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Audi’s five-cylinder engine turns 40 – Throwback Thursday

Audi revealed its five-cylinder engine back in 1976, the first of its kind, and this year the unit turns 40.

THE SECOND-GENERATION Audi 100 was chosen to debut Audi’s five-cylinder petrol engine in 1976. The reason for its development was because Audi wanted to pitch the 100 a little higher than its predecessor but engineer’s considered the brand’s current four-cylinder petrol engines to be a little too weedy for the job.

So, before the first-generation Audi 100 was replaced Audi set its white-coated boffins to developing something a little gruntier. The engineers immediately set about development of larger engines, settling on a five-cylinder engine after it was decided an inline six-cylinder would take up too much space in the engine bay and upset the weight distribution.

For the development of the new five-cylinder engine, engineers used the four-cylinder EA 827 engine. This engine was used throughout the Volkswagen Group, including the Audi 80 and Audi 100. The result was a 2.1-litre inline five-cylinder engine with a “modern injection system”. It was rolled out in the Audi 100 5E in 1977 (pictured below).

Audi 100

A year later (1978) a diesel version was revealed, it was a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated five-cylinder, it made just 51kW. And then, in 1979 the first turbocharged five-cylinder petrol engine was revealed, it produced 125kW and 265Nm of torque. This engine was dropped into the Audi 200 5T.

Audi sport quattro

Further work on the turbocharged five-cylinder saw more power eked out of it to create the legendary 1980 Audi “Ur-quattro” which offered 147kW of power. It was this car that hurtled Audi into the spotlight on both the racetrack and the gravel of the World Rally Championship. In 1983, Hannu Mikkola won the drivers’ title in the World Rally Championship in an Ur-quattro. In the same year, Audi introduced the wide-track Sport quattro, which was 24 centimetres shorter. It was powered by a newly developed four-valve five-cylinder unit made of aluminium with an output of 225kW.

Audi sport quattro

This made the Sport quattro the most powerful car Audi had ever built for use on public roads. The model formed the basis for a new Group B rally car, with the four-valve powerplant delivering 330kW. It was used for the first time in the penultimate race of 1984, the Ivory Coast rally. The other 11 rounds of the season were contested by the real Stig Blomqvist in the Group B Audi quattro A2 producing 265kW. In the end, he won the drivers’ title and Audi took the manufacturers’ title. In an interview with Blomqvist many years ago, he told me: “The car was so easy to drive and had so much grip… we always wanted more power”.

Audi sport quattro

Group B rally had seen the cars and drivers pushed too far, though, and a string of tragic and horrific crashes saw Group B cars banned from rally. In 1986 Audi and many other car makers withdrew from WRC to concentrate on track racing.

Audi sport quattro

But the five-cylinder engine was still being pushed harder and, in 1987, Walter Röhrl won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb (USA) in the Audi Sport quattro S1 (E2). The racing car developed 440kW. And the IMSA GTO excelled on the US touring car scene in 1989, delivering 530kW – from little more than two litres of displacement.

Audi sport quattro

Away from racing, Audi’s engineers continued to develop the five-cylinder concept and, in 1989 revealed the Audi 100 TDI. This was the first production car with a five-cylinder direct-injection turbocharged diesel engine and fully electronic control. The powerplant generated 88kW from a displacement of 2.5-litres.

The next major development of the five-cylinder engine came in 1992 when it was dropped into the RS 2 punching out around 230kW. The RS 2 was a wagon and this created the trend of performance wagons.

Audi sport quattro

From there the five-cylinder was gradually phased out in favour of punchier and thriftier four-cylinder and six-cylinder units. Then the Audi TT RS arrived in 2009 with a 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder petrol engine that thumped out 250kW. When that car arrived in Australia I was contributing to Top Gear Australia and I remember pitting it against a Porsche Cayman… The Porsche might as well have not been there. For me, the TT RS was a reminder of those mental Group B days. I absolutely loved that car. Indeed, that engine has been voted, by motoring journalists, as the engine of the year seven years running.

Audi sport quattro

Like Mazda’s rotary engine, Audi’s five-cylinder has attained cult status and that’s why the 40-year old donk is our Throwback Thursday.


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Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober