THE TT RS is a significant addition to the 2012 Audi line, and not just because this juiced-up little sports coupe is seductively quick and agile.
The car also marks the return, after a short hiatus, of the RS badge that signifies ultrahigh performance. It also signals Audi’s intention to finally get serious, after years of off-again, on-again production of RS models, about competing against the likes of BMW’s M performance line and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division.
Many automakers have special departments or subsidiaries that produce very powerful “halo” versions of their most sporty models. Audi’s equivalent unit, called quattro, has generally taken a more conservative route with its RS enhancements, eschewing the sportiest cars while hot-rodding relatively mundane sedans and station wagons.
Despite steep prices for these wolves in sheep’s clothing, Audi says the RS models always sell well. Audi says about 56,000 RS models have been sold worldwide since 1994.
But the TT RS is what quattro calls “our first thoroughbred sports car.” For now, it’s a model lineup of one, but a veritable stampede of RS thoroughbreds will be coming. The company has set a goal of a “100 percent increase in sales by 2015. New top models. New projects. New technologies.” While the A5 coupe and convertible might seem leading candidates for an RS makeover, Audi has declined to say which models will get the treatment.
An RS transformation principally takes place in the engine compartment, although the chassis, suspension, wheels, tires, brakes and aerodynamics also receive a tweak or two.
For the TT’s RS makeover, the 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder motor has been replaced by a racing-derived 2.5-liter in-line 5, also turbocharged. Horsepower output — just 211 in the base model, 265 in the S version — is increased mightily to 360. Peak torque, which is 258 pound-feet in the base model, jumps to 343. Zero to 60 m.p.h. acceleration times contract to 4.1 seconds, Audi says, from 5.3 seconds.
Despite the power surge, mileage is still respectable enough — 18 city, 25 highway — for the TT RS to serve as an everyday driver.
The TT RS is sold in Europe with a dual-clutch gearbox, and as a convertible, but the North American version comes only as a coupe with a 6-speed manual.
The all-wheel-drive setup includes the latest version of the Haldex multiplate-clutch torque-distributing system, which gives the TT RS the feel of a rear-drive car until there is need for more grip. The system is said to be proactive rather than reactive: it anticipates wheel slippage and reapportions torque to the wheels that need it most, even before traction is lost.
During a day of Audi-sponsored testing on a racetrack here, the TT RS resisted attempts to unsettle it. Even driven sloppily — a personal specialty — the all-wheel-drive system seemed to sense which wheel would need maximum torque to keep the car from losing traction. Getting the tail to step out at all was a challenge. At the ragged edge of control, there was only the slightest sign of understeer; it was more of a four-wheel drift.
The magnetic ride system uses ride-leveling magneto-rheological shocks to keep the car’s angle of attack dead flat, even when it is pitched violently — another specialty of the writer — into the sharpest turns. The system includes a Sport setting that enlivens throttle response in track-day competition and opens the exhaust for lower back-pressure, greater horsepower and more of a grumpy, growly sound.
From 60 m.p.h., huge 14.6-inch front brake discs help to yank the TT RS to a stop in a jolting 114 feet. There was little evidence of brake fade, and scant change in the feel of the pedal, even after the car was thrashed around on black asphalt for several hours in 104-degree heat.
The performance modifications add about 150 pounds over the base TT. But the unloaded weight of 3,306 pounds makes the TT RS feel substantial rather than sloppy.
Because the four-wheel independent suspension has been retuned, the car rides slightly lower than other TTs. Other visual differences include a rear diffuser, a blacked-out grille, alloy wheels and other small modifications. Inside, the most notable difference is a pair of really well-bolstered sport seats. The performance steering wheel has additional functionality, like a lap timer.
After the transcendent performance of the RS, returning to the merely mortal TT, or even the somewhat rowdier TT S, is a bit of a letdown. The throttle response of the TT S can seem almost indifferent to the driver’s prompting, compared with the eagerly responsive TT RS. The RS performance enhancements come with a $10,000 markup over the TT S (which at $47,875 is about $9,000 more than the base TT).
Mark Dahncke, an Audi spokesman, said the primary competitors were the highest-performing versions of the BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK and the Porsche Cayman R. Against those comparisons, the TT RS comes out as not only a more powerful choice, but also, at $57,725, a more cost-effective one. The BMW and Benz, however, offer a retractable hardtop.
But the TT RS is making itself scarce. Audi says only 1,000 are being produced each model year and only 200 of those — all coupes — are allotted to the United States. The initial allotment is spoken for, the company says, and perhaps that level of buyer interest will persuade the company to make the roadster more widely available.