Audi quattro all-wheel drive explained
We explain everything you need to know about the Audi quattro all-wheel drive system
Audi’s four-wheel drive system is referred to in a number of ways; quattro all-wheel drive, quattro four-wheel drive and quattro 4x4. The one key word that features in all of those is the trademark ‘quattro’ brand name, one that is etched into the consciousness of many driving enthusiasts around the world.
The name was made famous by the Audi Quattro rally car in the eighties, which used the system to great effect in what was considered a golden age for rallying. Since then, quattro (note - the lowercase q) has been used in a range of Audi’s production models.
In the brand’s home country of Germany, around half of the cars Audi sells are fitted with quattro and it’s popular in the UK too. The quattro option can be specified on virtually any model line in the Audi range. So when you’re browsing the ‘quattro for sale’ adverts you'll find plenty of quattro-equipped models including the A3, A4 and A5 to tempt you. Audi’s high-performance cars are specced with the quattro drivetrain as standard and we’re sure the influence of the original ‘Quattro’ rally car still resonates with buyers of quattro RS models, which adds to their appeal. Even the brand’s electric models, such as the e-tron GT saloon and Q4 e-tron SUV are equipped with the quattro system.
What does quattro do?
We know quattro signifies four-wheel drive – indeed the word quattro means ‘four’ in Italian – but why is this a good thing in the first place? Ask an automotive engineer, and you’ll get a very complicated set of answers but it’s easier to focus on the forces working on your car’s tyres as they grip the tarmac.
In a ‘normal’ two-wheel drive car, all the power is sent to the front or rear wheels – depending on whether it’s front- or rear-wheel-drive. In an all-wheel drive or quattro car, drive is distributed between all four tyres. As a result, whether you’re accelerating or cornering, the tyres of a quattro-spec Audi will provide a greater level of grip than a two-wheel drive model.
This has obvious safety implications if you enter a wet roundabout a little faster than is advisable, as you have a greater margin for error before the tyres lose grip and the car skids. It’s not just roundabouts either; many Audi owners choose quattro if they live in the countryside where roads are often muddy, or for commuting in remote or higher altitude parts of the country where snow and icy conditions are more common.
The same principle of maximising traction applies to quattro performance models, which are capable of faster acceleration and cornering thanks to the additional grip that comes from having all four wheels driven.
We should also mention quattro SUVs and off-roaders, as Audi also offers quattro Q3, quattro Q5 and quattro Q7 models. Again the advantage is extra grip, essential for anyone venturing off-road onto mud or gravel trails. This is also why quattro comes into its own when towing, as you’re less likely to lose traction.
How does the Audi quattro system work?
There are three basic types of quattro setup and they have slightly different characteristics, although you have to be quite an experienced driver to notice a difference in practice.
The system fitted to the A4, A6 and Q8 is most common, and here the quattro setup has a default engine power split that’s biased 60% to the rear wheels and 40% to the front wheels. It’s designed to give you the feeling of driving a rear-wheel drive car in normal use but, if the rear-wheels begin to lose traction, the system can instantaneously divert more power to the front wheels.
Smaller models such as the quattro A3 and the TT quattro, which shares the compact hatchbacks engineering platform, have a set-up that reverses the bias. Here, the quattro system powers the front wheels almost exclusively until they start to lose grip, at which point a multi-plate clutch diverts power to the rear wheels – but they never get more than 50% of it.
The Audi R8 quattro boasts supercar performance and the four-wheel-drive system sends 85% of its engine power to the rear wheels during normal driving conditions, again diverting power instantly to the front wheels when required to prevent a loss of traction at the rear wheels.
Is quattro worth having?
The price differential between quattro all-wheel drive and rear-drive models is significant but not excessive. If you’re considering it on a new Audi purchase, don’t forget you’ll likely benefit from a higher residual value when you choose to sell the car on – used quattro models are in demand too, with prices remaining strong for older cars.
Whether you really need it or not depends on your style of driving and the types of road conditions you’re faced with; the majority of Audis without quattro aren’t renowned for crashing on wet roundabouts, after all.
It’s also worth remembering that tyre condition and specification are potentially more significant factors to consider when it comes to grip and traction. Choosing to invest in a set of winter tyres for snowy and icy conditions, for example, may bring greater benefits than quattro alone.
Before opting for quattro, consider whether the extra cost and marginal fuel consumption increase, due to extra weight, is worth it for the advanced handling benefits.
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