The disappearance of cylinders from our automotive menu is reaching crisis point. Eights are becoming sixes, sixes are becoming fours, fours are becoming threes and some cylinders have even vanished totally and are being silently replaced by batteries. In the rare cases where cylinder count has been maintained, they have become miniature versions of their former glorious sucking, squeezing, banging and blowing selves with diminished volumetric capacity. It’s not a good time to be a cylinder…
All is not lost however. Audi has firmly stuck to its guns with this latest-generation TT RS in regards to both engine displacement and cylinder count. It’s a rare case in this otherwise current automotive climate of downsizing and cylinder amputation to sit back and appreciate, especially when the engine we are talking about is Audi’s iconic 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder unit. You have our respect Audi, high-five.
But you would be wrong if you think that Audi has just tickled and teased a bit more performance out of the old five-cylinder and dropped it into the new MQB platform that underpins this third generation TT. The release of the new TT RS marks 40 years of Audi’s five cylinders of fury and the engineering boffins at Ingolstadt have been busy creating an all-new engine to celebrate, which, on paper at least, looks like it packs a hefty performance punch.
Power output is now quoted at 395-horsepower — which is a phenomenal 60-horsepower more than the old TT RS — and it’s backed up with 480Nm of torque. It’s really the latter that clearly highlights the advantages of maintaining a five-cylinder unit in the TT RS, a six-cylinder would have an obvious weight (and packaging) disadvantage and a four-cylinder would seriously struggle to produce this level of torque from just 1,700rpm. It all sounds very promising but, um, how do I say this nicely without getting a vicious email from Audi’s (very lovely) PR department? Audi has a tendency to mount its fantastic engines in a less than perfect position.
Yes, even for someone as professional as I am (cough) it’s hard to approach the new TT RS without a certain amount of preconceived notions. When it comes to a front-engined Audi, front-engined tends to mean very front-engined — with most of the mass situated in front of the wheels — which, true to form, is the case with the TT RS. Audi may not have invented understeer, but it has been perfecting it through Vorsprung Durch Technik for years.
As a first taste teaser to the abilities of the TT RS we have been let loose on the cordoned off straight at the Circuit del Jarama just north of Madrid, Spain, subjecting it to repeated launch control abuse. Straight line acceleration from a standstill may not provide any useful data regarding handling characteristics but Mien Gott! This little Audi is rapid. Seriously rapid. The quoted 0-100 kph time of 3.7 seconds actually feels like an understatement.
What impresses even more is how it does this in a completely drama-free manner with only the faintest hint of tyre slip. If you are fond of the traffic light grand prix, please approach the new TT RS with caution. Plus, I am reliably informed that it can do this all day without any undue mechanical issues surfacing. All well and good and impressive and stuff but yeah, what about them corners I hear you ask…
The Circuito del Jarama may have lost its position as home to the Spanish Grand Prix back in 1981 — when Gilles Villeneuve led the race from start to finish because the track was too narrow for faster cars to overtake — but it still gets plenty of usage from Touring Car racing, bike racing and even truck racing, which has me scratching my head a bit. It’s my first time driving here but, even after my warm-up laps behind a pace car, I have come to two conclusions.
The first concerns the circuit itself, which is just fantastic. It’s quite a low grip surface with much more pronounced changes in elevation than I had perceived from years of watching televised motorsport from here. The second conclusion is that this new five-cylinder, wrung out with sports exhaust cranked open sounds glorious. It isn’t musical or even a totally pleasant affair but that distinctive 1-2-4-5-3 firing sequence just gets the nostalgic juices flowing. It’s that same soundtrack of Audi motorsport from my youth and makes me tingle with a private Mikkola moment.
When the pace car peels off and I have a few laps to myself, it’s no surprise that this little coupé is devastatingly quick. Weighing in lighter than its predecessor by 35kg, it’s still not a featherweight at 1,440kg by any means. But with all that power and torque on tap, deployed via quattro all-wheel drive shenanigans, it hides its mass well. And, surprisingly, it isn’t too shabby when you introduce it to a corner either.
It’s that same soundtrack of Audi motorsport from my youth and makes me tingle with a private Mikkola moment.
Audi has managed to dial out a substantial amount of understeer, which, let’s be honest, slightly tarnished the reputation of the previous-generation TT RS. It’s still very much a front-led car and you have to adapt your driving accordingly. Brake, turn and — only then — pull yourself out of the corner with furious anger and a heavy right foot is the order of the day, as despite more torque being sent to the rear wheels while in Dynamic mode, it’s not enough to provoke rotation with a prod of the throttle.
Keep it tidy and not too aggressive on entry and the TT RS is wickedly fast on track with cornering also helped by having less weight hanging out over the front wheels. This new five-cylinder engine weighs 26kg less than the old unit mainly due to an aluminium block — an 18kg saving — replacing the old cast iron number. Turn-in is also sharpened by brake-based torque vectoring for the inside wheels.
There are very few cars that could be hustled over these backroads like a well-driven TT RS.
The good news continues with the optional carbon ceramic discs fitted to our test car, which can be leaned on hard but aren’t too snatchy and, considering the front-biased nature of the TT RS, they would be a smart option to tick me thinks. Despite squealing a fair bit after prolonged abuse, they happily take their punishment without any notion of fade and also have the added advantage of further reducing weight. Stopping is good. Weight is bad. Please consult your wallet.
Out and about on the fantastic roads around Jarama, the TT RS still continues to impress. A quick blip along the motorway reveals autobahn speeds (which are not permitted in Spain) can easily be reached. Hypothetically. But it is up and down the serpentine roads around Campo de Maniobras de Uceda where this feisty little four-ringed wonder comes alive. Although, the handling characteristics on track are acutely amplified in the real world.
There are very few cars that could be hustled over these backroads like a well-driven TT RS. But this does come with a warning. You just can’t escape the fact that 59 per cent of the weight is over the front wheels on a front-biased chassis. Brake, turn and haul yourself out of the corner is the only option. With 255-section tyres all round, grip wins against any torque split or fancy vectoring in the dry. And, with a seven-speed, dual clutch Stronic transmission as the only option, you can’t do the three-pedalled fancy footwork — à la Walter Röhrl — to provoke oversteer. Although, to be fair, I probably couldn’t do that if my life depended on it.
But it would be totally wrong to consider the new TT RS as an understeering mutt. It isn’t. It’s supremely competent, agile and really enjoyable to drive. It is also ridiculously fast if you keep things neat and tidy — respect that it has an insane amount of power and always have it in the back of your mind that you should abide by the laws of physics. Combine these attributes with Ingolstadt’s renowned build quality, fantastic interior and sharp looks, and Audi is on to a winner. Except, I am not really sure which segment the TT RS now fits into.
It’s such a unique performance package proposition with no direct rivals that the only way to categorise the TT RS is on price, and it isn’t cheap. The regional price tag has not yet been revealed but pricing in Europe for the coupé starts at €66,400 (Dh273,000), which pits it directly against the likes of the Porsche Cayman S or a BMW M2. You could just as easily compare it to a Chevrolet Corvette although the Audi is faster than all three of these examples and also has quattro all-wheel drive if you fancy playing in the snow.
The TT RS is therefore an oddball Audi that is oddly stacks of fun and features an odd-numbered, five-cylinder engine. I am slightly confused. Well played Audi, well played.