I have a soft spot for the Audi TT RS. And by “soft spot,” I mean I’ve had some of the best race results of my career in the last-generation motorsports version of the car, including nailing the front-wheel drive Pikes Peak record earlier this year. But the racing version of the TT RS had about as much to do with the street car as Kanye West has to do with common sense, and as much as I liked the race car, the last road-going version of the TT RS left me cold, even with its Kanye-crazy 360 horsepower five-cylinder engine.
This time? This time the TT RS is a real contender, ready to punch way above its weight in cylinder count.
(Full disclosure: Audi wanted me to drive the new TT RS so badly that they flew me to Spain for a day and let me run around the Jarama Circuit. They also wanted me (and the other journalists present) not to crash the car so badly they made impossible to completely turn off the traction control. Sigh.)
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Don’t get me wrong. The MK2 TT RS, the last generation car, wasn’t bad—but it also wasn’t great. Its main drawback was its propensity for understeer, a criticism of many Audis. All the engineering wizards at Quattro GmbH couldn’t mask the effects of the massive hunk of iron hung out entirely in front of the front axles. Audi’s chassis design has always been the exact opposite of the 911 stablemates from Porsche.
With the Porsche, the rear-engined configuration resulted in being able to hang the tail out almost everywhere (it also resulted in lift off oversteer that made for great revenue from parts sales), while the Audi’s front-biased layout just resulted in a maddening inability to get the car rotated at any point in a corner. It pretty much restricted the car to being a stoplight-to-stoplight bruiser more so than the general performance car that Audi wanted it to be.
But there was hope. In reading the advance notes for the 2018 TT RS, the thing that jumped out at me was that the corporate suits at Quattro GmbH, on the 40th anniversary of the debut of original five-cylinder power plant, greenlit an all new five cylinder aluminum block 2.5-liter engine. Glory be, I said! Praise to the German god of torque and exhaust notes!
The new engine is vastly improved in a number of ways. First the aluminum construction means that the new engine is a full 58 pounds lighter than the outgoing lump. That’s massive amount, especially considering all of that weight is located so far forward. The new design also gave the Audi engineers an opportunity to reduce engine friction and increase power, and the new engine puts out 400 HP and 354 lb-ft of torque. Continuing with the impressive stats, all of that torque is available from 1800 RPM.
The one thing that remains from the original engine is the 1-2-4-5-3 ignition firing sequence that gives the five-cylinder powerplant such a unique sound, and makes it abundantly clear that it is not just a V10 cut in half. It is one of the top 10 very best sounding engines in the world, and Audi knows that; they made sure to pipe that sound back into the cabin completely unaltered.
Those sweet-sounding 400 ponies now have substantially less weight to push around, as the new TTRS has a curb weight (excluding driver) of just 3,174 pounds. That’s fully 77 pounds less than the previous model. This equates to an impressive power to weight ratio of only 7.9 pounds per horsepower. Oh, and did I forget to mention the 0-100 kph (0-60 mph) time of what Audi claims to be 3.7 seconds is more like 3.5 seconds in the real world? Because it is.
Now 400 HP would be a fair amount of power to try to put to the ground in a lightweight, short wheelbase car, but of course the TT RS wouldn’t be an RS without Audi’s all-wheel drive system on board.
One of my continuing gripes with Audi is their continuing use of the Haldex all-wheel drive system. While it is technically a full time AWD system, it’s heavily FWD biased. In normal conditions it runs 80 percent of the power to the front wheels. When the system detects a difference in wheel speed between the front and rear wheels, the electro-hydraulic multi plate clutch will engage, distributing more power to the rear.
The issue with this has been that, especially with the first generation systems, the transfer of power to the rear took place after a slip was detected, meaning that it was always behind what the car was doing dynamically.
The latest setup feels unquestionably better. It’s able to take far more inputs into account in determining where power is best sent to. This means that it does a much better job of anticipating the need to transfer power to the rears on corner exit. Additionally Audi’s Drive Select Dynamic Handling System (yes, it’s a mouthful, but it is also accurately descriptive) is integrated into the quattro system.
The system’s four modes—comfort, auto, dynamic, and individual—affect the characteristics of the drivetrain along with the steering, gearbox, and exhaust note characteristics. In dynamic mode the system sends more power to the rear earlier, allowing for a much more rear-wheel drive like feel. Compared to the previous model the latest system is far more...predictive, I guess, would be the best word for it. There is no apparent lag in transition of power from front to rear.
Helping the quattro system along are two suspension options specifically tuned for the RS. The first has the currently en vogue electronically controlled magnetorheological dampers. The second is a fixed steel spring suspension, included in the Dynamic Plus package, which also includes ceramic front brakes, and a carbon fiber engine cover. That second one is considered the more high performance-oriented option.
Of the two, the magnetic option is by far the system to have, being completely adaptable to conditions and driving style.
For those of you who have been off planet for the past few years, magnetic dampers use special fluid containing tiny magnetic particles with an applied magnetic field to vary damping.
It also is controlled by the aforementioned Audi’s Drive Select Dynamic Handling System (I tried calling it DSDHS, but that doesn’t work; it sounds like a new disorder your kid gets diagnosed with after 700 consecutive hours of Pokémon Go), so you can do a few quick laps at the track and then drive to the grocery store without having to order a new spleen.
Nineteen-inch cast wheels with size 245/35 tires come as standard equipment. Optionally, Audi supplies 20-inch forged lightweight wheels with 255/30 tires. With that much rubber on the ground the TTRS approaches race car levels of grip, allowing the car to corner with neck straining levels of force.
Those wheels manage (just barely) to house the eight-piston brake calipers with massive 14.6 inch vented cast iron front rotors and 12.2 inch rears. As an option the front brake discs are available in carbon-fiber ceramic. The cars we drove were equipped with the ceramics, and they were fade free and hauled the car down from speed constantly even after a full day of track abuse.
Inside the TT RS, the tachometer takes center stage and dominates the display. The oversized tach display also serves as a handy shift indicator if the car is in manual mode the display shows green, orange and red segments as the revs climb. At red line the display flashes red indicating the need to up shift. Other parts of the display can be configured to show graphics for torque, output, tire pressure and temperature, and g-force. All that good track day stuff you need to know.
While this system does a good job of keeping the driver well informed, it’s still a bit busy for my taste. Button, knob and control placement and function are not very intuitive, and in certain cases were intrusive, especially in a track environment.
Case in point: a number of buttons have been moved onto the steering wheel in places which, when at speed on the track, placed them right where you were gripping the wheel making accidental contact more a matter of when, not if.
I managed to turn on the radio, switch stations and change screen displays every time I went out on track, usually before the second turn. I’d be worried that if I had my cell phone paired I might mistakenly order 100 pairs of Shake Weights from Amazon while on full opposite lock going into a hairpin turn. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
Switchgear issues aside, in practice all of these elements combine to make the new TT RS far more drivable at the limit than the previous generation car. On the limit the new TT RS is very neutral under braking and while entering the corner.
Getting the car to rotate mid corner takes a bit of work, but when you get it right the TT RS’s quattro system rewards you with the ability to be able to get the power down early with a massive amount of grunt that slingshots you very rapidly to the next corner.
At speed the five-cylinder motor makes all the right sounds, and with the amount of torque available down low, it’s actually more effective to shift early. It’s just that the soundtrack is so good you’ll want to run it to the limiter every time just to hear the noise this thing makes.
Audi’s Dynamic Handling System works seamlessly to get the power where and when you need it most. But it also gets out of the way when you don’t need it. Speaking of which, both traction and stability control are fully defeatable (although Audi made it clear that they don’t trust journalists by removing our ability to do so) and more importantly the systems will remain off no matter what stupidity the fool behind the wheel manages to get themselves into. (Yes, that also means you can left foot brake without electronic nanny interference.)
Even with the system set to “Journalist” it was very unobtrusive. In fact the only place I even realized it was still on was the exit of Turn Six there at Jarama, a fast right hander that can be taken flat if you allow the car to go into a four-wheel drift on the uphill exit. The system didn’t like the dynamics of that and would pull power to keep the car headed in what it felt was the correct direction. But that’s all it did! And it was only really noticeable when chasing the Audi pace car that clearly had the system fully deactivated. On the road, if you manage to anger the Traction Control gods, then you have seriously fucked it up.
U.S. pricing for the new TT RS coupe (we do not get the convertible) has not been released at the time we had to go to press but will be priced in Europe starting at €66,400. Looking at the previous model, I am going to hazard a guess at an American base price of around $60k when the car become available sometime early 2017.
Outside the R8, the new TT RS by far the most enjoyable Audi I have yet to drive, and I am going to say that it will certainly be a direct competitor to stuff like the BMW M2, the Porsche Cayman S and the Mustang GT350.
Having tested them all, I think that the TT RS definitely has a shot at going head to head with any of them and maybe taking a few scalps in the process. The Porsche and Bimmer are much better balanced cars and feel sharper on track. The Ford feels—and is—heavier, but it has the best motor (including power and noise) of the bunch. The TT RS fits squarely in the middle of the pack. It’s not quite as balanced as the other German competitors but it also doesn’t have as much horsepower as the Mustang.
Where the TT RS excels is that, with Audi’s proven quattro system, all of its performance will be far more accessible to the average driver—especially as the car approaches the limit. On track, the average Joe will be quicker in the TT RS than in its rivals, and he will do so with less effort. To me, that is what makes a great performance car.
But is it really as great as my current benchmark, the M2? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.
Robb Holland races in the British Touring Car Championship for Rotek Racing. He’s a Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year and is also the tallest man in Germany.
This story has been updated to correct some information about the TT RS’ suspension options: it has magnetic ride standard and an optional fixed steel spring suspension on the Dynamic Plus Package.