When I couldn’t make it to the Audi TT RS media test at Lime Rock race track last summer, I was bummed. I read report after report about the nimble TT’s raspy five-banger at full throttle around the challenging Connecticut race track.
“It’s an easy little car to toss and place with precision,” wrote Car and Driver. “Putting the power down on exit is easy with the quattro system deciding where to send torque,” thrilled Autoweek. “The Audi devours straight lines with a manic burble, and grips hard in high-speed turns,” raved Motor1.com.
But none of them got to do doughnuts in driving snow.
My TT RS tester arrived in my driveway in January in the teeth of Michigan winter. Day after chilling day of single-digit temps. Icicles longer than hockey sticks hanging off my roof. Even local Sierra Club groupies are burning their copies of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” for warmth. A sports car?
I had put my sports-car fantasies into hibernation two months previous. This time of year I crave all-wheel drive — not for quick zero-60 launches, but to get me through snow drifts. Indeed, local sports-car test fleets usually fly south for the winter with the geese so they can frolic on warm asphalt and wink their headlights at cute beach bunnies.
Yet here was a ferocious, sporty coupe in my driveway covered in snow.
I’m no stranger to the TT as readers of this column know. I took the base 220-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 car — little different from the RS save the insane, 400-horsepower, rally-derived, five-cylinder hornet’s nest under the hood and a wing out back — straight to Hell a couple of years back and had devilish fun on the best roads in Michigan.
But in January Hell freezes over. Ain’t going there. Which is OK, because the closest parking lot is all you need to enjoy a TT in winter.
After clearing the snow from the Audi’s shapely rear hatch and chiseling away the snow packs already encrusted like barnacles around the wing struts, I worked my way down the check list. Heated steering wheel? Check. Traction control turned off? Got it. Dynamic Mode selected? Always. 245/35/19 Continental ContiWinterContact snow tires? Heck, yeah.
I hit my favorite empty neighborhood lot, spinning like a top. TT’s taut chassis and short wheelbase make it more playful than the odd SUV I usually take out for snow doughnuts.
This has never appealed to me before in other performance rear-wheel drive cars. My old Porsche 944? Tucked away in storage until spring. My favorite BMW M3? Same. The Audi even has me rethinking my rear-wheel drive Tesla Model 3 order.
The Tesla also comes in an all-wheel drive variant, but I checked the box for rear-wheel drive — both because Tesla might not deliver all-wheel drive versions of the Model 3 until my hair’s grown white, and that I like the lightweight, tossable handling of rear-wheel drive.
The TT opens new worlds as an all-season plaything.
Audi, along with spartan Tesla, is the most innovative automaker when it comes to re-imagining the dashboard. The TT has a big, 12.3-inch “Virtual Cockpit” instrument display entirely configurable from the steering wheel: gauge placement, radio channels, navigation, the works.
The driver-oriented display clears out the center console for a clean, aesthetically pleasing dash anchored by huge, aviation-style air vents controlled with a twist of their rotary rims or a tap on their center temp controls. Slick. With the console screen gone, the only thing left of an infotainment system is Audi’s familiar rotary console knob. I never touched it.
It’s there for passengers like my wife to use when she wants to spin the dial to her favorite radio station. So big is the Virtual Cockpit display behind the steering wheel that she can easily see the station lists.
After my daily playground calisthenics, the TT RS and I took Mrs. Payne for a night on the (frigid) town. As beautiful as the Audi’s Nvidia graphics chip-driven navigation display may be, its search function is not as intuitive as Tesla’s smartphone-like Google Maps system. I couldn’t just bark the name of our restaurant at the car — I had to first look it up on my Samsung, then bark the exact address at the car. Smartphones: never leave home without ’em.
Despite its 2+2 seating design, the TT is not a car for double-dating. Like the similarly-priced rear-wheel drive Camaro and Mustang V-8 coupes — or the much pricier Porsche 911 — TT’s back seat is for storage only. Or maybe for misbehaving children. Roald Dahl’s the Trunchbull might have used it.
Matilda! I’m putting you in the Chokey — no, make that the TT back seat!
That roomy Tesla Model 3 back seat sounds appealing, by contrast, but the 3 does not come with big brother Model S’s hatchback. The TT does. The wee Audi started life with a symmetrical front-to-rear wing shape (an aerodynamic development that also had unforeseen, um, flying consequences, but I digress). But with the second generation, saner heads prevailed and Audi’s hatch grew longer into its current wonderful, utilitarian shape.
This, in my opinion, is the TT snow leopard’s other key ingredient given its sibling competitors, Porsche and VW.
As good as its chassis shared with the Volkswagen Golf may be, the TT can’t hold a candle to the $60,000 Porsche Boxster/Cayman in the handling department. The Porsche is an athlete without peer under $100,000.
But with the engine amidships, the Porsche lacks the front-engine TT’s hatchback roominess — not to mention its all-wheel drive dexterity. Throw in the RS (for rocket ship) 5-cylinder mill and the TT RS is a compelling alternative for a similar $60,000. For the more aesthetically minded, the hatch also makes the base TT compelling against a similarly priced — if very boxy — all-wheel drive Golf R hatch.
By week’s end the weather gods gave us a brief thaw between deep freezes. The respite let me do a couple of zero-60 launch control runs in the TT RS just like my buddies enjoyed in Lime Rock: the seven-speed tranny barked off shifts, the 5-holer screaming like a possessed buzz-saw to 7,000 rpms.
Happy at zero degrees or zero-60 launches: That’s all-wheel drive bandwidth. When I shut down my salt-caked Audi TT it would make a signature, heartbeat chime: BUM-BUM.
An echo of my racing heartbeat.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Audi TT RS
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, two-passenger (honestly) sports car
Power plant: 2.5-liter, TFSI turbocharged, 5-cylinder
Power: 400 horsepower, 354 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (mftr); top speed, 155 mph/optional 174 mph
Weight: 3,306 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined
Highs: All-season athlete; dashboard re-imagined
Lows: Back seat is more storage than seat; frankly, a $20,000-cheaper TT is just fine, thank you