Born to be wild

Before there were Audi Q models there was Steppenwolf.

Built as a prototype for the 2001 Paris Motor Show, the Audi Steppenwolf hinted at a future design series that was as comfortable off-road as it was on the road.

3 February, 2021


The Steppenwolf was just an idea, a ‘what if’ design that showcased Audi’s design language of the time and took it to a place it had not been before

When the Audi Steppenwolf concept design was first unveiled in Paris in 2001, few could have conceived that a luxury, performance off-road vehicle or what’s come to be known as an SUV, would ever be considered mainstream.

The Steppenwolf was just an idea, a ‘what if’ design that showcased Audi’s design language of the time and took it to a place it had not been before, save perhaps for the rally monsters of the 1980s.

There was some discussion as to where the name for the design came from. Some asserted it came from the Hermann Hesse book of the same name. With its notion of a critique of civilisation inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, the novel became something of a cult book in the 1960s.

Others felt that it was a more literal tag, the Steppe Wolf – canis lupis campestris – being a rare sub-species of the world family. A relatively small creature of around 20kg with a compact, powerful body, it was found on the Caspian Sea and in central Kazakhstan.

Regardless of which was the true inspiration, at the time of the unveiling, it came as something of a departure from the luxury passenger and sports car models Audi was known for.

While the Audi allroad quattro was already a series production vehicle at the time and the idea of an Audi passenger vehicle venturing off the blacktop was not new, the Steppenwolf introduced a number of new concepts that would soon become standard inclusions in Audi vehicles. What’s more, it’s probably fair to say that it offered the first glimpse of what would ultimately become the hugely successful Audi Q vehicles.

Powered by a 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine, the Steppenwolf produced 168kW and maximum torque of 320Nm. It boasted a top speed of 230km/h and hit 100km/h in what was then, a pretty decent sub eight second time.

Based on the A3 and Audi TT platforms, it featured quattro all-wheel drive with a Haldex clutch and electric centre differential for surefooted feel regardless of the conditions. With 223mm of ground clearance it was able to negotiate terrain that was not the usual hunting ground for an Audi, and with air suspension (which was largely unheard of in off-road vehicles of the time), passengers were spared any jarring that went with the terrain.

The fully adjustable air suspension also provided a load-compensating ride height control, and rode on 19-inch rims under large guards – an early nod to the quattro all-wheel drive system. Also bear in mind that 19-inch wheels in 2001 were considered massive.

Although designed to showcase an off-road oriented vehicle, the compact form and convertible design was also a strong point of the Steppenwolf. 

“In addition to an aggressive expression, the design was meant to transmit the precision of solid outdoor equipment,” said project designer, Romulus Rost at the time.

The Steppenwolf featured design cues such as the protective ‘back plate’ under the front bumper and each of the wing mirrors was fitted with moveable spotlights. Running boards could be attached to the side sills for ease of fitting the removable roof which was available as both a snap-on soft top and as a lightweight carbon fibre unit.

“In addition to an aggressive expression, the design was meant to transmit the precision of solid outdoor equipment”

Romulus Rost – project designer

Looking back now after 20 years, it’s interesting to see aspects of Audi vehicles we now know well, hinted at in the Steppenwolf design

The rear door, which opened sideways, was fitted with a window that opened automatically when the door was opened to allow easier access to the rear of the vehicle. A drawer under the rear storage area housed either a spare wheel or a survival kit kit consisting of a winch, a tyre repair kit, a compressor and the aforementioned removable soft top.

Inside, the vehicle featured an interesting blend of materials. Fine leather, linen and aluminium were used extensively, and the seats, with their combination of leather and a coarsely woven fabric blended luxury appointment with a very earthy, off-road feel. Also, Audi designers used thick, resistant leather usually used to make the soles of fine shoes, in the design and finish of the dash, floor mats and the boot space. The idea behind this being that the leather would continue to weather with use and take on different and distinctive characteristics over time.

Looking back now after 20 years, it’s interesting to see aspects of Audi vehicles we now know well, hinted at in the Steppenwolf design. The front end with its obvious TT elements, and the experimentation with interior materials that are now becoming more and more common in series production Audi vehicles.

The prototype that spawned the modern, luxury Audi SUV, the Steppenwolf is a fascinating study that signalled a significant change of direction for the brand – even if it took a few years for the modern day SUV to make its presence felt.