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Frank Sprongl demonstrates what his 983 Audi S1 Sport quattro can do. (Audi)
Frank Sprongl demonstrates what his 983 Audi S1 Sport quattro can do. (Audi)

Audi Quattro

Getting a grip: 30 years of all-wheel-drive Add to ...

You really begin to appreciate the virtues of all-wheel-drive - Audi quattro style - when you're hurtling along a twisting and turning, uphill and down, ice- and snow-covered one-lane track through the Quebec woods at 130 km/h in a Group B rally car.

And, as you fly over a "yump" and land with nothing filling the windshield but trees, rocks and the fast-approaching next corner, you're especially appreciative of the fact it isn't you sitting all tensed up and anxious behind the wheel. That your immediate fate is in the deft and remarkably quick hands of six-time Canadian and four-time North American rally champion Frank Sprongl.

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Audi TT RS

The snow powder had barely settled before Sprongl kicked up some more, carving four dizzying Audi Rings on the test circuit's ice, with the engine of his "Killer-B" - as these often deadly rally cars, that in their day made well over 500 hp, were known - filling the car with its deep turbo-generated exhaust note.

Then it was the turn of past German rally champ Harald Demuth to show off the Group-B Sport Quattro S1 driven by rally legend Walter Rohl. Demuth was the guy who added another chapter to Audi quattro history when he drove up a Finnish ski jump ramp for a TV commercial in a 100 CS quattro in 1986.

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Audi had hauled a bunch of auto journos to Mont-Tremblant ski country and then further into the Laurentians to the Mecaglisse multi-use motorsport facility near Saint-Donat to celebrate last year's 30th anniversary milestone of all-wheel-drive, show off the current state of that art, and provide a glimpse into the future. It called the event Fascination of Quattro, and it was.

More my speed than the rally racers was the rugged Iltis military scout car produced by Audi parent Volkswagen in the 1980s (they served the Canadian forces for many years) that I drove, considerably more sedately, over a snowy off-road circuit. It was this fresh-from-the-Audi-museum-piece that provided the engineering inspiration for the three decades of Audi quattros that have followed.

Including the latest example we'll get here, the very fast and very sure-footed TT RS, scheduled to arrive in Audio showrooms in the second quarter of this year and whose wheels I managed to put some kilometres under on the area's icy back roads. It's just astonishingly quick in terms of acceleration and reaction to driver input, a car you almost "think" into a corner, and its power delivery so nicely balanced it can be held in easy arcing drifts through icy corners.

Adding RS to TT provides you with a turbocharged, 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine pumped up to produce no less than 340 hp, delivered to all four wheels via either a six-speed manual gearbox, or in this case a seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission. Quick? You bet. Zero to 100 km/h takes just 4.6 seconds with the "Sport" button pressed. Which is the second thing you do after starting the engine naturally. This changes throttle response to prompt mode, and opens up the exhaust to produce a full orchestral rendition of the trademark five-cylinder exhaust note. No pricing information is available yet.

I drove up to Mont-Tremblant from Montreal in the new RS 3 Sportback, the top of the A3 lineup, which is more or less a TT RS disguised (although not very effectively) as a practical four-door hatchback. It has the same 340-hp engine and seven-speed gearbox, a sports suspension lowered 25 mm and rides on 19-inch alloy wheels shod with plenty of rubber. But guys, if you're thinking its practical aspects might let you slip one past "the missus" forget it. We're not getting it here.

And we won't get the new, very neat little subcompact hatchback A1 quattro either. At least not any time soon. I had the opportunity to slip and slide around the icy Mecaglisse circuit enough times in a pair of prototypes to become entranced. I've always liked small cars with plenty of poke and this one can be had with up to 185 hp.

Reducing slipping and sliding - and thus making driving either safer or sportier depending on your proclivities - is the latest quattro drive techno-wrinkle: the crown gear differential with torque vectoring.

I don't think gears - the little cogged wheels that make the motoring world go round - have ever been as cleverly applied as in this new (too complex to explain here_ system that also includes intelligent brake management to vector torque to the wheels, with the goal of keeping the car's handling neutral longer and reducing understeer (front-end push) while turning and accelerating. Some icy up and downhill laps in an A7 Sportback revealed the system lives up to its billing, adding an uncanny level of control.

The future of quattro also promises to be fascinating as Audi works on the electrification of Quattro drive with a hybrid concept vehicle powered by a gas engine/electric motor that transmits power through a virtual drive shaft - a wire - to its electric rear differential.

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