Making a marque: Audi

As Audi’s Quattro turns 40 this year, its legacy continues with the newly transformed RS Q3

Motoring 30 Mar 2020

The new Audi RS Q3 compact SUV
The first four-wheel-drive Audi Quattro in 1980
Rally drivers Fabrizia Pons and Michèle Mouton at Rallye Sanremo in 1981

There are few monikers in the automotive world more evocative than the ‘Quattro’ badge that has graced Audis for the past few decades. The original four-wheel-drive production car was born in 1980. Taking advantage of recent changes to the rules, Audi created the first Quattro rally car the same year. At first, it was a modest 300 horsepower re-version of the road car, but it was effective, helping the legendary Michèle Mouton to the first world championship-winning rally for a female driver in 1981. Other famous pilots included the likes of Walter Röhrl, Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola, driving increasingly mighty-looking cars in the more familiar Group B guise. With boxy carbon-kevlar bodywork, these raucous racers quickly grew a cult following.

The rally heyday only lasted a few short years, but the car cast a long shadow. This year marks the 40th birthday for the legendary Quattro and even though it’s moving into comfortable middle age we can still expect some flashes of its former glory. The number one preset on the radio may now be Smooth FM but the line up is still strong and growing. The raciest of the Quattro-badged cars are the RS models, the cars where Audi has taken a normal, some could say ‘boring’, vehicle and waved the bat-poo crazy wand over it, creating something just a little bit special.

Originally a classic wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing offering, RS cars now wear their Beast Mode potential with pride. They are all bulging arches, taut muscular bodywork and huge imposing grilles designed, I believe, for no other reason than to scare the living daylights out of anyone who catches one in their rearview mirror. The top-tier predators of the RS range and the purest expressions of the theme are the RS4 and RS6 models, whose snarling looks and frankly staggering performance are already the stuff of folklore and road trip anecdotes.

Yet Audi is continually expanding the family across the range to less obvious cars. The latest to be breathed on is the new generation of the Q3. The humble compact SUV shopper has been transformed into its badly behaved alter ego with the addition of the RS badge.

There is something delicious about getting into a normal car that has been dramatically hotted, rather than say just a purebred sports car. It makes it feel, well… a little more naughty. And, yes, it’s still legal to talk about an internal combustion engine as an important character of a car – in this case it’s the glorious inline 5-cylinder block synonymous with some of the great Quattro cars of the past. In this guise, it is pushing out 400bhp, which is more than adequate for a car of this size. Put it into ‘dynamic’ mode or one of the two personalised settings, RS1 and RS2, quickly accessed by a button on the steering wheel, and you can open up the exhausts to appreciate the bark of an engine with such a distinct feel and tone. Offbeat and more brutal than a silky V6, yet raspier than a bellowing V8, it suits this RS model well. I found my favourite setting with everything in dynamic mode (engine, steering and exhaust) but with the suspension still in comfort as this seemed to provide the best balance and connection with the surface, or maybe I’m just getting soft (read: getting old)?

There will be those who deride SUVs, and perhaps have even deeper reserves of disdain for ‘raced up’ SUVs. Yet, in a world where the great engines are disappearing and turning into bigger versions of the thing that is powering your vacuum cleaner, I think we have to applaud Audi’s endeavour to stop us all turning too vanilla. Reasonably priced compact SUV with good practical applications: let’s stick 400bhp under the bonnet and go scare some people. Hell yeah – what a laugh.

There are two body shapes on offer with the RS Q3: the regular Q3 body, or the new Sportback shape. Audi is claiming a new car model with the Sportback that is apparently the first ‘compact SUV coupe’. That may be a bit too double chocolate frappuccino with oat milk for some people, but I think it’s a very nice piece of design that further compacts this compact car. Audi has also managed to achieve that svelte silhouette without any loss of boot space, just some reduced headroom for the rear passengers. That said, I think I would opt for the original body shape. RS models are all about making the mundane into the magical, so I would stick to the old recipe.

The irony is that this ‘soccer mum’ compact load-lugger could give the 1980s Group B car a run for its money. It’s remarkable the amount of performance potential available to the everyday driver these days – and that’s got to be a good thing, 0-62mph, 155mph top speed, 174 with the limiter off. Never mind if those figures have any business in a school-run shopper. Can you imagine that from a standard production car in 1980?

So the Quattro lives on in many guises but all with the same DNA. Of course, ultimate traction is as important for safety as for balls-to-the-wall heroics, and many buyers pick a Quattro safe in the knowledge that when the weather moves in and ice covers the road the Audi will be as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Which is all well and good, but for this homage, I’d rather concentrate on honouring its services to making bits of metal with four wheels go faster and faster, irrespective of the conditions. As we celebrate 40 years of the much-loved Audi Quattro we can wish it continued good health.

Audi RS Q3 from £52,450;