2017 Audi TT RS Coupe review

Rating: 8.0
$145,000 Mrlp
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The new Audi TT RS coupe brings supercar-like performance, but is there enough all-round goodness to make it king of the road and track?
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Audi’s style-driven, tech-fancying TT sportscar has struggled a little over three generations to be accepted as a bona-fide high-performer. That's despite the first properly hot RS version, arriving in TT's second generation, giving the go-very-fast concept a good shake. Its ultimate RS Plus iteration, on sheer pace at least, a near-supercar peer if not quite the supercar slayer. So arriving in third-generation TT form is the second-generation TT RS on the coattails of the TT S and…

See the problem here? Audi's little sportscar has tended to creep up on its big-hitting aspirations gradually and somewhat semantically. So it's little wonder that the new 2017 Audi TT RS doesn’t hit the ground with the kind of gravitas and fanfare it perhaps otherwise deserves.

Let’s try this on, then: at 3.7 seconds, the TT RS will slaughter pretty much any Porsche under a quarter-million bucks from a standstill to 100km/h. Yes, 911s. It’ll cream M3s, M4s and C63 Ss and the like, and there’s not much around for its $145k ask that can stick with it on the march. High. Bloody. Performance. Indeed.

Its looks don't up-sell its pace. Yes, it's more aggressive in the design nip and tuck, those optional 20-inch wheels looks special, it sits a little lower (by 10mm) in stance and there's a fixed rear wing. It's got character, but the styling doesn't quite send the message "I eat Carreras for lunch". At least, not in the way an RS6 Avant states that it'll wipe the floor against any wagon that challenges it...

And yet eye-wateringly quick it is. Further, with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and quattro all-wheel drive, reproducing that 3.7sec party trick is a doddle, particularly given the launch control system doesn’t require multi-step tomfoolery to become active, as is often the case with properly swift machinery. You simply tap the transmission controller backward to engage the Sport powertrain mode, plant both feet on both pedals and, once the 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder zips up to 4000rpm, you simply step off the brake and hang on.

It's not Nissan GT-R-like violent out of the blocks either. Self-shifting, it sort of slingshots off the mark while the thrust sort of arcs up over the first two gear changes – truth be told, it barely feels quick as that 3.7sec glory figure suggests. In manual paddle-shifting mode, there’s added theatrics from the Virtual Pilot digital instrumentation, its bespoke 'RS mode' screen presenting a central tacho that flashes through green (up to 4800rpm), orange (5200rpm) and red (5850rpm, right on peak power), after which the whole roundel pulses red as an upshift indicator right through to the engine's 7000rpm cut-out. It looks cool and it's handy in the heat of the moment.

Now, 294kW, available in that red pulsing band, is potent enough energy in an overweight muscle car let alone a paltry 1440kg worth of three-door coupe, which is why the horizon arrives so quickly. The TT RS Roadster version – the very first in TT history – though, sits at 1530kg ‘kerb’ and that 90-kilo penalty adds two-tenths to the stopwatch (and an extra five grand premium if it joins the TT RS coupe at its Australia launch around June next year). Both cars run to an electronically limited 250km/h, though Aussie buyers who frequent faster local circuits – Phillip Island, say – might want to pay extra to optionally lifted this to 280km/h.

No such velocity was explored at the undulating ‘mid-speed’ Jarama circuit or twisty Spanish mountain passes nearby where Audi chose to launch the TT RS twins to the world's media. Sadly, the tight schedule only permitted a taster of the confirmed-for-Oz coupe – the jury is out on Roadster – though our test cars were fitted with carbon-ceramic brakes, 20-inch/255mm-wide rolling stock (19s and 245mm are Euro-standard), adaptive ‘sport suspension plus’ with magnetic ride trickery, and up-spec RS Sport seats with pneumatic bolsters, all of which are optional in most European markets. In fact, the cars we drove were burgeoning with options, right down to the funky Matrix OLED taillight technology making its series production debut on this car. For a full rundown on specs, read here.

Standard, though, is the all-new engine. No, it’s not the same ‘iron block’ unit fitted to the last-gen TT RS Plus or currently on sale RS3 hatchback with a turbo boost tickle. This new engine is all aluminium in construction.

If your eyes glaze usually over at mechanical trainspotting, skip to the next paragraph… If you’re still here, let’s knock off some key technical addenda. The cast aluminium block saves 18.1kg over the iron unit. The bedpan is new, the main bearings are smaller, and the hollow crankshaft is 1.4kg lighter than the old car’s solid part. Engineers have added valve lift on the exhaust side of the top end “for more torque and response”, it has dual (port and direct) fuel injection and a magnesium oil pump saves a further two kilos and the turbocharger is a revised, larger, freer-spooling component capable of 2.35bar of pressure. All up, there’s 26 fewer kilograms on the engine mounts and over the front wheels.

So there's 29kW and 15Nm extra on tap over the old TT RS Plus – double the outputs of the original 1980 quattro coupe with which Audi hangs much of its brand providence on. Still, 480Nm, arriving at 1700rpm and hanging on until peak power clocks on (5850rpm), is hardly what you’d call Herculean in today's torque hungry times. And times, it must be added, of high efficiency expectations. The TT RS can’t be allowed to drink like a publican, and an 8.2L/100km combined cycle claim – one we didn’t get a chance to test at launch – is very impressive for the manic performance it's capable of.

You’d almost expect, then, that compromise might creep into the equation somewhere…

First up, track. And from the instant you uncork the TT RS coupe, there’s no gripes about the soundtrack: the rich, bold and indicative growl to the straight-five-cylinder engine (with this particular firing order) that's characterful and more than a little intoxicating. No complaints there. However, that you have to pay extra for the two-mode bi-model ‘sport’ exhaust, in Europe at least, is a bit of a drub.

The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is handy rather than stunning. It’s a little less responsive and thuds harder on upshifts than, say, Porsche’s PDK design, and the yawning gap between second and third ratios demands short-shifting through Jarama’s tighter corners. When the TT RS drags itself out from an apex, that workmanlike 480Nm can feel a little under-baked. Oh, it's fast alright, though just not quite as explosive exiting corners as some other big-swinging Germans that can be had for similar money yet sport larger engines and higher torque counts.

It points assertively, steers with consummate clarity, sits incredibly flat and its easily placed on the track with millimetre perfect accuracy. Work with its strengths and the TT RS will cut scintillating lap times. However, like other TTs, like the RS3 hatchback, and like any properly quick all-paw Audi with transversely mounted engine, the TT RS reacts to being 'driven on the throttle' with benign numbness created by a rear end that refuses to dance about. You can't power the car out of curves with your right foot buried and your hands dabbing on opposite lock. It won't power oversteer (at least on a dry, sealed surface where the tyres are happily grippy).

The TT RS, like its various kin, always tends towards a neutral to understeer state. That's not a flaw or necessarily a poor dynamic trait and, further, if you wanted to tackle, say, Targa Tasmania in mixed conditions, it's a fast and friendly tune. But if you expect this RS treatment to impart an extra degree of liveliness and fun factor into the TT formula, prepare to be disappointed. Unless, that is, you start chucking around on dirt, gravel, ice or some other low-grip surface to really make the quattro system's torque shuffling trickery earn its keep.

What followed was a lengthy and frustrating (for both of us) chat with one of Audi's powertrain boffins as to why TT (and RS3) can't shuffle enough drive rearward to produce a more lively and thus satisfying driving experience. And after a good 10 minutes of dissecting torque versus drive split and delving into gear reduction I'm left with the concept that all the torque can be fed to the rear axle while some of its remains up front, somehow, and I'm frankly none the wiser...

A lack of chassis playfulness is less of a burden across a narrow mountain pass barely wide enough for space for oncoming traffic and where a planted and predictable chassis is your best ally. In Dynamic mode, the coupe's handling is keen and the throttle response is razor sharp, and you don't need much of the latter to dial up a cracking pace. There's ample grip in the mid-corners though, as with the track, the road surfaces are billiard table smooth so the jury is out to what outright road-holding might be like across crook Aussie bumps.

Ditto the ride quality. On the move, the TT RS is firm yet compliant, but dropping the speed across cobblestones through the occasional small Spanish village reveals a fairly terse suspension tune, even with the dampers set to Comfort. It certainly doesn't seem harsher riding than the brittle TT S though, and without one available with which to compare, I'll reserve my judgement until the local cars arrive in Oz mid next year.

Generally speaking, the TT RS seems pleasant enough in Comfort drive mode and amply visceral in Dynamic. However, the powertrain isn't particularly responsive to changes in driving behaviour when stuck in either mode or left to its own devices in Auto. At cruise, when its gunning for that 8.2L frugality for all its worth, both the engine and transmission can get caught daydreaming when called to march for an overtaking manoeuvre or exiting a side street. And Dynamic, where the car is primed for action, is simply too highly strung in throttle response or gearchange calibration to be left on as a default setting on the highway or at a cruise. That said, it wouldn't be the first Volkswagen/Audi product in need of middling sport-like drive mode halfway between the extremes of Comfort and Dynamic.

As on overall proposition, the TT RS offers a compelling blend of road and track performance. It just doesn't seem gobsmackingly talented at either. On balance, it delivers what's promised on the box by being the fittest and fastest TT good money can buy, and it bundles in the right stuff in good places: a special engine, plenty of go-fast character, bona-fide RennSport vibe.

But is it $45k better than the already rapid TT S? It's certainly nearly a second quicker to 100km/h but, know what? I'd wager that on a windy backroad, the S would be nearly as quick as its much pricier RS stablemate.

And while the TT RS's high-performance credentials are nigh on unquestionable, I'd wager that there are a number of other better drivers' sportscars out there for similar money, if not quite on the pace in the 0-100km/h stakes.