Pros: Styling, handling, all-wheel-drive grip

Cons: price, unavailability

You can tell a lot about a car's intent by what it doesn't have. In the case of the Audi TT RS, that is an automatic transmission. Want to drive a TT RS? Then you'll have to be proficient with a clutch and six-speed H-pattern manual transmission. By itself, this decision ensures that the TT RS is only for dedicated enthusiasts, leaving the rest of the superb TT family for regular drivers

The select few enthusiast drivers who pay the premium for the RS version of the TT won't be disappointed. Audi is so confident of the car that the company installed Brembo brakes, but in a triumph of substance over appearance, they didn't label the brakes for all to see.

Comfort & Utility

Sporty cars like the TT RS usually try to duck questions of comfort and utility, like a student who forgot to do his homework. But with a somewhat useable back seat, the practicality of a hatchback and the security of all wheel drive, the RS has surprising credentials in these areas.

It is hard not to feel snug inside the TT's cockpit, between the supportive nappa leather seats, the luxurious cabin appointments and the close quarters. The all-black design and high-tech equipment convey a machine-age atmosphere to the TT RS's interior.

Technology

With a performance car like the TT RS, the focus of the technology is rightfully on the hardware that makes the car fun to drive. Of course the quattro all wheel drive system is one example, but Audi also touts gearhead-friendly specifications, such as its turbocharging, direct fuel injection and various bits made of titanium.

The car's shock absorbers use a magnetic technology that lets the driver quickly adjust the TT RS' response between sporty and comfortable with the press of a button. Pressing the button changes the magnetic charge of particles in the shocks' hydraulic fluid in milliseconds. Even the muffler is adjustable, letting the driver match the car's sound to the circumstances.

Performance & Fuel Economy

With 360 horsepower routed through all four wheels, the TT RS gets the most of its power output, with 0-60 acceleration time of 4.1 seconds and a top speed of 174 mph. You might have a little difficulty using the car's top speed on your grocery run, but you will be able to merge onto the highway with confidence that an oncoming truck won't run you down.

The EPA rates the TT RS at 18 mpg in the city, 25 on the highway and 20 mpg in combined driving. Those numbers won't win any green car awards for efficiency, but neither will they break the bank. For a car with the performance capability of the TT RS, a 20 mpg average is pretty solid.

Safety

The quattro all wheel drive system is the centerpiece of the TT's active safety design. If you maintain traction it is a lot easier to avoid crashes than if the car slides around on slippery surfaces, and Audi's quattro system has the on-road credentials for grip that Jeep and Land Rover enjoy off road.

Beyond that, there is plenty of the usual gadgetry, with electronic stability control and antilock brakes contributing to crash avoidance, and front- and side-airbags and an active whiplash head restraint system to help in the event of an impact.

Driving Impressions

Though the TT RS is not an R8, as an RS model, it is an impressive performer. The 360-hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo motor taps into Audi's quattro legacy, which began with a five-cylinder engine. Incredibly, engineers have tuned the exhaust so that the RS produces a stirringly soulful sound that encourages holding gearshifts until the redline. This is an unexpected accomplishment because neither odd-numbered cylinders nor turbochargers favor melodic exhaust notes. For Audi to have achieved the RS's exciting soundtrack is a creditable achievement.

Matched to the slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, the five-banger propels the light-by-today's-standards 3,300 lb. TT RS quickly enough to satisfy all but the most ardent drag racers. The combination of racy looks, invigorating sound and watch-stopping speed soundly covers all the areas that appeal to enthusiasts.

Responsive steering through the chunky leather-wrapped wheel and quattro's trademark Velcro (brand-hook-and-loop-fastener) adhesion to the road even during adverse conditions seals the deal. Cruising the switchbacks on a chilly, rain-slicked Skyline Drive though the Shenandoah National Forest, the TT RS conveyed the usual quattro-induced feeling of nearly invincible security.

Other Cars to Consider

With a base price of $57,725 (including destination charges), and an as-tested bottom line of $63,175, the TT RS finds itself positioned against V8 competitors such as the BMW M3, Mercedes C63 and Cadillac CTS-V. The German competitors are pretty well considered the establishment in this segment, with Audi and Cadillac offering dramatically differing alternative versions. As has happened in other segments already, Audi is quickly making itself a favorite smart choice rather than the safe choice through outstandingly innovative products.

In the past, one of the things that has helped make the safe choices safe was the strong residual value of those brands, which made purchasing an expensive car slightly more rational. Audi lagged its competitors in the past, but as the company has meticulously rebuilt its brand in the U.S., so has it shored up the value of its cars down the road. "Strong residuals have become a positive differentiator for us," noted Audi of America president Johan de Nysschen.

AutoTrader Recommends

The TT RS is the flagship hot-rod of the TT line. As Ferris Buehler memorably observed, "If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." But most of us don't have the means, and even if we did, Audi's only importing a thousand or so RS models. The $47,000, 265-hp TT S might be an ideal consolation prize if you don't win the RS sweepstakes or would rather not have a clutch pedal in your car.

Audi promises that the TT RS is the first in a long line of RS models planned for the U.S. market after a three-year hiatus, and the company would be hard-pressed to find a stronger product to help reintroduce the RS brand to American audiences. They will sell every TT RS as quickly as they arrive from Germany. You'd be fortunate to be one of the lucky buyers.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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