Strange as Las Vegas is, it's not quite as strange as the Audi TT RS. With its hairy turbocharged five-cylinder, unglamorous VW Golf roots, and scorching performance, the TT RS has all of the right stuff to share the stage with a fire-breathing bearded lady. But damn if it doesn't entertain. While taking our first drive of the U.S.-spec TT RS in Sin City, we discovered that this compact coupe has emerged from humble origins to deliver sports car competence that we never thought was possible.
The five-cylinder freak
The TT's core DNA is still intact with the RS -- a transverse-mounted engine, a front-drive-based all-wheel-drive system, and a nose-heavy weight distribution -- but one key hardware change is enough to completely adjust this TT's attitude. That change is an engine swap from a boosted four-cylinder to a turbocharged five-cylinder that pumps out 360 hp at 5500 rpm. To realize the ridiculous power density of 144 hp per liter, the iron block is fortified with a forged crankshaft, forged connecting rods, and cast aluminum pistons.
Such big power from such a small engine typically results in an unhealthy amount of lag followed by an unmanageable wallop of thrust. Yet the TT RS exhibits neither of those traits. It boasts refinement and power delivery on par with that of the esteemed 2.0T. Responsive, potent, emotive, the TT RS is reaffirmation of the Volkswagen Group's expertise and consistency when it comes to building turbocharged engines. The 2.5-liter produces 343 lb-ft of torque over a wide band from 1650-5400 rpm. You won't experience the punch that quickly off idle, when the turbo needs more time to spool, but the car builds boost linearly and accelerates much like a normally aspirated car.
Audi claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.1 seconds on the way to a top speed of 174 mph. Those numbers alone are enough to silence any errant "chick car" comments slow-pitched from the driver's seat of an automatic-transmission 3-series. The TT RS is anything but, not just because of how quick it is, but how competent it is when driven hard. As a reminder that is no ordinary TT, the spirited five-cylinder creates a soundtrack that can't be ignored. The RS steps off the line with the deep burble of a big rig and swells into a high-pitched hum with a subtle vibrato. From inside the cabin, it's an air-raid siren building into a wail. This is an enthusiast's car, through and through. While a dual-clutch automatic and roadster version are available in Europe, U.S. buyers can only have a six-speed-manual coupe. The overgrown aluminum shift knob fills your palm and adds to the satisfaction found in wonderfully short and crisp throws. The steering wheel is a sculpted, flat-bottom piece that's even better than what you get in an R8.
Track Toy RS
To exercise the TT RS at its limits, we went to Spring Mountain Motorsport Country Club in Pahrump, Nevada, with more than four miles of pavement that can be coned into twenty-three different courses. Over a 1.5-mile course, our enthusiasm for the RS continued to build with every corner. Turn-in is immediate but the steering never feels so quick that it's artificial. Effort and progressivity are perfect and body roll is nearly eliminated. During continuous lapping, the brakes -- with four-piston, fixed calipers up front -- consistently scrubbed speed heading into each turn, and never hinted that they were tiring.
The TT RS is nowhere near as forgiving as its most obvious competitor, the Porsche Cayman R. In that car, you can commit all manners of driving sins before the tires give up and scream for a better line or a slower entry speed. That's not to say that the TT RS is slower, it simply requires more experience, more skill, and more confidence to drive it quickly around a track. While the window of handling neutrality is smaller, the TT RS responds nicely to both throttle lift-off and power-on requests to rotate the rear end and in power, braking, and handling, it responds as a sports car should.
Back on the road, the RS's steering displays a familiar Audi shortcoming. At parking lot speeds, the power assist becomes far too aggressive and the wheel becomes lighter than that in most minivans. But that's a problem that disappears above 10 mph, when the steering takes on a lovely weight. Thanks to the magnetorheological dampers, the ride quality remains civilized even in light of the exceptional body control. As we bomb towards Death Valley, our speeds creep into the triple digits and we explore bursts toward 120 mph. Deactivating sport mode relaxes the dampers and takes care of the side-to-side rocking induced by the wavy desert road.
A TT unlike any other
To set itself apart from the rest of the TT range, the RS features a fixed rear wing, unique fascias, 19-inch rotor-style wheels, matte aluminum mirror caps, and the requisite RS badging. While the TT's distinct shape obscures the impact of some of the changes, the RS's appeal lies in the way it drives. For $57,725, Audi delivers a lusty engine, tenacious grip, sharp steering, and a snappy six-speed gearbox. As good as the TT RS is, Audi recognizes that this car will resonate with a subset of four-ring diehards. While the car will be built as both a 2012 and 2013 model, total production is expected to be less than 1000 cars. No matter how small the volume is, though, the RS builds new respect for a car that had fallen off our radar.
Engine 20-valve turbocharged I-5
Displacement 2.5 liters
Power 360 hp @ 5500-6700 rpm
Torque 343 lb-ft @ 1650-5400 rpm
Transmission type 6-speed manual transmission
EPA Fuel Economy 17/23/20 mpg (city/hwy/combined, estimated)
Lock-to-lock 2.9 turns
Turning circle 36.0 ft
Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Wheels 19-in. aluminum alloys
Tires Toyo Proxes T1 Sport
Tire size 255/35YR-19
Headroom, f/r 37.7/32.6 in
Legroom, f/r 41.1/29.3 in
Shoulder room, f/r 53.2/47.5 in
Wheelbase 97.2 in
Track, f/r 61.2/60.9 in
L x W x H 165.3 x 72.5 x 53.1 in
Cargo capacity 13.1/24.7 cu ft (rear seat up/folded)
Weight 3306 lb
Fuel capacity 15.9 gal
Est. fuel range 318 miles
Fuel grade 91+ octane (premium unleaded)