February 10, 2014
1988 Audi Quattro Coupe. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Jonathan Yarkony
The overwhelming emotion was fear.
As part of some cosmic practical joke on yours truly, our colleagues pulled over just as the rain started to get heavier. We exited the car and they all turned to me, “Your turn.”
And so they handed over the keys of the Audi Tradition collection 1988 quattro coupe, commonly called the “Ur” quattro as the original all-wheel-drive coupe that spawned a whole new world of AWD performance vehicles.
I ran to the driver’s seat, not in excitement so much as to get out of the rain. Then the fear set in. We were about to traverse one of Austria’s famed Alpine passes, and here I was in a precious historical model (though thankfully not something priceless like the Rally quattro, or even the rarer and more powerful Sport quattro, which was on the tour but had already been taken off the fleet for mechanical issues). A mechanical malfunction I could handle, but the prospect of sailing right through a hairpin and off the edge of the world seemed particularly vivid in the damp, dreary, slick weather we were under.
How come I couldn’t have driven it in the bright, dry, sunny morning?
But wait, what was I thinking? My fear was clearly not aware that this was the original crap-weather performance car. No other car of its era could better take on a tight, climbing, serpentine mountain switchback road in the rain or snow than the Ur quattro.
With an AWD system derived from Audi’s spectacular success with the Audi Rally quattro in the World Rally Championship during the legendary Group B era, the roadgoing Quattro was more than comfortable in this rain and occasional flurries when we got up to altitude. Jacob was lucky enough to get a ride in that car at his Audi Driving Experience, with no less than Canadian rally legend Frank Sprongl at the wheel. Unfortunately, this quattro was stuck with a no-talent writer at the wheel, but one who was determined not to drive it off a cliff.
Time to fire up the 2.2L turbocharged five-cylinder under that long, flat hood. It turned over with a bit of an uneven rasp typical of five-cylinder turbos that Audi continues to deliver today in their modern day Sport quattro, the TT RS. Here it was less orchestrated, more simply mechanical, the turbo more evident once underway, whistling along as power ramps up. Against the epic staccato barks and V8 roar of the RS 7 and RS 6 Avant experienced on this trip, the quattro’s inline-five turbo was a simple, sharp but honest aural signature.
The engine bay, to me, was a thing of beauty, entirely asymmetrical, and especially the fuel lines flowing serpentine to the cylinder banks over the intake manifold, stamped with ‘turbo’ in Audi’s signature font. It’s real, this thing, not a plastic cover trying to create a brand image and providing sound insulation.
1988 Audi Quattro Coupe. Click image to enlarge
Despite being an early performance-oriented turbo, there wasn’t a great big chasm of turbo lag before the onrush of power, the 220 hp coming on fairly early in the rev range and providing easier access to the power. With only 1,380 kg of mass, it felt like a genuine flyweight compared to the current RS-line cars we drove and other current performance cars.
Also surprisingly easy was the clutch. I confess I was expecting the type of effort required in Porsches of the era, necessary to summon the might of Hercules to master, but this seemed a fairly ordinary clutch resistance to go along with a short shifter that had oddly long throws and unexpectedly loose gates. but after rowing my way through the gears in the foothills leading to the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, I found a rhythm in its authentic mechanical connection to the drivetrain, and adapted to the unique patterns, finding the right points of lifting off the throttle when popping the clutch, then feeling the timing of coming back on the throttle as I released the clutch pedal.
1988 Audi Quattro Coupe and 2014 Audi RS 7. Click image to enlarge
As we climbed, it became necessary to slip into second and first gear often in order to keep any sort of momentum coming out of the hairpins, trying to keep the engine revving over 5,000 and even 6,000 rpm, the digital tach clear and bright if entirely cheesy in that perfect ’80s way.
Also unlike Porsches of similar vintage, the steering was far looser than I was expecting, but again, like the transmission, it was consistent and connected, so it allowed me to adapt and control the car while sensing its limits, gaining confidenec even as the scenery became more breathtaking and the roads more treacherous and tight. This was no time for heroics, but climbing the last stretches before the tunnel at the peak of the Grossglockner pass, I was pushing hard enough to feel a bit of understeer, rolling onto throttle then lifting to feel the back end dance slightly out. There were no epic fully sideways slides around any of these hairpins, but as the clouds parted revealing the ethereal road above the clouds, the roads began to offer more grip and the quattro AWD system showed that only the limits far beyond normal driving would allow a wheel to step out.
Just short of the 2,000+ m peak, we paused for a photo shoot and reveled in the glory of the scenery, the vibrant red quattro and its severe, sharp edges and shapes a stark contrast to the curvy sinuous road clinging to the mountainside and the disarray of rocky outcroppings and lush, earthy greenery. The Ur quattro is one of those occasions celebrating man’s defiance of nature, our ability to think and create ways to overcome nature’s challenges, the road itself evidence of centuries conquering the Alps, the quattro showing its ability to traverse it in all but extreme snowfall.
Driveing the Ur quattro was such a rare privilege, to experience firsthand the roots that gave rise to Audi’s AWD legacy and their ever-more-capable sports cars under S and RS badges, and just as much as the epic moments in the RS 6 Avant and RS 5 Cabriolet, made this the trip of a lifetime.