Death Valley, Calif. — There they sat, 13 shiny gray, 4-wheel-drive Audi Quattros, their noses pointed north.
Before the day was over, a couple dozen auto writers would give the cars a beating, taking them from 280 feet below sea level at Bad Water, lowest point on the North American continent, partway up the ''road to the sky'' at Mt. Whitney--highest point in the contiguous 48 states--and end up at Mammoth Mountain, 9,000 feet above sea level at the ski lodge.
The total distance was 330 miles over many kinds of road surfaces, including ice and snow--a good test of the car and indeed the driver behind the wheel.
Performance is its name--not necessarily speed, although it is very fast, but its ability to stick to the road no matter what is beneath the tires.
In a word, the new Audi Quattro is impressive.
The wedge-shaped Quattro--an expensive 4-wheel-drive sports coupe, with 15 -inch alloy wheels, low-profile tires, and front-vented, 4-wheel disc brakes--was introduced in Europe about two years ago and has just now been brought to the US.
I first drove the car--the European version--about 20 months ago in a visit to the factory at Ingolstadt, near Munich. Beside me in the car was Dr. Hans-Jurgen Sassor, manager of special assignments for the US.
In developing the 4-wheel-drive Quattro, he told me, Audi engineers began with the Iltis, a military vehicle created and built by Volkswagen, not only for the West German Army but for other NATO defense forces as well.
''It wasn't our initial target to build a high-performance, street-going car, '' Sassor said.
The West German Army had asked Volkswagenwerk AG to develop a 4-wheel-drive car for military purposes only.
''We had fantastic results with the Iltis, especially on loose ground, snow, and ice,'' he reported. ''But even more astonishing to us was that this sort of car, the Iltis, was really good to handle on either wet or dry roads.''
Thus, Dr. Ferdinand Piech, head of research and development for Audi, had the idea to build a prototype of a street-going passenger car with high performance and 4-wheel drive. Too, Audi could start with a front-drive car.
In its standard cars, Audi relies on a longitudinal engine with a longitudinal gearbox. ''We felt we could take a lot of these components for the Quattro,'' Sassor said.
''Only one other factory in the world, Renault, can do a 4-wheel-drive vehicle as simple as we can do it because of the basic layout,'' he added.
The engine for the Quattro is basically the same as for the high-performance Audi 200, not sold in the US. A new intercooler and electronic ignition give 30 horsepower more than in the turbocharged 200.
For the technically minded, horsepower in the US version is rated at 160 at 5 ,500 r.p.m., with 170 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 r.p.m.
Further, the company installed a new differential and took the subframe and McPherson struts from the front wheels, turned them, and had a new rear axle. So front and rear axles are of the same design-- ''and we use more than 90 percent of the same parts,'' he added.
As a result, it was really quite simple for Audi to develop the Quattro in less than three years.''You can't develop such a car in such a short time if you have to start from scratch,'' Sassor reported.
''You can only do it if a lot of parts are already developed.''
A unique center differential eliminates tire scrub by distributing power evenly to the front and rear wheels.
The Quattro was unveiled in Europe in March 1980 and has finally reached the US after modifications to meet federal government emissions and safety requirements at significant cost.
As a result, while the Quattro is sold in Europe for around $28,000, its US version goes for almost $35,000, including $2,000 for US-required safety and exhaust-emission equipment, $1,000 to certify the car for sale in the US, $1,000 for shipping, and $3,000 for additional standard equipment.
Won't full-time 4-wheel drive reduce the operating economy of the car?
Surprisingly not, according to Audi engineers. The car, in fact, gets better road mileage with power to all four wheels than it would if it were a 2 -wheel-drive car alone, says Piech.
''We found that the rolling resistance of the tires goes down when the tires have to transfer torque,'' he adds. ''So the sum of the rolling resistance of the four driving wheels is lower than the sum of the rolling resistance when you have only two drive wheels.''
There is about 1 percent more friction in the gears, differentials, propeller shaft, and so on. Yet the car gains more than 2 percent in reduced rolling resistance.
The 5-cylinder, 2.2-liter engine is turbocharged and moves from 0 to 50 m.p.h. in 5.3 seconds. Environmental Protection Agency figures list the Quattro at 17 m.p.g. in city-type driving and 28 on the highway. Unleaded premium fuel is required.
Road handling and behavior on gravel and ice is where the Quattro excels. The car develops about as much pulling power on ice as a car with a single-driven axle on a dry surface, Piech asserts. This means the car will climb twice the gradient of a 2-wheel-drive car irrespective of road conditions. Unlike most other 4-wheel-drive vehicles, however, the Quattro is not intended for off-road travel because of its low 5-inch ground clearance.
Helping the aerodynamic shape of the car is a deep front air dam that funnels air around or over the car instead of under it, while an elevated rear spoiler reduces turbulence at the back.
''The disadvantage in the US is that you cannot use the car in a proper way, '' Sassor complains. ''But on the other hand, about half of the total Porsche automobile production is sold in the US, despite the national speed limit of 55 m.p.h.
While the Audi will never be a big seller for the company, it nonetheless has a major purpose.
In short, ''the Quattro is a technical showcase for Audi,'' Piech says. It shows what the company can do in innovative engineering and design. Indeed, the engineering expertise which a project such as the Quattro unleashes will lead to other, perhaps more practical, vehicles down the road.
Audi plans to use the Quattro in US rallies, although it has not yet firmed up plans, according to Piech.
''We're still in discussion about the budget,'' he says.
Production plans for the car are extremely modest, with no more than 2,000 Quattros to be built this year, 500 of them slated for the US.
James R. Fuller, head of the Porsche Audi division of Volkswagen of America, says ''the Quattro's turbo-powered, all-wheel-drive system reflects a step toward what we see as the refined road cars of this decade and beyond.''