That certain sound
The little red coupe leaps forward as I nail the gas, and a throbbing, guttural boom fills the cabin. Instantly, I’m transported back more than three decades, to a forest in far-off New Zealand, watching lights flickering through the trees as the same sound echoes through the still night, growing louder by the second. Suddenly, a car appears, traveling impossibly fast, sideways through the corner. A glimpse of yellow and white paint and the front brakes glowing orange in the gloom. A pop-bang-flash from the exhaust, a shrapnel burst of flying gravel, and it’s gone, that unique sonic signature reverberating in the darkness.
Watching 1983 World Rally Champion Hannu Mikkola horse the factory Audi Quattro over the fabulous gravel special stages of the 1984 Rally of New Zealand was one of those bucket-list moments. And the 2017 Audi TT RS brought it all back, in glorious, digitally remastered, 7.1 surround sound. The TT RS debuts the latest in a line of high-performance turbocharged five-cylinder engines that dates back to 1980 and the car that changed rallying forever, Audi’s all-wheel-drive Ur-Quattro coupe. The TT RS develops exactly twice the horsepower—394 hp, to be precise—but because of its 144-degree ignition intervals and 1-2-4-5-3 firing order, it produces the same deep, rhythmic exhaust note. Audi DNA runs deep in the new TT RS.
Engineers at quattro GmbH have transformed Audi’s good-looking but somewhat soulless TT coupe into a characterful driver’s car. Although the regular TT is numbingly one-dimensional to drive, generously rewarding corner-entry precision but offering little adjustability if you get it wrong, the TT RS feels lively, alert, and agile.
It starts with that 2.5-liter engine. That engine is architecturally similar to the engine that powered the old TT RS, but it’s new from crank to camshaft. The block is now aluminum, the crankshaft is lighter, the casting at the top of the oil pan is magnesium, and all that lightweighting means 57 fewer pounds (25.9 kg) sitting over the front axle. The engine features port and direct injection (to reduce particulate emissions), variable valve timing, and a larger turbocharger that bumps up to 1.35 bar of boost into the combustion chambers. The result is not only a 17 percent power increase compared with the previous TT RS engine but also a solid 354 lb-ft of torque from just 1,700 rpm all the way through to 5,850 rpm. Audi claims the 2017 TT RS coupe will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 3.7 seconds. Top speed is limited to 155 mph (249 km/h), though ordering the optional Dynamic Plus package, which includes carbon-ceramic front brakes, fixed-rate shocks, and carbon-fiber trim, removes the limiter, allowing the little Audi to run all the way to its true v-max of 174 mph (280 km/h).
The engine transmits power through an upgraded version of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which features a plate heat exchanger to regulate oil temperature and a new angle drive to the propeller shaft that’s 4.4 pounds (1.9 kg) lighter. The Quattro all-wheel-drive system’s electro-hydraulic multiplate clutch pack is positioned just in front of the rear axle to improve weight distribution, and it works with new software that enables it to continuously compute the optimal amount of torque to send to the rear wheels. It also allows rear-wheel brake torque vectoring, and when the Audi Drive Select system is switched to Dynamic mode, it pushes more torque to the rear axle more quickly to give the TT RS greater rear-drive-biased handling characteristics.
To tie all that together, there’s a quicker-ratio steering rack, and the ride height has been lowered 0.4 inch compared with the regular TT. U.S.-spec cars are equipped with 20-inch alloy wheels and 255/30 tires instead of the 19s and 245/35 tires that are standard elsewhere. The standard suspension tune features magnetic-ride shocks whose damping rate changes depending on which Audi Drive Select mode is chosen. The shocks on cars fitted with the optional Dynamic Plus package are fixed-rate.
Stephan Reil, the man responsible for RS cars at quattro GmbH, says the 20-inch wheel/tire combination and fixed-rate dampers is the hot setup, and on the track—and Germany’s ultra-smooth roads—he’s probably right. But after driving both setups back to back near Madrid, Spain, there’s no doubt the magnetic-ride shocks make the TT RS a lot more livable as a daily driver. Sure, there’s more secondary body motion in Comfort mode, but it’s hardly noteworthy, especially if you’re cruising on the freeway or loafing along a two-lane, and it’s a tradeoff worth making in return for a much quieter, less jiggly ride. In Dynamic mode the magnetic-ride shocks feel as taut as the fixed-rate units, keeping just as tight a rein on undesirable body motions but with the added benefit of feeling just a touch more compliant over small, sharp bumps.
Regardless of which shocks are fitted, the TT RS is, in utter contrast to the regular TT, grin-inducing fun when you dial up Dynamic mode, toggle the stability control to Sport, and point it at a wriggling back road. The steering is accurate and nicely weighted, and the Audi dives for the apex the moment you pull the rim off center for a corner. If you’ve come in too hot and the front end starts to push, a momentary lift instantly gets the car to rotate, kicking the tail out, and tucking the nose back on line. Get on the gas as soon as the corner opens up, and you’ll feel the rear wheels punching the little coupe hard out of the turn as the slick dual-clutch transmission mines the five-cylinder turbo’s rich seam of torque. All, of course, to the accompaniment of that charismatic engine note.
Audi is positioning the TT RS as an alternative to Porsche’s Cayman, and for once that’s not just hopeful marketing hype. Reil points out his TT is half a second quicker to 60 mph than a Cayman S, and although final North American pricing has yet to be set, with a projected base MSRP in the region of $60,000 USD, it’s going to be considerably less expensive, too. Throw BMW’s $52,695 USD M2 into the mix, and you have the makings of an intriguing dogfight for the compact supercar crown. Randy’s already on standby. …