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Audi's Five-Cylinder Icons

By Daniel DeGasperi, 16 Dec 2017 Features

audi five cylinder icons

It has been 40 years since Audi first introduced the five-cylinder engine, so what better time to get the gang of fives together?

Ever wondered why humans have five fingers and toes on each limb? Evolution – or a favoured religious figure – settled not on four (presumably too few) and not on six (clearly too many) digits to top our hands and feet. The only clear reason we know why is the fact our tetrapod ancestors could give each other high-fives around 400 million years ago.

What’s good for those clinging to this rock revolving around the golden sun is clearly good enough in the automotive world for Audi. It has banked on five-cylinder engines for a (slightly) shorter time frame, with this year marking the 40th anniversary since a ‘just right’ cylinder count was introduced. Enter a (very) quick history lesson, then a celebration.

In early 1977 the NSU Ro 80 cranked its Wankel rotor for the final time before handing the reins to the Audi 100. A decade earlier Auto Union GmbH – Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer, now designated by the four rings – was bankrupt which enabled it to be swallowed by the mighty Volkswagen AG.

Audi survived and a VW EA827 four-cylinder was lengthened – as opposed to a Holden Starfire four that sliced off two cylinders from a six – to create a 2.2-litre five-cylinder, chosen to provide something more upmarket than a four without the nose-heaviness of a six. It was a simple matter of evolution.

All this pointing at the blackboard about five cylinders must occur to understand the significance of the Audi Quattro unveiled at the 1980 Geneva motor show. Here was a brand, almost dead 15 years earlier, now thrusting itself onto centre stage with a three-door performance coupe offering all-wheel drive and a turbocharged five-cylinder claiming circa-Mk5 Golf GTI outputs – 147kW at 5500rpm and 285Nm at 3500rpm. In a modern context it would have been like GFC-era Daewoo launching a supercar.

Quattro’s origins were humble. Audi director of technical development, Ferdinand Piech, had seen the Volkswagen Iltis military vehicle, noting the way an inter-axle differential could be mounted behind the gearbox via a tubular shaft that demanded little space and weight. Charmed by its simplicity – and the fact in testing nothing touched the Iltis in snow – Project A1 was green-lit in 1977, with a prototype utilising a front-driven Audi 80 sedan’s differential joined longitudinally via a hollow propshaft. Ingolstadt fact: The production Quattro’s semi-independent trailing-arm rear suspension is the front-end design reversed.

Indeed, nothing could touch a Quattro in snow or on rally special stages. And so began six ‘Quattro years’ where Michele Mouton, Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist and Walter Rohrl snared 23 rally wins and four titles from behind the many driving lights of the racecar. Audi still claims that its all-paw technology was two years ahead of rivals.

Fast forward about 15 years and Audi, in 1994, built the RS2 Avant in conjunction with Porsche. Walk ahead another 15 years and Audi revived the turbo-five with 2009’s TT RS having ended five-cylinder production in 1997. In 2017 the four-ringed brand has released both its first RS3 sedan and a new-gen TT RS, each sporting an all-fresh fiver.

So Audi is sticking with an odd cylinder count, but does that now actually seem odd? Has the ’80s revolution become more about reminiscing over past glories? Either way, a five-pot birthday bash awaits at the epic Abercrombie Ridge hillclimb outside of Goulburn, New South Wales.

Of the assembled quartet – a 1989 Quattro and 1994 RS2 Avant, as well as a brand-spankers RS3 and TT RS – we start with the practical family-car option.

By 1983, Audi produced the 22cm-longer Sport Quattro derivation of the Ur-Quattro original, now with an aluminium engine and 225kW, that was a Group B homologation special and also became the most powerful production car ever launched in Germany. A decade later the RS2 Avant beat this while still using a 2.2-litre swept capacity and 20 valves.

Sporting a larger turbo, uprated radiator and new exhaust system, Porsche raised power from the S2 Avant’s 169kW to 232kW at 6500rpm, teamed with a mega 410Nm at 3000rpm. It retained all suspension and all-wheel drive components – which, like the Quattro, featured a locking rear differential up to 25km/h – but with 964 Turbo wheels and brakes.

Ingolstadt built Avant shells with S2 running gear and sent them to Zuffenhausen for final assembly, with Recaro buckets and special trim added to the mechanical changes, then Audi and Porsche evenly divided the financial fruit of Project RS2.

Approaching an RS2 Avant is a reminder of how big modern cars have become. At 4510mm long its body stops 130mm short of an AMG CLA45 Shooting Brake, while at 1695mm wide it’s 82mm narrower.

A red Audi Sport rhombus sits on the tailgate beside blue vertical R and silver vertical S2 badge strips, all underscored by a silver Porsche applique. Inside the Recaro seats are beefy, yet soft, while the manual shifter must rate as one of the sexiest around, with the leather sleeve encasing not just the shifter mechanism but wrapping around the edge of the knob.

The turbo five fires with a baritone burr and slowly enough to surmise that the pistons must be the size of Popeye’s forearms. The six-speed slides into first with a slick, but long-throw action, though clutch take-up is base-Audi-TDI breezy. Then, we pause...

Astonishing turbo lag below 4000rpm, accompanied by the flat whirr a laser printer makes when spitting out paper, illuminates how far forced induction technology has come. Above that engine speed, though, well, Fido’s paws had better be sticky.

The rush towards the 7500rpm cut-out is manic, even by today’s standards, and it simply must have felt hypercar-esque in the mid-1990s. The needle ahead of the white-faced tachometer suddenly surges aggressively and the sound intensifies markedly.

If the best four cylinders zing when revved, then this five cylinder bores loudly like heavy machinery cutting into the side of a rock face, complete with hard-edged menace. Only the RS2 Avant is overlaid with wastegate whistle that neither brand would entertain today.

As with the soft seats, this family wagon can squirm through corners, but inherent balance and connection is there in spades. Tip into a corner and the weight shifts rearwards, each 245mm-wide 17-inch tyre massaging the 1595kg kerb weight into the surface with surprisingly even ease. Wait for turn-in bite, then pick up the throttle early and the Torsen (torque-sensing) all-wheel drive system can be felt shuffling torque backwards for a brisk exit.

It is this immersive dynamic trait that presents as the clearest link to the Quattro – and presents itself as the greatest departure from the new RS3 and TT RS.

The Quattro three-door liftback body is 4404mm long over a 2524mm wheelbase. The TT RS stretches 4191mm with 2505mm between the axles. The overhangs in the older car are significant, with the five-cylinder entirely forward of the axle line.

There is clear turn-in understeer, the body heaving over its outside tyre like a human lumbering onto the couch after work. Except in this Audi the driver is perched high with perfect all-round visibility thanks to an upright and shallow dashboard soaked in 1980s orange digital instrumentation, including a diagram showing which way drive is headed. And by this point working that back section is a must.

Quite deliciously, the Quattro’s line can be tightened on the throttle, thanks to a Torsen system – introduced in 1988 to the updated model series – that appears to work as neatly as it does in the Audi-Porsche.

The 2226cc ‘MB’ five driven here (also introduced that year) adds hydraulic lifters and a tech-heavy ECU compared with the original 2144cc unit from 1980. Outputs remain unchanged, but torque is produced lower, with the 0-100km/h sprint falling to 6.7sec.

Either way, compared with the RS2 Avant the older 2.2-litre provides less lag and greater power pick-up above 3000rpm. There is less thrust towards the 7000rpm cut-out, but deep five-cylinder acoustics remain, only with more intake rasp and extra whoosh From the outside both sound like tuned touring cars racing up and down the hillclimb.

Starting the RS3 leaves a driver in no doubt that an odd cylinder count features under the bonnet. Especially when cold, a staccato thrum shimmies through the Alcantara-clad steering wheel, while a digeridoo-esque blare pumps from the quad tailpipes.

Audi has replaced its seven-time winner of international engine of the year with another five-cylinder, now a 26kg-lighter, alloy-crankcase 2.5-litre port/direct injection turbo unit producing 24kW more than 2009’s TT RS. Cranking 294kW from 5850rpm until 7000rpm, and 480Nm between 1700rpm and 5850rpm, 4.1sec is the 0-100km/h golden ticket for the RS3, which the TT RS slashes to 3.7sec.

The RS2 Avant feels more frenetic towards its redline, but If You’re Gettin’ Down – as 1990s boy-band Five once chorused – to raw numbers, there’s no questioning the launch-controlled seven-speed dual-clutch’s efficacy. Its short gearing also allows the engine to sweep to 7000rpm with fervour, and with a cleaner timbre than the older fives. Oh how it humbles the fours in a Porsche 718 Cayman or Merc-AMG CLA45 for aural appeal.

There’s another question here, though: Is a $140K-plus TT RS that much better than an $93K RS3? We figured it wasn’t; but that was certainly challenged.

The 75kg-lighter TT RS pivots around its driver in a way the RS3 cannot. Both suffer from a Haldex all-wheel drive system that can apparently send 100 per cent of drive rearwards, yet doesn’t feel inclined to. Ultimately, the variable system isn’t as engaging or incisive as a mechanical crown-centre diff kitted S4 or S5 that can swing into throttle-induced oversteer.

In some ways both the S tronic tune – which in Sport hangs onto lower gears, yet doesn’t downchange assertively enough when barrelling into bends on the brakes – feels as Golf R-esque as the quattro system that (in RS3 Sedan most notably) can be pressed into power understeer.

Neither are as playful as a BMW M2 or 718 Cayman, and they don’t ride quite as calmly either – the magnetic-adjustable dampers aren’t harsh, but they create chatter in all modes.

Both Audis also, however, deliver immense point-and-shoot pace that can be mesmerising and deeply satisfying, with a huge part of that pleasure down to superbly light and pin-sharp steering that never resorts to clichéd heavy weighting in Dynamic.

Again, the TT RS ultimately feels more petite and agile than the RS3, aided by a lower driving position and grippier 255mm-wide 20-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport (versus 255mm front/235mm rear 19-inch Pirelli P Zero) rubber. But it’s that mix of sound and also detail that draws these vehicles together.

The RS3 is an absolutely beautiful sedan to sit in and live with; so far ahead of a CLA45 in terms of prestige, yet without feeling as basic as an M2 Pure. The TT RS is sumptuous, the climate controls inside the jet-engine style air vents being one example of a wonderful touch that won’t be found inside a 718 Cayman, which is also less generously equipped.

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Cloud cover rolls over the mountain pass as photographer Ellen snaps away capturing the oldest car here, pouring over its square jaw and across its hard-edged side character crease to its integrated lip spoiler with ‘Quattro’ scripted into the rear-window demister lines. It’s unmistakably ’80s.

Ah yes, detail. And sound.

As we convoy home in the rain, anyone standing atop the mountain pass would have understood this was quattro all-wheel drive weather and heard this was echo-chamber five-pot territory. Just as evolution settled on multiples of five as the ideal number of digits, right here, right now it also feels like the ideal number of cylinders.

Audi Quattro - Rorty Rally Revolutionary

At its white-out 1981 Monte Carlo Rally debut, Audi driver Hannu Mikkola and overtook a Lancia Stratos 10km into the race – despite the rear-driven Italian racing away from the start line a full minute before him.

Audi RS2 - Original Fast Family Hauler

Less than 3000 RS2s were made and only 180 in RHD, making this green UK import extremely rare. Also, our mate Joel’s red 1989 Quattro is among the rarest of 11,000 units that were hand-produced until 1991.

Audi TT RS – Style Icon gets Angry

For the updated TT RS, Audi hasn’t only upped the boost of the 2480cc five-cylinder (essentially half a Lamborghini Huracan/R8 V10). The block is now aluminium, not cast iron, there’s a magnesium oil sump piece, lightweight pulleys and a hollow crankshaft.

Audi RS3 – Booted Five-Pot has Mass Appeal

The RS3 Sedan’s tracks have been pushed out front and rear, respectively measuring 16mm and 14mm wider than a regular A3 sedan’s. It also rides 25mm lower to the ground and revised styling gives the RS a bit more menace.


Audi MB Quattro

Audi RS2 Avant

Audi RS3

Audi TT RS


2-door, 4-seat coupe

5-door, 5-seat wagon

4-door, 5-seat sedan

3-door, 4-seat coupe







2226cc inline-5cyl, DOHC, 20v, turbocharger

2226cc inline-5cyl, DOHC, 20v, turbocharger

2480cc inline-5cyl, DOHC, 20v, turbocharger

2480cc inline-5cyl, DOHC, 20v, turbocharger


81.0 x 86.4mm

81.0 x 86.4mm

82.5 x 92.8mm

82.5 x 92.8mm







147kW @ 5800rpm

232kW @ 6500rpm

294kW @ 5850-7000rpm

294kW @ 5850-7000rpm


270Nm @ 3000rpm

410Nm @ 3000rpm

480Nm @ 1700-5850rpm

480Nm @ 1700-5850rpm







5-speed manual

6-speed manual

7-speed dual-clutch

7-speed dual-clutch







struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar

struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar

struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar

struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar


struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar

multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar

multi-links, coil springs, magnetive dampers, anti-roll bar

multi-links, coil springs, magnetive dampers, anti-roll bar












1421/1458mm (f/r)

1448/1471mm (f/r)

1599/1528mm (f/r)

1564/1543mm (f/r)


hydraulically-assisted rack-and-pinion

hydraulically-assisted rack-and-pinion

electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion

electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion


280mm ventilated discs, 2-piston calipers

304mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers

370mm ventilated discs, 8-piston calipers

370mm ventilated discs, 8-piston calipers


245mm solid discs, single-piston calipers

299mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers

310mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers

310mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers


15.0 x 6.0-inch (f/r)

17.0 x 7.0-inch (f/r)

19.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r)

20.0 x 9.0-inch (f/r)


205/60 VR15 (f/r)

245/40 ZR17 (f/r)

255/35 ZR19 (f); 235/35 ZR19 (r)

255/30 ZR20 (f/r)


Yokohama S-Drive (current)

Michelin Pilot Sport 3 (current)

Pirelli P-Zero

Michelin Pilot Super Sport




$93,895 (as tested)

$147,150 (as tested)


Communication; balance; sound

Engine; performance; dynamics

Superb engine; point-and-shoot pace

Dynamic delicacy/agility over RS3


Nose-heavy handling; price

Astonishing lag; super rare in RHD

Front-bias AWD; ride

Ride; lacks Cayman poise