Driven: 2012 Audi TT-RS

Joe Lorio
2012-audi-tt-rs

From the moment it debuted as a concept car way back in 1995, the TT has possessed a compelling shape. Although more modern than retro, it does have echoes of the Porsche 356. Once it entered production, the TT was best described as a sporty car -- it is, after all, based on the Volkswagen Golf. But this is a machine that wants to be characterful, minimalist, high-performance sports car. And in RS form, it is exactly that.

There isn't much that needs to be done to make the TT look the part. The RS gets a specific grille texture; unique, 19-inch five-spoke wheels; a rear wing (deleted on my test car); aluminum mirror caps; subtly restyled bumpers; flared rocker panels; and dual oval exhaust tips. Similarly, the interior here is the same cozy place the TT cabin has always been, with the squashed roofline like a baseball cap pulled down almost to your eyes. The back seats are strictly theoretical but front-seat space is fine. The sport seats are fairly simple but hold you in place effectively without being confining. The RS version gets smooth, Nappa leather with contrasting stitching (two-tone leather is now also available); aluminum trim; and a contoured, flat-bottomed, steering wheel.

The TT is one of the oldest products in the Audi stable, and that's evident in its electronics, an arena where aging occurs at hyper speed. The optional navigation system has a very early iteration of Audi's MMI interface, and it's not nearly as well sorted or easy to use as the more recent versions. Nor will you find the latest gadgetry, such as blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, or active cruise control.

HIGH FIVE

The real RS transformation takes place under the hood. In place of the direct-injected turbocharged four in lesser versions of the TT, the RS gets a highly turbocharged inline five. That configuration has special resonance for Audi, as it harks back to the original, giant-killing Audi Quattro coupes of the 1980s. Here, it makes the TT-RS a giant-killer in its own right, with 360 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque, which send this 3306-pound coupe from 0 to 60 mph in an astounding 4.1 seconds. That's R8 territory.

Throttle response is not as linear as in a normally aspirated engine -- you can definitely feel the rush of the turbocharger -- but max torque comes on at a low, 1650 rpm, so it's not like you're waiting around for the turbo to kick in. Aside from the fact that it can beam you toward the horizon at hyper speed, the best thing about this turbo five may be the way it sounds -- once you pass 3000 rpm. Crest 4000 rpm, and it's just awesome. Note: this example was equipped with the optional sport exhaust. Get it.

ROW YOUR OWN

In Europe, the TT-RS is available with Audi's 7-speed S Tronic automated manual transmission, which is cool because it has a launch management program, which actually lowers the car's 0-60 time below 4 seconds. Since Audi is importing such a small number of cars (500 in total) to our shores, the company went with only one gearbox, a six-speed manual. Given the nature of the TT-RS, it's hard to argue with the manual, and it's even harder once you actually drive it, as its shift throws are short and positive, and the clutch action is friendly. This is a manual to make you like manuals.

BALANCING ACT

With its engine hanging out ahead of the front axle, the TT is never going to have the inherent balance of a mid-engine car like a Boxster or a Cayman. But in the same way that Porsche has made its other, more famous, sports car handle brilliantly despite its odd engine placement, Audi has achieved great things here despite the powertrain configuration. The RS-spec ultra-wide tires (255/35R19) and rear-biased all-wheel-drive (with standard sport differential) work beautifully with the lowered, firmer suspension to send this car whipping around corners. No, you can't make it dance like a rear-wheel-drive sports car, but you sure can make it go. And thanks to the wizardly of the magnetorheological dampers, this stiff suspension doesn't beat you up over bad pavement (that is, unless you hit the sport button). The TT-RS's steering feels limp at first, suffering the typical Audi failing of being ridiculously overboosted at low speeds (really, Audi, even here?), but once you're moving along it firms up nicely.

On GingerMan race track at our All-Stars testing event last fall, the TT-RS was criticized for being not as fluid as the Porsche Boxster. And that's true, as far as it goes. The TT-RS in some ways feels like what it is: an amped-up version of a lesser car. But what a fantastically amped-up version it is.

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