2017 Audi RS3 sedan red - Image: AudiWhether A3 and Q5 and Allroad drivers in 2017 know it or not, much of Audi’s modern reputation is built upon a foundation cemented by the Audi Quattro rally car in the 1980s.

In the capable hands of drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, and Walter Röhrl, Audi brought dominant traction to the World Rally Championship and eventually found traction in the marketplace as well.

Fast forward to 2017 and Audi consistently reports meaningful growth in the North American market. Audi sales in the United States have grown in seven consecutive years, more than doubling since 2010. And while U.S. auto sales are dipping in the first half of 2017 — including declines at the only three premium brands that outsell Audi — the Audi brand is up 7 percent, year-over-year.

Audi’s methodology has been well and truly copied by many of its rivals. Quattro isn’t the only all-wheel-drive brand in town. Badges for 4Matic and xDrive are common on the trunklids of many a Mercedes-Benz and Audi.

How then can Audi stand out from the pack? With its high-performance models, the RS variants, Audi may well drop Quattro all-wheel drive on some models in a bid for rear-wheel-drive performance supremacy.

No wonder the division that produces Audi’s RS models changed its name from Quattro GmbH to Audi Sport GmbH.Audi RS 7 Sportback performance - Image: AudiIn an interview with Auto Express at the Goodwood Festival of Speed earlier this week, Audi Sport CEO Stephan Winkelmann said, “I can imagine we can also have cars with rear-wheel drive or two-wheel drive in the future.”

Not only have competitors moved in on Audi’s AWD territory in a mainstream luxury sense, high-performance derivatives are also increasingly propelled by all four wheels. In Mercedes-Benz USA’s AMG lineup, the CLA45, C43, CLS63, E43, E63, and S63 — not to mention all the AMG utility vehicles — are 4Matic vehicles. At BMW, the new G30-generation BMW 5 Series’ M5 variant becomes an all-wheel-drive monster sedan.

Quattro has, at least to some degree, lost a measure of its distinctive character.

Incidentally, you’ll recall that Stephen Winkelmann was previously the boss at Lamborghini, a supercar builder famous for sending V10 and V12 power to all four wheels. But Winkelmann nevertheless carved out space for rear-wheel-drive Gallardos and Huracans.

At the sub-brand now known as Audi Sport, Winkelmann said the Quattro name, “could be misleading.”

“Quattro is the four-wheel-drive system and is one of the things that made Audi great,” Winkelmann told Auto Express, “but in our opinion was not the right name for the company.”

Utilizing the Quattro name for both a performance sub-brand and an AWD system was potentially confusing. “We wanted this to be clarified,” Winkelmann says.

To be fair, Winkelmann only said that Audi Sport can “imagine” having rear-wheel-drive models. By no means did he confirm a forthcoming (and virtually impossible) rear-wheel-drive Audi RS3.

But at the top of the luxury performance heap, Winkelmann’s intention to further investigate possibilities for the Audi Sport brand speaks to Audi’s desire to take the fight to Mercedes-Benz and BMW in all corners. Audi is certainly riding a wave of global auto sales success. But on the RS front, Audi Sport is nowhere near as well-known as, for example, Mercedes-AMG.

Maybe rear-wheel-drive Audi RS models won’t entirely change that. But a pair of RS models set to make their debut this coming September could further bolster the brand’s credibility.

[Images: Audi AG]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Autofocus.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars.