A big rock sits on the outside edge of a notorious switchback on Los Angeles’s Mulholland Drive. Too often that ill-placed boulder acts like a black hole: Drivers and motorcyclists try so hard to avoid it that they get pulled in. Ka-boom!
That’s known in the racing world as target fixation. You drive into what you’re looking at.
I’m working the stick shift on the $57,725 Audi TT RS and skirt by the rock with nary a glance, keeping my eyes trained on the road curling uphill. Audi is known for its road-hugging all-wheel-drive and this high-powered version of the TT comes scrambling out of corners like a greyhound after a hare. Best not to let it get away from you.
Fewer than 1,000 TT RS’s will come to the United States in the next two years. I’ve been driving the rare sports coupe around town for several days. Leaping into traffic on the I-405 or squiring down Santa Monica Boulevard, the TT RS feels devilishly quick. Faster off the line than a Porsche Cayman R.
But it’s here on Mulholland Drive where the Audi will show its real soul. The narrow lanes pretzel precariously along the Santa Monica mountains, offering the kind of driving made for sports cars.
Breaking the Law
This road is far from L.A.’s crowds, but close to nouveau mansions. On quiet weekdays you’ll sometimes find car manufacturers testing camouflaged prototypes. On weekends it’s thick with Ducati motorcycles and sports cars, some racing illegally. It’s equally well-known to police. The speed limit is now 35 mph.
The original TT was released in 1998, Audi’s first real stab at a lifestyle car. Other Audis like the S4 were quick, but styling was subdued to the point of narcolepsy.
The TT was a slick-roofed thing with smoothed corners, as if it had been sealed in sci-fi bubble wrap. It came out around the same time as VW’s New Beetle -- the designer J Mays had a hand in both -- and together they marked a shift in modern auto design.
Still, the TT was never hardcore. The original four-cylinder engine made only 222 horsepower and was also offered as a convertible. The second generation launched in 2006 with leaner, more aggressive styling, aiming at sports-car legitimacy. But other Audis had taken up the banner, notably the exceptional R8 supercar.
Today the TT seems vestigial, perhaps ready for retirement. In other words, ripe for the “RS” treatment, where internal mechanics and the exterior are tweaked to their maximum sport potential. Make it extra special and a few speed-mad buyers will come.
In the case of the TT RS, the engine gets another cylinder, replacing the inline four for a turbocharged, 2.5-liter five-cylinder. It’s good for 360 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque. Zingy.
It’s only available in the U.S. with a six-speed manual transmission. And unlike the other TT models, it isn’t offered as a convertible.
The TT certainly looks toothier in RS guise. The most notable change is a fixed rear wing and altered bumpers. The front is dominated by the big grill.
Oversized disc brakes are nakedly displayed through the open-wheel spokes of the 19-inch wheels. Tires themselves are high-performance summer rubber. Perfect on a day like this, 69 degrees in the middle of winter.
At first I was pleased to find the TT RS equipped with a manual, but it also served as the first disappointment. The throws are longer than expected -- less snickety-snick and more snickety-pause -- which serves me poorly on Mulholland, where hands and feet are doing a constant mambo as I downshift before tight curves.
Audi’s electromechanical steering, with a power assist that’s dependent on your speed, also fails in these situations. The wheel is extremely slack at single-digit speeds, which is fine for a parking lot but terrible for precision driving on switchbacks. It’s irksome on cars like the A8 sedan, but a travesty on a sports coupe.
The TT RS handles far better in more wide-open turns, when you can exploit the combination of power, all-wheel-drive and prodigious tire grip. At these moments it feels brilliant, which is important as cliff edges on Mulholland are never far away.
I pull off to a dirt turnout and look down the steep hill, a perfect place to watch other cars negotiate the turns. During Mulholland’s illegal racing heydays of the 1960s they used to call these turnouts the grandstands.
It is a perfect road. Even better if you had it closed off all to yourself. If I did, I’m not sure I’d pick the TT RS, $61,125 as tested. The Porsche Cayman R starts around $66,000, and has a mid-mounted engine. Light, balanced and the steering is just right. (The TT’s is, conventionally, in the front hood.)
I eventually exit the mountains and onto Highway 1, where traffic is thick, and back toward Santa Monica, where the TT RS shines as a lifestyle car.
The 2012 Audi TT RS 2.5 at a Glance
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder with 360
horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 18 city; 25 highway.
Price as tested: $61,125.
Best feature: Punchy engine, all-wheel-drive system.
Worst feature: Steering.
Target buyer: The TT lover who wants greater performance.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)