In truth, the Audi Quattro is about noise, not performance. That might seem strange for a car which kick-started the four-wheel-drive revolution 27 years ago, but while Audi’s marketing bods would point at Quattro technology, what stirs the soul is not differentials but exhaust burble.
On a dry road the Quattro is hardly a revelation. In the 1980s, four-wheel drive didn’t come cheap in terms of weight; the five-cylinder engine is fairly hefty, too, and ahead of the front axle line to boot. As a result, the Quattro is prone to huge, tyre-scrubbing curves of understeer. At least it’s stable and predictable.
But once conditions become more slippery, the relatively agricultural transmission becomes your friend, giving you just enough traction to stay out of trouble, but sufficiently little to keep you entertained.
And all the time, there’s that engine. Five cylinders, a turbocharger and the spirit of Mikkola, Blomqvist and Rohrl. Even by 2007 standards it feels strong, although there is noticeable lag.
The later models, fitted with the 20-valve engine, are the most potent. But even their 220bhp is eclipsed by many of today’s hot hatches. I’ve tried first generation and 20-valve Quattros, and only the rare and still-wickedly expensive short-wheelbase Quattro Sport actually felt fast – helped, no doubt, by 306bhp and the use of plastic body panels.
Mere output isn’t the issue, though. To a generation of motorsport fans, the noise of a Quattro is rallying. As such, even a scruffy example will make you feel like the real Stig when you floor the throttle, as well as giving you the warm glow that comes with keeping a bit of history alive.
That could be a costly exercise, though. Availability isn’t a problem – Audi had intended to build just the 400 examples needed to rubberstamp the car’s competition homologation, but in the end it turned out over 11,000. But finding a good one is a trickier business. A cheap one can be yours, now, for less than £5k; top-quality ones are still upwards of £15k. But many have been thrashed, plenty have been crashed and even those in decent nick need care and attention.
Audi reliability is pretty solid, but there’s still plenty that can go wrong – not least the system that tells you something’s gone wrong. If you don’t hear the voice-synthesis set-up when you check out any potential purchase, walk away – otherwise you’ll be taking a risk with fundamentals like the engine, transmission and brakes. Otherwise look out for rusty arches and headlight surrounds, noisy exhausts and whiny differentials.
That said that much, even a cheap Quattro is likely to keep going long after a cut-price Lancia Delta Integrale has fried its electrics. Which means that, as slices of road-legal motorsport history go, it’s still a bargain.