2012 Audi TT RS: First Drive

The new 2012 Audi TT RS has loads to brag about: Ludicrous power, astounding grip and a luxurious interior that smells of nutmeg. It's even manual only (in the U.S.). But does the TT RS live up to Audi's turbocharged, inline-five legend? And can you even get one? We found out.

Full Disclosure: Audi wanted me to drive the TT-RS so bad, they Amtrak'ed me to a resort of quirky cabins in the wilds of the Nutmeg State (Connecticut), and introduced me to the world of Alan Wilzig, whose private racetrack in upstate New York is the stuff of legend. Truly. Alas, there was no actual nutmeg. Pity.

This past year, a new automotive genre emerged: The lower-case halo car. That is, a great-handling coupe of relatively unassuming stock, upward of 300 horsepower, a manual transmission and a sticker price topping 50 grand. Specifically, I'm talking about the BMW 1M, Porsche Cayman R and now, the Audi TT RS.

Not that the price of these cars matters, mind you, because no one's ever seen one. Carmakers have built them in such infinitesimal quantity, only dim-witted dealership workers with lead feet and YouTube accounts have ever driven them, and by now they've ground all the transmissions into greasepaint.

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Aside from their rarity, these cars have one major trait in common. Each one is fantastic to drive. This, matched with an insinuation of accessibility, a factor of their downline product mates, makes them far more appealing to many enthusiasts than flashy, full-monte supercars are. Indeed, they're the amateur porn of the automotive world.

Audi's version is merely the latest of these to arrive in the US. Building on the existing TT — whose transverse-mounted engine cantilevers out over the front axle like a bucked tooth — the company's Quattro division transformed the Volkswagen A chassis into an amazingly capable bludgeon of a sports car. The US model even has more horsepower than the European version. Right? That never happens.

I say bludgeon, because in a field of very feisty peers, the TT RS feels the most like a purpose-built industrial implement. Two purposes, actually: obliterating inertia and clinging to the pavement at high rates of speed. That's not to say the TT RS isn't a hatful of chuckles on road or track, either. Maybe we'll call it a helmet full of chuckles instead.

First, there's that beefy, guttural turbocharged inline five. The Quattro people built it themselves, after finding existing Audi engines insufficient to the RS's task. That it shares a fundamental layout with classic Audi racecars and homologation specials like the 1984 Sport Quattro — whose 306-hp turbocharged inline five cranked out around 145 horsepower per liter, similar to the TT RS's own — is of considerable import to anyone who's seen an Audi Group B racecar ravage a rally stage. The U.S. version turns out 360 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 343 lb-ft from 1,650-5,400 rpm.

2012 Audi TT RS: First Drive

It's quite an apparatus. You floor the accelerator, there's a beat of lag as the various breathing and drivetrain elements gather up, and at a tick past 1,600 rpm the car launches like Hidalgo charging for the Najd horizon. But once it's going, torque delivery is consistent through the revs, right to its peak at 5,400 rpm. No screamer, this engine, but if you're looking for another Audi motorsports connection, its low-key sound signature isn't far off that of Audi's diesel prototype racecars.

On the twisty, hilly B-roads around Litchfield, Connecticut — where you're just as likely to spot a classic Jaguar XKE as a late-model SUV — the TT RS's combination of ready torque and comfortable ride quality (in normal mode) plus roll control from the continually adjusting, magnetorheological dampers certainly comes in handy. And by handy, I mean for schussing among the foliage at speeds the local heat, and common sense, might, you know, frown upon.

And so, when I arrived at Wilzig Racing Manor, whose spotless tarmac and tricky corners — including a long, banked left — I expected great things. The key to all great things is the console-positioned Sport button, which tightens up the dampers, opens an exhaust flap that unfurls a feral growl and quickens the throttle mapping. Those trick dampers are a must, considering the TT RS weighs 3,306 lbs, or around 450 pounds heavier than a manual Porsche Cayman R. The dampers keep that weight largely under control, though the nose-forward distribution of it means keeping an eagle eye on corner speeds.

The TT RS is not a car you toss headlong into a 180-degree bend and correct your way out; it's one in which you plan your entry velocity scrupulously and watch the apex cone carefully (lovingly laid out by the track's owner to ease our break-in period), and make your moves gingerly, lest the front tires rebel and break for the track's outside edge. The good news is, if you get the turn-in right you can be on the power almost immediately, and out toward the next turn before you can say "Holy crap, I'm in some guy's front yard."

Indeed, the TT RS is stunningly quick, holds the pavement like mad, but handling its weight requires a head for management. As such, it's the perfect sports car for strategy junkies, because its capability — and ultimately, enjoyment — can be more readily maximized by using intellectual energy than by sheer intuition and counter-steering. Ultimately, it's a very fast car (Audi says 0-60 in 4.1 seconds) with a very specific, nerdy appeal.

2012 Audi TT RS: First Drive

Visually, you can tell the RS apart by its large, fixed rear wing (which buyers can delete), which doesn't do a lot except provide perhaps an inkling of downforce, 19" rotor wheels and a new front face with larger intakes. Audi will build two model years' worth of TT RSs, although all the 2012 models are spoken for. And even with the 2013 model, no more than 1,000 of them will ever hit the street.

And the price? Even if you could get one, you'll easily crack $60,000. The $56,850 base excludes destination charges, taxes, title, options and dealer fees.

Still, it goes back to something we all learned in first grade. Don't bring in snacks unless you've brought enough for everyone.