It’s become easy to take the Audi TT for granted. But 20 years ago—and nearly 25 if you trace back to its embryonic days at a California design studio—the 1998 TT penned by Freeman Thomas became an international sensation, hailed as a new and special silhouette in the world of sports cars. I still remember how my good friend Charlie raced out to buy that original, manual-only TT, becoming the first in our circle of Detroit car nuts to splurge on a brand-new sports car. The rest of us were blown away by the fact that Chuck had just spent more than $30,000 on a car, a sum we could barely get our college-age brains around.
20 years hence, the 2018 Audi TT RS, at a base price of $65,875—or $80,200 as tested—underlines not just the inflation of sports car prices, but of performance and expectations. This Audi delivers a sickeningly fast reminder that a TT can be more than an art-college lesson in sophisticated design. That reminder comes via a turbocharged five-cylinder engine with a howling-mad 400 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. With its aluminum block, hollow crankshaft, and cast magnesium oil pan frame, the engine shaves 57 pounds compared to Audi’s previous five-cylinder.
Pressing the Audi’s steering-wheel Start button awakens this unique engine with a malevolent bark. How fast is this Quattro-equipped cute-brute? Dial up Launch Control via the excellent seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox—here in 2018, no manual is even available—and the Audi’s thrust feels almost psychotically unreal. 60 mph arrives in 3.4 seconds, and a quarter-mile in about 11.9. Both numbers are within tailpipe-sniffing distance of some supercars. By either measure, the Audi is a touch faster than a PDK-equipped Porsche 718 Cayman S, with its 350 horses from a 2.5-liter turbo four, or a 460-hp Chevy Corvette Grand Sport, whose 6.2-liter V-8 has nearly 2.5 times the Audi’s displacement. For this holiday, I’ll offer thanks for the unique sound of this engine: The melodious roar—aided by the five-cylinder’s unusual 1-2-4-5-3 firing order—recalls a symphony bassoon section in duet with a jet turbine. Add the $1,000 Sport Exhaust system, and pressing a console button opens exhaust flaps to further goose the sound—an effect also elicited by switching the car’s Drive Select system into Dynamic mode.
The Audi’s sensational engine and exhaust note, it must be said, is among its biggest selling points over the Cayman or 718 Boxster, whose four-bangers perform beautifully but emit an unpleasant, tuneless sound that suggests a Porsche in gastro-intestinal distress. Another Audi edge versus the two-seat, mid-engine Porsches is the hatchback practicality that comes with the TT’s design, including rear jump seats that can fold down to create a truly generous hatch. As with other two-plus-two cars, critics who focus on the TT’s scrawny rear-seat dimensions miss the point: Those seats are barely meant for people, but they will hold two huge rollerbags, or backpacks, or purses, or groceries—upright, and still leave you with the rear hatch space.
The TT RS’s fuel economy provides its own dose of common sense, at an EPA rated 19 city / 29 highway miles per gallon: Even when I thrashed the Audi like mad, I saw no worse than 17 mpg, and I topped 30 mpg in highway cruising—on par with the Cayman S, and outstanding for a 400-hp sports car.
Up front, the upgraded RS is notable for its low-slung “Singleframe” grille and chimney-sized air inlets. Optional 20-inch, seven-spoke forged alloy wheels wrap around a sturdy brake package—including eight-piston monobloc calipers up front—though some auto-mag testers have found that the Porsche and Corvette still stop shorter. Out back, there’s a fixed wing, big oval exhaust outlets and, as part of a $6,000 Dynamic Plus package (more on that later), trick OLED 3D taillamps.
My TT RS benefited from the lovely paint—also available on the RS3 sedan—that Audi calls Catalunya Red Metallic, but whose variable orange-red tint reminded me of Campbell’s tomato soup. My girlfriend, noting the Audi’s luxury rank, upgraded that to “Tomato Bisque.” Either way, the striking shade drew non-stop compliments from people in New York. It also did wonders to play up the TT’s near-classic design, in a way that Audi’s more-conservative shades—especially “Boring Subdivision Silver”— can’t match.
The interior delivers the luxury goods at levels that nearly match the Audi R8’s supercar standards: Lovely diamond-patterned, red-stitched Nappa leather, aluminum inlays (or my tester’s optional carbon fiber), and the 3D Audi Virtual Cockpit that remains an industry benchmark. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is actually straight from the R8, but clad here in a mix of Alcantara and leather wraps. As in the R8, this version of Virtual Cockpit eschews a center screen in favor of a 12.3-inch digital driver’s display, powered by an Nvidia quad core processor. Its steering-wheel and rotary console controls can seem tricky at first, but the learning curve is brief, and the operations highly efficient. And eliminating a center display creates an uncluttered dashboard that heightens the driver-centric vibe, and Audi’s tasteful choices in materials and switchgear. There are few cars on the road, at any price, that serve up a view as cool as Audi’s Google Earth maps, spread wall-to-wall on the reconfigurable driver’s display and overlaid with a discreet speedo and tach in the lower corners.
Speaking of views, the Audi’s outward visibility is especially good, aided by plenty of glass, slim roof pillars, and a relatively high, upright driving position—closer to a VW GTI than your typical sports car. My only real interior quibble concerns the plastic steering-wheel wafers that stand in for proper metal paddle switches, which seem out-of-whack with Audi’s rich design philosophy.
There’s little out-of-whack with the performance, with Audi finally giving the TT RS the suspension and steering to match that overachieving five-cylinder. My tester featured a firmer, fixed-mechanical suspension in place of standard magnetic-ride dampers, part of the aforementioned Dynamic Plus group that brings ceramic front brakes, a carbon-fiber engine cover, a directly-measured tire-pressure monitor, and the OLED taillamps, while also goosing the limited top speed to 174 mph, up from 155 mph. I’ve heard complaints that the stiffer fixed suspension is poorly matched to urban moonscapes, but that wasn’t my experience; I’ve driven plenty of cars and SUVs, including some Mercedes-AMGs, with more punishing rides than this Audi.
The understeer that plagued earlier, lesser TTs is largely banished, with the latest Quattro unit able to direct up to 100 percent of torque to the rear wheels. I should note that, after one 30-minute backroad workout, the TT RS’s ceramic brakes were emitting some annoying moans and squeaks, though the sound eventually went away. Yes, the Cayman has more purity to its steering, the balletic grace that’s Porsche’s stock-in-trade. But I’m beyond tired of reviews that, in noting the Porsche’s admittedly unmatched handling, seem to suggest that no other sports car is worth your time or consideration. That’s nonsense. And writers who can’t stop extolling the Porsche’s advantages invariably fail to mention the Audi’s: To wit, the Quattro all-wheel-drive that makes any TT a foul-weather, four-season Sasquatch. The TT RS showed me as much in exurban New York a few days ago, where snow was already piled on the shoulders and pavement was perilously cold and damp in spots. The TT RS thumbed its pretty nose at the elements, then proceeded to stick that nose into corners at speeds that would have flummoxed several rear-drive competitors or given their drivers second thoughts about attacking. In wintry climes, when many rear-drive sports cars retire from the game entirely and retreat to garages, a TT RS—especially with a set of winter tires—will be raring to come out and play in rally-bred Audi style.
If the Audi’s $80,200 price has your brain reeling, remember that my tester was stuffed with extras. That Dynamic Plus package seems especially easy to skip, unless you really need your TT RS to hit 174 mph or are determined to flaunt a carbon-fiber engine cover at every Cars and Coffee. Drop that $6,000 package and some fancy trim bits—while keeping key stuff like the Technology Package ($3,500) and the Sport Exhaust ($1,000)—and a TT RS can be had for 70 grand. For this level of design, luxury, and performance, that’s not out of line.
The Audi’s $65,875 base price also undercuts the $73,560 718 Cayman S automatic by nearly $7,700. Stick-shift fans who’ll happily skip the Porsche’s $3,210 PDK transmission will still pay $4,500 more to start than the automatic-only TT RS. I might mention that the last Cayman S I tested cost $93,000 once the options were tallied, or $13,000 more than this nearly-loaded TT RS. If bottom-line lap times or financial value are the criteria, the Corvette Grand Sport coupe remains hard to beat: It starts from $66,590, about $700 more than the Audi. But the ‘Vette is a different Motown animal, and I don’t see a lot of cross-cultural-shopping between the two.
But 20 years from the TT’s memorable introduction, and in a world where every sports car is struggling for SUV-obsessed buyers, I’m cheered to see Audi working hard to keep the TT alive and competitive, instead of letting it languish. (With the next-gen TT reportedly switching to a four-door coupe layout, even Audi’s patience may be wearing thin). If you’re still not convinced, wait ’til you hear that awesome five-cylinder at full cry and watch this TT RS entering hyperspace.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected]
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