The question, by all accounts, is still “if” rather than “when” for the Quattro Concept. Regardless of the universally positive reception it received at the Paris Motor Show in September, and regardless of the fact that every member of Audi's management team wants – emotionally, at least – to make it happen, the Quattro still has to make a business case for itself if it's to stop being a concept and start being a production reality. As yet, it hasn't.
At least, that's the official line, but I have some difficulty really believing that Audi would make so many positive noises about wanting to make the Quattro if it wasn't going to push the green button.
It has gone to so much trouble, too. The Paris show car was precisely that: a show car that only had to drive under its own steam from the rear of a transporter to the show stand and back again, all at speeds barely into double figures.
Today, though, the car I've come to drive has been transformed – and it has taken a lot of work, as you might imagine – from a 10mph show pony into a concept car that's capable of being driven at up to 100mph.
Not that we'll quite be doing that today, you understand. Despite some extensive engineering modifications, the Quattro Concept isn't road legal, so it does without indicators but, for the purposes of this test, comes with a trio of California's Highway Patrol cars. They'll provide sometimes rolling, sometimes static roadblocks along a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway and a nuggety hill road just off it.
Audi reckons only two countries – Germany and the UK – really have an affinity for Quattro heritage (which turned 30 this year), despite the global reach of the World Rally Championship. Audi won that in 1982 and 1984, first with the Quattro and later with the short-wheelbase, Group B Sport Quattro which inspired this concept. A little over 200 homologation-special Sport Quattro road cars were built, but in all but a few countries Audi says they're off enthusiasts' radars.
To convince the unwashed, then, the modern Quattro Concept had to offer something other than just heritage. And, praise be, it's a biggie; the Quattro represents a sea change in Audi's design
and engineering philosophy.
Not a year ago you could buy an RS6 Avant that weighed 4,460lbs and required 571hp to propel it down the road with vigor. Today, the Quattro Concept weighs a claimed 2,860lbs (actually, today it's around 2,954lbs, but because that means it drives properly, I won't quibble) and Audi reckons that within half a decade it'll be introducing A5-sized (and priced) cars with quattro drivetrains at precisely that weight. That's not just a small tweak to the way it goes about things; at 660lbs less than an R8, that's a revolution.
And it starts here. The Quattro Concept is ostensibly an RS5 underneath. Audi has, though, taken a full 6in. out of the wheelbase and constructed the body partly from aluminum (mostly the immovable bits) and partly from carbon fiber (mostly the opening bits).
Of course, you and I know that light weight is the gift that keeps on giving. The Quattro Concept can have less power than the RS5 on which it's based, so by losing the 4.2-liter V8 engine and getting, in its place, a turbocharged 2.5-liter five-pot (how very Quattro) from the TT RS, it gets lighter again and, therefore, faster again.
The wick has been turned up to 402hp, which is enough for Audi's calculators to reckon the Quattro could hit 62mph from rest in 3.9sec (believable enough), driving through a 6-speed manual gearbox. The rest of the drivetrain is borrowed from the RS5; it doesn't have the sports limited-slip rear differential or torque vectoring at the moment, but if the production go-ahead is given, it'll get 'em.
It's curious how the concept looks compared with the original Sport Quattro. There's obvious lineage there – around the C-pillars and in the offset vent in the hood – but it's not retro. If Audi had been making Quattro models for the past 30 years, you could imagine this is how it might look today. That intricate grille, by the way, is machined from a solid billet of aluminum. The brake discs are carbon-ceramics (they'll stay), the wheels 20-inchers (I'd imagine and hope they'd go down an inch or two). The original Sport Quattro wore 15in. wheels.
Inside, there's a rather wonderful simplicity to the Quattro Concept, and although that wouldn't be mirrored on the production version (it's a given that it'll adopt RS5 interior architecture), Audi, like Mercedes, is looking at utilizing details such as a digital display and enhancing the MMI features to reduce dashboard "buttonage." Here, it certainly works, the fascia matching the spartan nature of the rear cabin, which is devoid of seats and finished in carbon fiber.
The leather that goes with it is beautiful (another option for future executive-level-plus Audis, I'm told), and the driving position in the lightweight seats is superb. There's no hint of a driving position offset and, thankfully, no flat-bottomed steering wheel. Two-time World Rally Champion Walter Rohrl's old co-driver told them to make it round, so they did. It gets some discreet straight-ahead markings as well and is beautifully machined.
There's not too much hint of potency when you push the starter; the five-pot starts quickly and settles quietly. With the windows down, in a garage, there's just a slight burble and the odd rattle you'd expect from a concept car's body, while the all-digital dash wobbles a bit. A quick blip reveals a motor that has a slightly lagging low-end response but a classy bass rumble. The clutch pedal is as light as any Audi's – lighter than an R8's, from memory – while the gearshift is positive enough that you won't miss a shift. And, geez, the steering is light too.
It's not nervy, not edgy as we pull out onto the highway, but it retains its lightness as speeds rise. It's direct, accurate, and you can feel the relative lack of inertia in the chassis. When those 30-profile tires change direction, this short, light car is pretty eager to follow. The ride isn't too clever at very low speeds, but it soon settles and by 30mph you'd almost call it comfortable – though it should be noted that our few miles of carefully chosen road aren't exactly taxing the pliancy.
I've got a minder from Audi beside me, as you might imagine. “So, your first impression?” Well, it feels like a concept. Most driveway ramps would wipe the splitter clean off, I'm approaching hairpins in the outside lane because there's insufficient lock to use the inside one, and the tires will attack the chassis if I apply too much lock. But there is something about this car, even at 25mph for tracking shots.
Those done, the CHP minders keep the road closed for some cornering shots, where I'm encouraged to use the power a bit more. Second gear. A hearty bootful. Wow!
“Doesn't feel so much like a concept now, does it?” No, it doesn't. The Quattro Concept really flies. Once you've got a few revs wound on – anything over 2500 is fine – most of the lag disappears and the distinctive five-pot warble kicks in, followed by some whistling and chattering of the waste gate when you lift and start the process in the next gear. That's R8 V10 kind of fast, but easier to get. The shift is sweet, too. The brakes are perhaps a tad over-servoed, but manageable enough. Engine response is fine for heel-and-toe downshifts. Oh, man, that's good. That's very, very good.
That said, I'm not about to start pushing the chassis for long. One, it isn't finished. Two, it's a priceless one-off. But you can tell this is a light car. It steers directly, changes direction wonderfully quickly. It's lighter than a 911 GT3 RS, for heaven's sake.
Heritage is one thing, but it's what this car says about Audi's future that's the real clincher. Stephane Reil is in charge of technology at Quattro GmbH (Audi's performance subsidiary), which is in the hot seat to make this car if it becomes a reality, and it's the future that excites him, too.
“The attitude of ‘My car has 100 horsepower more than yours' needs to change,” he says. “People need to be saying, ‘My car weighs 100kg [220lbs] less than yours.'” Straight-line performance, he says, is defined by power-to-weight ratio – not power alone. “But the feeling of driving dynamics is defined by absolute weight.” Would it be better to drive than an R8? “Well, it's 300kg [661lbs] lighter.”
That's why Reil is determined that, should the Quattro Concept make production (which, given the RS5 underpinnings, it could do in 24 months from sign-off), it'll be ultra-desirable and light, quite possibly featuring some of the carbon fiber production techniques shown on Lamborghini's Sesto Elemento concept.
The new Quattro has to be some kind of landmark, ushering in a new wave of lighter performance cars, says Reil. The numbers built will be measured in hundreds. The price will be in six figures. And if Audi doesn't build it, I'll eat my shoes.