Driven: 2012 Audi TTRS

By Seyth Miersma

October 25, 2011

—Litchfield Hills, Connecticut

360 horsepower with 343 pound-feet of torque. Quattro all-wheel drive. Six-speed manual gearbox as the only available transmission. Even when you figure for the TT-range-topping price of $56,850, the first portion of the spec sheet should be enough to tell you that the new TTRS is instantly the best TT that Audi sells. You might even sniff at the truth of the matter, which is that this may also be the best car that Audi sells, period. R8 who?

Actually, forget about the R8, this is a car that should throw a scare in every Porsche Cayman variant, low-end 911s, BMW M products, Chevrolet Corvettes of every flavor save for ZR1…you get the picture. We specifically use the word “should” there, though, because while this TTRS has got the goods to be competitive with most high-performance metal in the land, its predetermined scarcity will let the competition rest a bit easier—Audi will produce less than a thousand of the RS over the next two model years. The first batch is already spoken for, and sold out. Get on the phone with your Audi guy for a 2013 model right now.

Understand, this isn’t a car for driving or racing “purists” by any stretch of the imagination. The TTRS doesn’t quite dance across the surface of the road like some light, mid-engined thing; it’s not particularly fluid in its operation, nor will it go down in the automotive annals for its stirring on-boil engine note. Instead, in a fashion not dissimilar to its long-distant Quattro Sport forbearers, the TTRS is the maximizing of an existing vehicle, with the goal of brutal competence.

When we drove the new RS through the hilly back country of Connecticut, and on to Alan Wilzig’s private racetrack paradise in Columbia County, New York, the weather was chilly, rather wet, and altogether sub-optimal for driving a high-performance vehicle. Well, unless your high-performance vehicle boasts an advanced all-wheel-drive system, in which case such conditions are sort of the point. Because of the rain, then, one of the first positive notes that the TTRS struck was that of ferocious grip at high street speeds (“speeding” is another way to say it). As in every other TT we’ve driven, Quattro worked to keep us well and truly stuck to the road in cornering situations.

What’s more, the AWD setup allowed for every ounce of the RS’s huge power to be delivered viscerally. The punch from a full-throttle start was really impressive, even where we didn’t have sure grip, and only increased later in the day as the surfaces started to dry.

The 2.5-liter five-cylinder found under the brief front bonnet of the TTRS is a virtual master class in how to turbocharge an engine. Quite unlike the ultra-peaky power delivery of the TTS, the RS motor offers a thick torque band and easy speed everywhere. Drop the throttle while moving at legal speeds and you’ll quickly find yourself in the jailable-zone. There’s nothing particularly delicate about the blunt-force trauma of speed that the RS delivers up—we’re sure that fans of high-revving, naturally aspirated, prima donna engines will be unimpressed—but damn if it isn’t a good time.

It may be the turbo five that gets the lion’s share of the praise in this application, but we walked away from our test day with as much appreciation for the car’s six-speed manual transmission as any other single element in the car. The action of the shift lever splits the difference between a hyper-quick but lightweight unit, and a very mechanical, meaty affair. If a Roush Mustang shifter and an Acura TL shifter could get together and produce offspring (getting weird here, we know), the result might be very like this subtle and brilliant TTRS gearbox. Heritage established, suffice it to say that the gearbox and clutch pedal both offer slick movement with good heft, and we never felt close to missing a shift for lack of accuracy. This might be our new favorite six-speed.

The rest of the TTRS controls are pretty standard TT fare, which is to say “great.” The cabin may only boast subtle touches to give away the fact that you’re in a racier model, but seats, steering wheel, and the majority of touch points felt correct in fit, and of high quality. Despite the slinky roofline, there’s plenty of room in this configuration for tall folks, too.

On to the track. The aforementioned Alan Wilzig is an affable and highly knowledgeable racer, a passionate car and motorcycle collector, and a general man-for-all-seasons type. Wilzig combined a passion for racing and a background in construction (and, you know, a lot of money), in a backyard that should set any driving aficionado to out-and-out drooling. Wilzig’s one-mile, nine-turn racetrack drapes across seventy-feet elevation change, in a layout that reminds us of a pair of lungs. The highlight of the course is a massively banked turn that is, to date, the closest to a Daytona experience that your author has had (which is to say, freaking awesome).

On this very technical course, and in the wet, remember, the TTRS proved reliably fast, if not utterly flowing. Our very recent run with the Cayman R reinforced that this super TT isn’t an archetypical racing car—there’s too much weight in the nose, and too much AWD-based resistance to turning in quickly—but it’s still massively good. The RS proved surprisingly well balanced, and relatively resistant to understeer, as long as we didn’t ask unreasonable things of the tires. (Something that’s natural to do after getting used to all that grip.) After a lot of lapping, it became clear that the car was capable of turning in a very fast lap (especially with one of Audi’s test drivers behind the wheel), it just didn’t do it with the same grace and feedback you’d find in the competitive Porsche.

Overall, driver feedback is the one area in which the TTRS falls just a little bit shy of the best in this segment, and even then not by very much. Exhaust notes weren’t quite as sharp as we’d hope, steering feel a bit number than perfect, and feedback from the chassis just a touch too vague. This is nitpicking of a car that operates in the highest part of the fun-to-drive zone, though. We think, for instance, that the TT would have performed amazingly well if it had been around for our recent showdown with the Cayman R, BMW 1-Series M Coupe, and Nissan GT-R.

In the final analysis, our opinion of the TT RS is this: if you can make it happen, buy this car. That is to say, if you’re, a) lucky enough to pull the trigger on this limited run car, b) wealthy enough to afford a mid-$50K sports car, c) enthusiast enough to seek out something this rare and special, you’ll absolutely be rewarded by the experience on offer. It’s not perfect, but dollar-for-dollar, this may just be the best performance Audi you can buy today.

VS: Porsche Cayman S

On the road or the track, the effortless nature of the Porsche might very well trump the point-and-go proficiency of the TTRS, but the Cayman offers a real power-per-dollar problem here. A base Cayman is a few thousand less than the RS, but is wildly underpowered by comparison (265- versus 360-horsepower); the Cayman S fairs better in the horsepower war, but is still less potent, and is thousands more than the Audi. Considering that the TTRS is more rare, faster overall, has a brilliant manual gearbox, and costs less; we think the Cayman is just a shade less desirable overall.

VS: BMW 1-Series M Coupe

The turbocharged M-tuned Bimmer is a good sparring partner for the bulldog TT, with similar acceleration characteristics and car-guy credibility. (We’re being charitable there, most car guys we know care more for BMW’s M than they do for Audi’s RS, if we’re honest.) The 1M’s rear-wheel drive makes it more fun to chuck, but the RS has far superior grip, and a more pinned down suspension. The BMW’s relative value makes this a tough call (it’s nearly ten grand cheaper to start), but the Audi is a more capable road-to-track machine, for sure.

2012 Audi TT RS
Engine: Turbocharged inline-5, 2.5 liters, 20v
Output: 360 hp/343 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.1 sec
Top Speed: 174 mph
Base Price: $56,850
On Sale: Now