The Audi TT RS has always appealed by virtue of its excellent powertrain, the very bit that’s been messed with in this mid-cycle update

It was almost too good to be true. Audi’s wonderful, charismatic and hugely potent turbocharged five-cylinder petrol engine mounted under the crisp Bauhaus nose of the TT – two of Audi’s most distinctive icons brought together in one desirable package.

Or that was the intention, as typically the TT RS never really materialised into the sports car package we all hoped it would be. The chassis was always capable of putting its prodigious power down, but often struggled when the road became more challenging. It was always a nailed-down, but ultimately flair-free driving experience.

As part of a mid-life update it’s not the chassis that has been paid attention to though, rather the powertrain. This wasn’t entirely by choice of course, as Audi’s venerable five-pot needed some significant work to pass the latest emissions regulations. As a result, the powertrain has been through a fairly comprehensive update, which we’ll get into in more detail below, but with the very element that defined the TT RS’s character under the microscope, does the 2019 Audi TT RS still emulate the spectacular Group B vibe that made it a unique, if slightly blunt-instrument addition to the sports car class, or has its USP been eroded, leaving nothing but a benign sports car behind?

Performance and 0-100kmh time

As we’ve mentioned, traction off the line is deeply impressive. To activate the launch control you need to be in Dynamic mode, with the transmission and ESC both in Sport. Then it’s simply a case of holding the RS on the brakes with your left foot and pushing the throttle all the way through the kickdown to the end of its travel. Then, with the revs steady at about 3500rpm, you just release the brakes.

The claimed time for the sprint to 100kmh is 3.7sec, but we’ve recorded a 0-96kmh time of 3.4sec. That’s quicker than the 3.5sec evo once recorded in a Ferrari Enzo, and as near as dammit McLaren F1 quick. Madness. Once up and running, the TT RS does still suffer some turbo lag, but commit and it is every bit as fast as the figures suggest, ripping through the seven short ratios with an urgency that’s unmatched this side of a Porsche 911 Turbo.

Engine and gearbox

There is something so right about two distinct Audi institutions being so well amalgamated. The TT has become Audi’s contemporary trademark, so to fit it with an engine so easily relatable to its historic rally successes, seems to give the whole notion of an RS-badged TT that bit more substance.

The fitting of a 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine into the TT is not a new thing though, as the last TT RS also had this type of engine, but whereas the old car used a simple US market-based five-cylinder engine, the new one has an all-new unit, designed specifically for Audi RS models – you’ll also find the engine in the latest Audi RS3.

The main difference between the old and new engines is Audi’s adoption of an aluminium crankcase, itself the main contributor to a total engine weight reduction of 26kg. Alongside impressive figures of 293kW and 480Nm of torque, the real talent of this engine is its spread of torque, imbuing the small coupe with a broad and muscular feel throughout the rev range. In order to keep this engine in check with the latest emissions regulations, Audi has had to go to some length, installing particulate filters into the exhaust system, subsequently muffling the engine’s addictive thrum. Not only is the volume down (even with the sports exhaust system fitted), the engine and transmission calibration are more conservative too, with less urgency to the drivetrain, even in Dynamic mode.

Audi exclusively pairs the engine to a seven-speed S-tronic gearbox, a fine partner in crime and, as typical for hot Audis, it is four-wheel drive. As dual-clutch gearboxes go, the TT RS’s high torque rating makes it slur more than you might expect, while the transmission’s lardy response and turbo lag combine to create a sort of lethargy that can be quite difficult to drive around. The TT RS, like other all-wheel-drive cars on VW’s MQB platform, employs a Haldex system that uses a clutch pack to engage the rear axle whenever the car decides it needs torque at both axles, but never sends any more than 50 per cent to the rear.

Ride and Handling

The first time that you floor the accelerator with the sports exhaust cracked wide open it’s hard not to fall for the TT RS. A loud, complex soundtrack fills the cabin, the note changing from deep warble to something harder-edged but still slightly askew as the revs home in on 7000rpm. The five-cylinder produces as distinctive a war cry as any engine and Audi plays it to perfection.

That first surge of acceleration will also leave you in no doubt as to how stunningly fast the little coupe is. The power feels totally contained, however, with the quattro system deploying every ounce of the 293kW. It’s bursting with energy, in the dry at least, it all being put to good use, with no sense of slip between rubber and road. This is perhaps something of a disappointment because it means that on the exit of bends the TT simply grips and goes. Yes, you can feel the TT driving more from the rear with the Haldex system set to its new Dynamic mode, but the rear simply hunkers down and drives you forward rather than allowing you to really adjust the arc of the back of the car on the throttle. You also need to keep on top of the gears going into corners, because if you are below about 4000rpm there is a little bit of hesitancy when you get back on the throttle.

Turn-in is very encouraging, with the front end feeling more responsive than on any TT we can remember – something that is undoubtedly helped by the RS’s brake-based torque vectoring. The eight-piston front calipers clamp steel discs as standard, but carbon-ceramics are an option and they were fitted to our test car. They were hugely confidence-inspiring, but did begin to squeal after a long drive with some pretty sustained abuse.

The problem is exaggerated as you find yourself leaning on the brakes deep into corners too in an effort to get the car pivoting into the apex so that you can perhaps open the steering a little early. It is possible, and you can feel the hips start to move encouragingly, but it takes more effort than we’d like and generally there is a sense that the RS is happiest with more of a join-the-dots approach to corners. We’ve enjoyed the TT RS both on the Jarama Circuit near Madrid (it felt great through the really quick corners – nicely agile and up on its toes) and on the amazing roads in Spain and in the UK. The sound is wonderfully addictive and the interior feels like a lovely place to be, with the quilted bucket seats holding you extremely well around the abdomen.

The TT RS covers the ground at a staggering pace and the quick, clean steering makes it mostly easy to place, although just occasionally a fraction more weight and connection with the front wheels would be nice. You can and do end up driving it incredibly quickly, pushing it hard because it inspires huge confidence, but in many ways it’s probably better to step back a notch and enjoy the RS at eight-tenths. Don’t for a minute write it off as a boring, understeering Audi, because it is far, far from it, but at the end of the day we can’t shake the nagging feeling that a four-wheel-drive system like that in the Focus RS, one with a proper torque vectoring rear diff that allows more throttle adjustability, would elevate the TT that last little bit to the star performer it so nearly threatens to be.

Point the TT RS down a worse road surface and the cracks in its capability begin to widen, as the underlying physics of lumping a heavy engine over the front wheels with barely an inch of tyre sidewall become clear. The ride never quite settles, and the secondary bump absorption quickly deteriorates as the wheels crash into variances in the road surface. Push hard over undulating tarmac and the suspension runs out of travel, often struggling to keep the wheels in contact with the ground. On roads that a 718 Cayman would hoover up, the TT RS bucks and fights, hitting compressions with an uncomfortable harshness that leaves you unsure of the state of the 20-inch wheels at the end of a brisk drive.

If you’re tempted by the TT RS Roadster but you’re worried it will be too compromised by the lack of a roof, don’t be. More so than many soft-tops derived from coupes, the RS Roadster retains an impressive degree of rigidity. The lack of a roof also grants you unfettered access to that fantastic exhaust noise and you don’t have to put up with scuttle shake or a rattly interior. The engine’s massive power and torque also means that the convertible’s extra 90kg of weight is hardly detectable either, and it feels just as quick as the coupe on the road.

However, there is a minor downside. The nimbleness the Coupe exhibits under braking into corners is diluted in the Roadster – it’s just not quite as eager to turn in or play. As a result, you have to slow down just that little bit more to make sure the front end bites before turning in. You’ll still have all that grunt to make the Roadster phenomenally quick over a B-road, but an extra level of involvement is removed and the TT RS doesn’t have a lot of that to give up.

Interior and tech

If there were to be a template for how sports car interiors should all look in the future, this would probably be it. The RS builds on the already excellent TT, itself a beacon of minimalist design and exceptional build quality.

Despite the pared-back nature of the new TT RS’s interior, it’s chock-full of brilliant detailing and little features that make you realise that Audi really thought about the cabin in a different way to most other manufacturers. The first thing that strikes you is the three propeller-inspired air vents, then look closer and you realise that they also feature the controllers for the entire HVAC system, having twist knobs that also function as temperature and fan displays. This unconventional and minimalist layout takes a little getting used to – the heated seat button is easy to miss (it’s within the outer-most air vent) and directing airflow isn’t intuitive (you have to rotate the outer bezel until you feel it pointing in the desired direction) – but once you’re familiar with it you’ll find other climate and heater controls terribly old fashioned.

The steering wheel is taken from the Audi R8 supercar, but with the shrunken steering wheel boss and red starter button it looks like it could have come straight off a concept car. The other new button controls the ‘drive select’ function, allowing the driver to alter the behaviour of the car via the 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit.

Speaking of which, Audi’s revolutionary driver information system is the only infotainment screen in the TT and as such is less superfluous than in other Audi models fitted with the same virtual cockpit. This leaves the interior free of ugly displays and unnecessary buttons. The basics are just so right in the TT, there is no need for anything more.

Despite having what Audi calls back seats, in usual TT fashion they are only suitable for very small children or extra luggage. Boot space is generous for the class, and if you fold the second seat row you’re left with an oddly shaped, but still usable cargo area.