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First Drive: 2012 Audi TT RS

Audi's adorable little TT has a bit of an identity crisis. It's so cute that you sort of expect it to be a Hyundai Tiburon for chic, gorgeous women with impeccable taste and generous budgets. Nothing against those kinds of customers -- in fact, any such woman gains ten points for driving a hot Audi like that -- but the TT has never really been taken seriously by the testosterone-laden enthusiast crowd.

Making matters worse was a product lineup that was a little too densely populated for such a low-volume car. Choices are a good thing, but when so many different TTs are on the lot - front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive; turbocharged four-cylinder, VR6; dual-clutch automatic, stick shift; coupe, convertible - it tends to overwhelm customers and work against forming a clear image of what a car is about.

A while back, Audi started cleaning up the TT lineup, dropping the narrow-angle V-6 and leaving the base 200-hp turbo four that we know and love. And then the TTS dropped, with a 265-hp version of the 2.0T and -- what's this? -- a dual-clutch automatic only? Suddenly, having too many choices didn't seem like such a bad thing.

Not that there's anything wrong with the TTS. In fact, there's little wrong with it - it's a fast (0 to 60 mph in as little as 4.9 seconds, says Audi), capable, stunningly beautiful sports car. Unfortunately, it just doesn't stir the soul the way a $50,000 sports car ought to.

Audi engineers recently fixed that problem with the much more powerful, European-market TT RS. And now, it seems, American Audi dealerships might be lucky enough to get this car. Our initial reaction is unbridled excitement. But then a bit of angst creeps in, because the TTS' $46,725 base price is already perilously close to Porsche territory. And even though the TTS can, by some measures of performance, hang with a base Boxster or Cayman, it isn't quite the Porsche's equal on the desirability scale.

If the TT RS makes it over here (and we certainly hope it does), it needs to generate near-Porsche levels of delectability for a whole lot less money. Although Audi of America isn't saying a word about it, we think they're actively working on a way to make it happen.

And to that end, they shipped a TT RS to the States and let us drive it.

Let's just say our collective prayers that evening included the usual stuff plus a bunch of references to a hot little Audi with a turbocharged five-cylinder and a real six-speed manual. Sports cars should have three pedals and a stick in the world according to me...and the fact that there's no S tronic available here is enough to help the TTS graduate from Hot Chick Car to the Real Sports Car TT RS.

Regrettably, our time behind the wheel of the TT RS was severely limited. And by that, we mean two laps around a racetrack. But it doesn't take much time at all to realize you're driving something special. The throbbing five-cylinder sounds like something from 1980s Audi Rally-sponsored pornography, and the rush of power is ferocious. Audi's German Web site says that the 340-hp, 332 lb-ft engine shaves 0.6 second off the TTS's already impressive 0-to-100-kph time...so figure the TT RS can nail 60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds. More important than the number, though, is the sound.

And then the road curves. The TT RS turns in instantaneously -- its immediate reaction is reminiscent of the Boxster. Which is mid-engined. The RS isn't, sadly, as well balanced through the corners as the TTS (Audi blames the extra hundred pounds or so over the front end), but it's no understeering pig, either. Adding power helps rotate the rear end, and the RS dances around a track nearly as gracefully as its lighter sister. But with a whole lot more speed.

And confidence, thanks to its enormous brakes. Four-piston calipers up front grip 14.6-inch rotors, and their response is also Porsche-like. There's little question in my mind that a TT RS can keep up with -- or beat -- a mid-engine Porsche around a racetrack. But then again, so could the TTS.

The difference, though, is that the TT RS can appeal to hard-core enthusiasts in ways the TTS can't. How? A: It's a stick. B: It's a five-cylinder (and that's not just a nod to hot Audis of yore -- five cylinders can sound great). C: It sounds great (see part B). D: It's crazy fast. And E: It might end up being a hell of a performance value.

We sure hope that Audi brings the TT RS to the U.S. With Audi's worldwide sales at all-time highs and threatening BMW to become the biggest luxury-car marque, it's time for Audi to start having a bit more fun. The previous RS4 did that; the forthcoming RS5 will do the same. And the TT RS would put a big smile on quite a few faces of folks who'd otherwise not consider owning a cute little TT.