As I charged down the ribbons of tarmac that hug the Spanish countryside, I couldn’t help but think of Don Quixote, the delusional knight of La Mancha who famously attacked a row of windmills, thinking them giants that he must vanquish.
Unlike our unfortunate knight, Audi has some very real giants in its sights at which it has aimed the new 2018 Audi TT RS.
After a hiatus of several years, Audi will launch the second-generation TT RS next summer, likely as a 2018 model, for somewhere around the $60,000 mark. At that price, it has its sights set squarely on such notable sports cars as the Porsche 718 Cayman and BMW M2. Heck, you can even get a Corvette Stingray for that kind of money. Giants, indeed.
To even be considered in that company, Audi pulled out all the stops to create something competitive but distinct in the segment, borrowing on its tradition and innovating upon it to deliver a unique package that can attract not only Audi loyalists, but also those looking for everyday appeal and excitement in their sports car. While Europeans will have both a roadster and coupe to choose from, North Americans will have to make do with the hardtop alone.
While Audi could have turned the boost up on the 2.0T four-cylinder that’s in the TT, TTS and just about every other Audi and VW, the Audi Sport division felt that the previous TT RS’s five-cylinder could deliver a more distinctive and authoritative character for the brand. Basically, it sounds completely mental, with a lumpy, offbeat rhythm that gurgles, spits, burps and howls, cackling like a baritone asthmatic on laughing gas.
Although this 2.5-liter five-cylinder has the same displacement and core design as the one in the previous TT RS, it is completely new, starting from an aluminum block that replaces the iron block (saving 40 pounds just in the block), and using magnesium, molybdenum and other lightweight metals and construction to save a total of 57 pounds (26 kg) in the engine. Curb weight is a total of 3,175 pounds (1,440 kg), 77 lb (35 kg) lighter than its predecessor.
Reducing weight is only part of the equation, and Audi also revised the cylinder heads, added variable-valve timing on the exhaust, doubled down with port injection in addition to the direct injection and turned the boost up to 19.6 psi. One thing that looks to the past is the firing order of the cylinders, the same 1-2-4-5-3 progression as the original Ur-Quattro, part of what gives it that distinct and slightly offbeat sound. Also, deserving credit for the magnificent sound are some flaps in the exhaust that open at higher rpm, or can be kept open at all times via a button on the console.
All these tricks combine to deliver 400 horsepower at 5,850 rpm, and an unnaturally flat torque line of 354 pound-feet from 1,700 to 5,850 rpm. Despite the broad torque band, the engine pulls strongest above 5,000 rpm up to the 7,000 rpm redline, and there’s a hesitation off the line as the engine and transmission, Audi’s seven-speed S tronic dual clutch, figure out how to not blow up the AWD system when launching the TTRS to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 3.7 seconds.
The weight savings are particularly crucial, as the TT RS’s engine hangs way out over the nose, and while mildly improved, the 59:41 weight distribution isn’t what you look for in a sports car, so Audi Sport must turn to power delivery to help maintain balance, and for that, it has the AWD system that is synonymous with its sporting division.
Quattro all-wheel drive has been a hallmark on Audi’s sporting cars since the famed Quattro Group B Rally car dominated the WRC in 1984, lending its aura of invincibility to the Quattro and Quattro Sport road cars of the ’80s, which were also powered by turbocharged five-cylinders. However, with double the horsepower, Audi’s AWD system has to be more robust and more sophisticated to keep from overwhelming the differentials and the tires’ grip.
Perhaps something a little less hardcore? Audi TTS
Torque distribution is handled by an electrohydraulic multi-plate clutch now mounted on the rear axle to help improve weight distribution, with a brake-based torque vectoring system that helps balance power outputs between the inside and outside wheels when powering out of corners. Under normal circumstances, with the car in its basic Comfort setting, 80 percent of power is directed to the front wheels, with sensors monitoring the wheels, driver inputs and car’s position, ready to route more power to the rear wheels, such as when turning into a curve or taking off. In the car’s Dynamic mode, power is split evenly between the axles, but can also shift up to 80 percent of the torque to the rear wheels in aggressive cornering and acceleration.
Audi provided three hot laps at Circuito del Jarama outside of Madrid so that we could push the TT RS to its limits and beyond. Helping to dial the car into a track attitude, Audi’s Drive Select offers different modes for steering, suspension, throttle, transmission and even the AWD system. Comfort for efficient cruising and a more mild ride, Auto to let the car’s brains figure out when to firm and speed things up, and Dynamic to keep everything at maximum performance. There is also an Individual setting, which allows you to mix and match different settings for each available system.
As mentioned, the TT RS gets up to speed with a furious growl and a surge of g-force pressing you into your seat, but it’s not long before you have to navigate the former F1 circuit’s corners, from wide sweepers with late turn-in to tight hairpins and a few dips and climbs to really get a sense of the suspension loading and unloading. As with any track session, tires will ultimately be the limiting factor, so Audi bumped up the rubber compound from the stock Pirelli P Zero to P Zero Corsa on the track cars. That extra grip allowed us to feel even more acutely the way the car shifts power to the rear axle when beginning to understeer, and working in concert with the inside wheel braking to slingshot the TT RS out of corners when pinning the throttle out of turns and up the climbing sections.
The big dog of the Audi Sport family: 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus
The brakes are seriously hefty for a car this size, 14.6-inch (370-mm) perforated, ventilated rotors with eight-piston calipers in front with single-piston and 12.2-inch (310-mm) monobloc rotors at the back. Out on Spain’s smooth roads and in traffic, there is good feel and braking force builds progressively, and even after climbing and descending long, winding hilly roads, they were sure and strong with no signs of fade. Out on the track, in more severe use, they continued to shine, exceeding the tires’ ability scrub momentum, at times eliciting ABS intervention, but also entertainingly unloading the rear tires for a bit of wiggle at the back before settling into a more balanced set for diving into a corner. Even when squirming at the back end, the TT RS felt under complete control, and if anything, this littlest RS is too tightly under control, never showing any inclination to hang its back end out when giving it an extra dose of throttle coming out of corners.
The adaptive steering gets quicker as you progress into your turn, and the car tracks well into corners, making easy work of tucking the car right into the apex and slowly leading the car out of the turn as you get back on the gas or quickly turn back the other way in any esses. However, there were times when the transmission could have dropped one more gear to keep the engine in its peak power band, but switching to manual mode means you can anticipate the necessary gear changes on a familiar track.
While the suspension firms up in Dynamic mode and takes the edge off in Comfort mode, there really isn’t that wide a spread between the two. Although the dampers do a fine job of neutralizing most small bumps, the short wheelbase and sporty setup means that rough roads and large dips will result in some significant body motions, though it quickly settles once you’re through it. Admittedly, Spain’s smooth, pristine roads don’t give us much of an indication of what the suspension would be like on many of our poorly maintained North American roads. At its firmest, the TT RS is superbly matched to fast driving on country roads, but perhaps not quite as firm a setup as we’d like for the track, where we pine for the good old days of rock-hard S2000suspension.
Two Hands on the Wheel
Audi launched its Virtual Cockpit on this third-generation TT, and in the RS it continues to show itself an intuitive, logical interface and display, with the 12.3-inch screen nested in the gauge cluster. That display can be set up as two large or small gauges with information spread between them, or with a large, central tach pushing the information to the periphery. One upgrade Audi introduces with the TT RS is a shift indicator, in which the tach lights up in green, orange and red segments as the revs climb, then flashes red as you approach redline, which you should be able to catch in your peripheral vision without taking your eyes off the track.
You also won’t want to take your hands off the steering wheel, not only because you can control the entire infotainment system using the scroll wheels and buttons on the left spoke, but because the shape and feel of the alcantara-wrapped wheel is just perfect. Likewise, the TT RS interior is typically high-quality Audi fare, soft to the touch and well designed for intuitive operation. The TT RS we drove even had splashes of color to liven up the black backdrop, with red rings in the circular vents, red trim on the center console and door handles, and red stitching on the diamond-quilted leather seats.
The seats were also a perfect fit, and some models featured adjustable torso bolsters so that once you settle in, you can lock yourself into place for spirited driving. Thanks to the variable dampers and driving modes and comfortable seats, the TT RS would serve adequately as a daily driver. While listed as a 2+2, the rear seats would not have room for legs behind an adult my size (5’11”), so they’re really only useful for children or munchkins.
The Verdict: 2018 Audi TT RS Review
Audi knows that there are legitimate and very real giants in this sports car segment, so it is taking a different angle rather than charging at them directly. While Audi’s previous renditions of the TT could fairly be described as luxury coupes and roadsters, they were hardly sports cars. The core strength of the MQB platform and Audi’s devotion to the five-cylinder turbo and all-wheel drive mastery result in a legitimate sports car with a bundle of character.
Although lacking the purist’s choice manual-transmission, rear-wheel-drive setup that its chief competitors offer and which we prefer for the track, the monster power and furious, frightening engine noises capture a different kind of engagement through speed and sound and make the TT RS a car that can create excitement every day of the year.