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First Drive: 2018 Audi TT RS Coupe

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The first drive of the new 2018 Audi TT RS began at Spain’s Jarama circuit, an old Formula 1/MotoGP track. I raced in Spain some years ago, but never at Jarama, so I enjoyed learning it. The circuit flows nicely, with decreasing-radius turns and several 90-plus mph kinks per lap; the layout is 2.3 miles of undulating busyness. I cannot imagine racing F1 there, as passing must have been impossible—oh wait, I think we still have that problem in F1…

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Regardless, my first impression upon seeing the new TT RS in the flesh was positive. It looks sporty and has a solid, businesslike stance. The new front-end design is sharp, with large air intakes, a honeycombed front grille, and a Quattro logo on the splitter. There are new, aerodynamically shaped side sills, and aluminum-colored accents on the mirrors and the front splitter are a nice touch. The rear wing blends in well and doesn’t scream “Race me!” to every wannabe on the road. Compared to lesser TTs, the larger oval tailpipes come in chrome or black, depending on exhaust options.

The TT RS’s taillights use all-new organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, so they don’t cast shadows and don’t require reflectors. When lit they can show variable patterns determined by the shape of their inlays and how they are programmed or activated. They look different and are visually impressive.

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The main story, though, is that the RS features an all-new turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, and Audi managed to shave off 54 pounds compared to the previous unit while increasing power output. The old TT RS made 360 horsepower, while the new five-cylinder makes 400 hp from 5,850-7,000 rpm and 354 lb-ft of torque from 1,700-5,850 rpm. Combined fuel mileage is estimated to come in at an improved 27.8 mpg. Overall the RS weighs 3,175 pounds, 131 pounds lighter than the old model.

The cars designated for track duty in Spain were optioned with the Dynamic Package, which includes the sport exhaust, non-adjustable performance shocks, and 14.6-inch ceramic front brakes and 12.2-inch steel rears. Cars for the U.S.—don’t expect to see the TT RS on sale here until next spring—will all come with 20-by-9-inch wheels sporting 255/30 Pirelli P Zero tires front and rear. The track-drive cars sported optional, stickier Pirelli Corsa tires.

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I initially had to follow a track instructor in another RS for two sighting laps. He was not hanging about and I’d say his speed was equivalent to a very spirited drive on your favorite country road. The RS showed no understeer and followed my steering-wheel input well. Despite the pace I had no ABS, traction/stability-control intervention or any appreciable tire slip. The RS dash told me we were already at 1.1 g laterally, both left and right, and I later saw a maximum of more than 1.5 g laterally.

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This was a good sign, as street cars are setup usually to understeer. This makes them easier to control and thereby safer, but managing heavy understeer on a racetrack is about as much fun as watching paint dry. The RS of course has Audi’s Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system, but front-engine, AWD cars usually understeer more than most. It was early, but considering how quick I was going, encountering no understeer was a solid start.

After they let me loose, I turned on the sport exhaust; it was solid without, Audi said, being enhanced artificially as is becoming common. I really like the tune, as low revs sound like a low growl becoming more urgent and loud as the revs rise. I let the RS shift itself in Sport mode and it did so flawlessly, both upshifting and downshifting, and as always you can use the steering-wheel shift paddles if you prefer.

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The RS’s turbo blows out a heady 19 pounds of boost at full steam. To me, it doesn’t have turbo lag in the traditional sense, because you do feel acceleration as soon as you hit the gas. Boost pressure takes about a second to peak, and when full boost hits, the RS accelerates like it got rear ended by something quite large. The powerband is intoxicating rather than frustrating.

As I built up to maximum track speed, the RS was flying and I was genuinely enjoying the drive. The limits of traction were transferring to me as slight understeer. However, grip stayed consistent, allowing me to keep up my lap speed; things never generated into some terminal (extended) understeer scenario.

I decided to use a different cornering technique to see if I could make the RS lap quicker. As an example, picture a second-gear, 120-degree corner (though it is possible to use this technique on all corners to varying degrees).

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I enter the brake zone with enough brake pressure to feel minimal ABS interaction. In the later part of my brake zone I start to modulate off of that full pressure. Before I am off the brake pedal completely, I begin my corner turn-in. The RS responded well, slowly rotating with a slight rear slide. I control the frequency of vehicle rotation with my steering wheel turn-rate.

The split second I was completely off the brakes and the car was almost finished rotating, I mashed the gas. Why mashed? Because the turbo takes time to reach full boost and I felt the AWD could more than handle it. But, as the boost started to peak, I got enough wheel slip to wake up the electronic stability control. (I knew it was the ESC and not the traction control because the TC was off already.) I attempted to turn off the ESC, but couldn’t. The ESC was only holding me back a little, but it cost time. However, the test was a success in the sense that the RS allowed me to use rotation on corner entry, which will produce quicker lap times.

After my 3 laps, I asked an Audi engineer about my issue. He confirmed the “ESC off” setting was disabled for the event—in all the cars. I told him I totally understood, thanking him for his time and his reprogramming. I might have wandered off muttering to myself …

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The hot-lap format required everyone to run through the pit lane each lap, as the pit straight was being used for launch-control demonstrations. But even with that break from the action, I experienced slight brake fade on my last lap, but a little extra foot pressure covered it and I made my normal turn-in. Front tire pressures went from 32 psi to 40 psi, so the rubber was obviously heating up but I felt no grip degradation. High-speed stability is very good. Jarama’s fastest right-hand kink (more than 100 mph) is over a slight vertical top (positive vertical g-load), and is followed immediately by a quick left-hand flick under heavy braking, while then turning back to the right. This proved no problem for the RS to cope with.

Outside of the track, my first road trip was a 50-mile route including highway, city, and two-lane roads. There are two colors unique to RS, Catalunya Red and Nardo Grey. Our Catalunya Red RS had the Dynamic Performance package and the standard Pirelli P Zero tires fitted. I immediately attempted to turn off the ESC, with the same result as before. I was beginning to have ugly feelings toward an engineer I hardly knew.

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The TT RS has fewer knobs and switches than most cars these days, with a central round controller for the infotainment system. The entire setup is easy to understand and operate. The RS comes with the Audi virtual cockpit found in the R8 and it does look good. The 12.7-inch display is viewed easily through the steering wheel. The navigation was excellent, voice commands being clear enough through the Bang and Olufsen sound system that I rarely had to look down. The Audi’s Sport Performance phone app allows you to move everything you or a passenger need to use/see, directly from your phone to the screen, and the RS also has Wi-Fi capability.

There are four drive modes, accessible through a dedicated button on the steering wheel. I liked the Individual mode as it allowed me to request comfort (lighter) steering, which I prefer to the heavier steering normally found in sportier settings. The ride of the Dynamic-optioned RS was sports-car firm, as expected. However, initial shock compression felt a little too jarring over road imperfections/expansion joints, low-profile tires.

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Still, the RS was a total joy to drive on the frequently deserted roads. Steering was precise and the chassis allowed numerous line corrections at speed, with no drama. The RS feels fast and it is fast. I never tired of hearing the sport exhaust’s growl, and the seats are very good with excellent support and comfort on both the racetrack and public roads.

For the next drive I took the same 50-mile route in a magnetic-shock optioned RS with steel brakes and no sport exhaust. I wasn’t even out of the paddock, but it was obvious I was going to prefer the damping in this car. The initial compression jarring was gone. Oh, and I again tried to turn off the ESC. And … amazingly, it turned off. I did leave all the safety nannies on for the majority of my street driving, but it’s satisfying to have the option to deactivate them.

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I felt the magnetic-shock RS handled equally as well as the Dynamic suspension version, and I preferred the smoother ride, keeping the shock settings in comfort most of the time. The standard exhaust note is still a nice growl, it just doesn’t sound as racy. I would definitely want the sport exhaust option.

Driving along, there were plenty of deserted places to try the corner-rotation technique with TC and ESC off, just to see how the car responds in those situations. The RS was eager to play. With corner-entry rotation almost complete (and the car still facing the right way for exit), I mashed the gas. Boost pressure built, full boost hit, the engine screamed, the exhaust howled, and the RS rocketed out the corner, all four tires ripping at the pavement. The ability of the AWD RS to corner like this is not only impressive and quick, but about as subtle as a steam hammer at a flower festival; please sir, can I have another go.

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To finish the day off, I was excited to try the launch control. Here’s the simple launch procedure: make sure the car is in Sport mode, put your left foot on the brake, then bury the gas pedal. The revs rise automatically and hold around 3,700 rpm. Pull your foot quickly off the brake pedal when ready to rock. Bang! The RS leaps off the line. It felt very Porsche 911 Turbo-like to me. One of the other journos recorded a 0 to 60 time of 3.5 seconds, and there were rumors Audi engineers have seen a time of 3.3secs. I don’t doubt it, as the RS pulled more than 1.1 g longitudinally on my launch according to the Audi in-car recorder. That is quite impressive.

The dinner conversation that night was very interesting. Plenty of people could name a bunch of cars in the $60,000 to $80,000 range that might compare to the RS: Porsche Cayman, Mustang GT350, BMW M2, Corvette Z51, etc. But what came up again and again, causing severe head scratching, was the 0-to-60 time. Three-and-a-half seconds or less is not common at this price point, and it could well be an outlier. If you can actually measure a car’s potential by the head scratching of automotive journalists, Audi may well have a winner in the new TT RS.

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2018 Audi TT RS Specifications

Price: $68,000 (base)(est)
Engine: 2.5-liter turbo DOHC 20-valve inline-five/400 hp @ 5,850-7,000 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 1,700-5,850 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 165.0 x 72.1 x 52.9 in
Wheelbase: 98.6 in
Weight: 3,175 lb
0-60 MPH: 3.5 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph (175 mph with optional package)