audi’s made AWD and sporty, fun-to-drive models helps immensely, which is even before talking about the sheer power of the RS cars. Yet I also find something rather, ahem, cheesy about it all – and that includes the feeling at the end of the tour.