Hooniversity: Audi RS2

The Audi RS2 Avant, with the Audi 80 Avant on which it's based.
The Audi RS2 Avant, with the Audi 80 Avant on which it's based.

Bob Dylan is one of the most famous, most recognizable, and one of the most respected names in the music industry. His songs have become a part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon, and have been covered so many times that younger listeners are often surprised to learn that a particular piece was, in fact, written by Bob Dylan, not the artist with whom they are familiar. This is perhaps all the more startling when we consider the fact that, as a performer, Bob Dylan really isn’t all that great.
Now there are purists, of course. There will be people who swear high and low that the original Dylan version of a song is by far the best. These people, though vocal, are in the minority. By and large, the most iconic versions of most of his songs came about when performed by someone else. This is no slight to Dylan himself. When these legendary songs are performed by names like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Van Morrison, Patti LaBelle, Pearl Jam, Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones, there is no shame in admitting their versions were better.
“All Along the Watchtower” is a perfect example. Jimi Hendrix took the song to heights so far beyond Dylan’s own ability that it transcended legend. But because it was a cover, it remained accessible, and as such, has been continually remade and reimagined by countless artists.
An unassuming car, considering the stir it made.
An unassuming car, considering the stir it made.

This is, perhaps, a long-winded analogy to build; it is necessary, however, to truly understand the context of this week’s Hooniversity subject, and to appreciate the subject. For the Audi RS2 is one of those vehicles that deserves the quiet respect it is given.
At first glance, it seems an unassuming thing. A rather bland-looking station-wagon based on the Audi 80 Avant. It features some obvious upgrades, all of which would seem quite standard today, including larger wheels, a more aggressive front air dam, and a lowered suspension. And indeed, it was largely that: a modified version of their run-of-the-mill quattro station wagon.
The true magic of the thing, however, requires a dual perspective. While not as iconic as, say, the original Mini, or as astonishing an accomplishment as the current Corvette, it laid the groundwork for a generation of cars to follow.
The RS2 was offered in other colours, but the legend is of the electric blue.
The RS2 was offered in other colours, but the legend is of the electric blue.

In 1993, Audi was attempting to redefine itself. The brand was largely perceived as a higher trim level of Volkswagen, and with the release of the Corrado and the Passat, two higher-end models within the Volkswagen stable, Volkswagen itself was gaining a reputation as something more than the lowly economy brand it had been. It was determined that Audi needed to become a more serious competitor for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, two brands who had been significantly more upmarket. There was also some grumbling within Audi itself, for some of their engineers felt that their cars, and in particular the quattro drivetrain they had developed, had a great deal more potential than they were allowed to demonstrate. In short, the engineers felt that they were being “held back”.
How the decision was made is somewhat unclear, but the chain of events occurred with an almost explosive suddenness. In early 1993, with the cancellation of an arrangement which saw Porsche manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz E500, there was suddenly surplus capacity available at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen facility. Audi seized the opportunity, and quickly began shipping Porsche the parts for their compact station wagons.
Porsche engineers, it is said, seized upon the task with an amused enthusiasm. They were largely given carte blanche to do as they pleased, and they took to the task with great gusto. In essence, they did to this little station wagon what Hendrix did to “All Along the Watchtower”.
A cutaway schematic. Click to embiggen, for those of you who like a little car nudity.
A cutaway schematic. Click to embiggen, for those of you who like a little car nudity.

The excellent Audi 2.2L turbo-five was broken down and reimagined. The turbocharger was replaced with a larger unit; a heavy-duty intercooler was installed. A more free-flowing intake and exhaust were installed. The camshaft was redesigned several times with an eye towards extracting exactly the performance they desired. A custom-designed engine-management system was created by Bosch from scratch — one of the first times a limited production car did not simply have a slightly-reprogrammed version of an off-the-shelf system. The fuel injectors, fuel pump and fuel pressure regulators were swapped out for high-end Porsche units. And an exclusive six-speed manual gearbox — with no automatic available! — was hitched up to the trademark quattro system. The car was treated to a suspension system closely related to that of the 911 Turbo, and massive disc brakes were fitted all around; ironically, this led to a rather obvious mistake, in that the previously-planned wheels and tires would not fit. As a workaround for testing purposes, Porsche simply fit the wheels and tires from the 911, and never bothered to change it later. The distinctive Porsche wheels, installed as an afterthought, became one of the most iconic aspects of the car.
The result astonished virtually everyone, including those engineers who worked on the car with some amusement. The engine easily produced well over 300 bhp, and generated 0-60 times well below 5 seconds with an electronically-limited top speed of over 160 mph. While these numbers may not seem so astonishing to us today, they were very significant for 1993, and put the car’s performance directly on par with the C5 Corvette and the Porsche 911. More importantly, however, the engine had been so carefully massaged that the power band was strategically placed right where it could be used most effectively, making the car exceptionally drivable, and according to reviewers at the time, faster than the numbers would allow.
For a 15-year-old car, it doesn't look all that dated.
For a 15-year-old car, it doesn't look all that dated.

At this point, there are certainly some of you reading this with skepticism. After all, there have been many European cars in the last 20 years that have similar claims. But when the RS2 was released, there was only one: the BMW M3, and that was only available as a coupé. The RS2, then, was more powerful, more usable, faster, more technologically advanced, more stable, and could easily function as a day-to-day car. Where the M3 was intended as a sports car, the RS2 was a station wagon, capable of being a family’s only vehicle. And Mercedes-Benz, the other German rival, was caught completely flat-footed; they had nothing at all to compete, and would have nothing for five more years.
This was a major coup, and made the automotive world do a collective double-take. Audi, a mid-market brand, had enlisted Porsche’s help, and introduced a vehicle that effectively catapulted them well past Mercedes-Benz and put them nose-to-nose with the world leader, BMW. Today, we think nothing of comparing the three rivals; it seems natural! But in 1993, it was a two-horse race. By 1994, Audi had effectively entered the race and taken the lead, and more importantly for those of us with a passion for cars, had ignited a fierce rivalry that pushed each manufacturer to dramatically improve and try and out-do the others.
The legend continued... and continues to this day.
The legend continued... and continues to this day.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the early 1990s, the market was awash in decent, comfortable luxury cars. The German cars were seen as excellent cars for a very limited clientele. It has been argued that it was the rivalry between Audi and BMW, thanks to the RS2 and the A4 that followed, that made the public sit up and take notice. From there, all the other brands found themselves frantically playing catch-up. Effectively, this car ignited a rivalry that put brands like Lincoln and Cadillac in serious trouble, and that effect is still being seen today.
So, to recap, let’s return to Bob Dylan. Most of the biggest names in music, from the Beatles, to the Rolling Stones, to Dave Matthews, to Matchbox 20, to the Black Eyed Peas, all list Bob Dylan as one of their greatest influences. But taken in isolation, Bob Dylan is a good lyricist, and an adequate performer. It was in the hands of others — such as Jimi Hendrix — that his work truly became the stuff of legend, and as such influenced all the music that followed.
Similarly, this little Audi, an insignificant car by itself, was remastered by Porsche to become something great. And its influence can be felt on many of the finest cars we admire today, from the BMW M3, to the Pontiac G8 GXP, to the AMG C63, to the Cadillac CTS-V, to the Subaru WRX/STi. The rivalry it inspired caused the level of competition to escalate dramatically, and many automakers are just starting to catch up now.
Like Bob Dylan, sometimes a legend just needs a little help to get there.

31 Comments

    1. Don't be. I saw him live three years ago, and he was surprisingly spry and engaging. Great setlist…terrific mix of old and new stuff.

  1. For performance testing, drivers were delighted and appalled at the recommended technique of "just dump the clutch at 7000rpm." For those of you with more mechanical sympathy, do load up the drivetrain, as if holding on a hill, to take up any slack first. The true Quattros, with Torsen rather than friction clutch LSDs, will handle such a launch better than many modern AWD cars, including many Audis.

    1. The original Torsen systems (which they still use, by the way, just with upgrades; its available on any longitudinally-engined Audi) were scary. I've driven a few hopped-up old Audis, including a Coupe quattro with some modifications, and I think their drivetrains were just made of depleted uranium. The cars had lots of reliability issues, including their floormats (ahem), but that quattro system was not one of them.

  2. Before I bought my A4, i really seriously considered the Ur-S6. They are rare but more common than the RS2 (which is about as common as rocking horse poop). I know it is a step or two below the RS2, but it can be found in a wagon with a manual transmission and has plenty of punch from the 5-cylinder. Alas, I then had two small kids plus another in the works and knew that I would be needed in places other than tinkering in the garage. I still want one.
    Was it the Sprongl brothers that put an RS2 engine in their A2?

  3. Umm…yes, this car is a true legend. However, BMW M5 wagon (E34) with 340 hp was also available in Europe so Audi had more competition, not only M3. Still, M5 was bigger and 1 sec slower to 62 mph. Another thing is that Germans where much more fond of tuning during nineties than they are now, it seems. Endless smorgasbord of tuning packages were available for MB (E-wagon) or BMW owners.
    MB AMG Hammer for example.

    1. Your point is well taken, and I probably should have clarified better that I was limiting my perspective to somewhat comparable cars. The 3-series at the time was still a compact car (remember that?), and the 5-series was quite a bit bigger.
      The larger point, however, was that BMW was really the sole point of contact for a high-performance luxury car. There were aftermarket tuners, of course, but that's beside the point. It wasn't until 1998 or 1999 that Mercedes finally brought AMG completely in-house. BMW really was the only true option until this little Audi came along.

      1. You're right. I just wanted to add some additional info to your perfectly interesting and very well written piece.
        I just started wondering is there place in internet where I could find historical new car prices for Germany i.e what those cars sold for in 1994. Could easily be that tuner cars are in different price level altogether, even when RS2 probably was very expensive………

  4. To me, this is one of the ultimate factory sleepers. How many companies today would release a car like this without slathering it with badging, wings, and a cheesy body kit? This is truly the German way.

    1. So true. This one has two small badges. one on the grille, one on the arse. Now, of course, a car-guy can spot an RS badge from three blocks away, because we look for them now. Back then, of course, it meant nothing, so those two tiny badges did absolutely nothing to give away its performance potential.

  5. Como una promesa, eres tu, eres tu
    Como una manana de verano
    Como una sonrisa, eres tu, eres tu
    Asi, asi, RS2

  6. I just looked to see how much an RS2 would run on the used market. I found a 1995 model for $75,000. Um, yeah. I might need a loan.
    I hate Dylan's singing. He just released a Christmas album and the local classic rock station was playing cuts from it. Awful! The man cannot sing. I have to laugh at people from my parent's generation that think he's the greatest artist to ever grace this planet. He's not. He's an excellent songwriter, but up there with William Huang on singing ability.

  7. I really don’t think I would be able to keep up with maintaining a site like this! Impressive job, I seriously would like to see you keep going for a good long time.

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