Five of the best

Monday, 25 January 2010

Audi was mad to dump its five-pot engines, and the TT RS proves DAVE MOORE'S point.

Audi was mad to dump its five-pot engines, and the TT RS proves DAVE MOORE'S point.

I always thought Audi was out of its mind to eschew its in-line fives and replace them with V6s in the early 90s, after being synonymous with their wooflingly charismatic warble on rally special stages and high streets, particularly during the 80s.

I've always admired car makers who go their own way and in the late 70s I was completely mesmerised when I first got wind of Audi's then- new fives. I was besotted when I first heard them, and I've had a soft spot for their sound and the performance of the cars that used them ever since.

Audi's first five cylinder engine was introduced with the second generation Audi 100, in 1976. These north-south mounted engines in both diesel and petrol forms became staple power units for Audi right up until the early 90s, whereupon the company threw its lot in with V6s, much to the chagrin of many.

In the meantime, Volvo and to a lesser extent Honda have flown the petrol in-line five banner, though VW has had some success with its unlikely but effective V5s, and more than half a dozen makers currently have five-pot diesels on their books.

But Audi's in-line five is back, and with a vengeance. Audi's TT RS reprises the effect of the Audi Quattro coupes of the early 80s, by offering a 1000kW east-west turbocharged five that makes the wee coupe as quick as a hot Porsche 911, while costing about half as much, and oozing at least as much charm.

Mind you, $132,900 still seems a lot of money. At least it does until you hear the engine, and then witness what it does for what has had the reputation of being the world's favourite interior decorators' car until now.

Now, instead of merely being irrefutably stylish and, dare I say it trendy, Audi's TT is transformed in 2.5-litre five-cylinder RS form, into a real wolf in Merino clothing, zapping breathtakingly quickly to the legal limit in just four and a bit seconds while emitting the most soulful of engine notes that a modern car can produce.

True, it doesn't generate tears of emotion from grown men, like the Aston Vantage V12 can, but it has an in-built thrumming coarseness that reaches deep into the viscera as it nears its red-line, and with the crackle and lilt of the note changing when you shift ratios, you do indeed hark right back to when Audi Quattros ruled the rally world.

It's hard to believe that it was all of 30 years ago that the first rally Quattro Coupes were snaring thousands of customers for Audi, who had showrooms stocked with ostensibly the same car that was being campaigned so effectively on gravel, snow and other surfaces around the world.

The hard-charging five cylinder all-wheel-driven rally cars helped sell ordinary, "cooking" Audi coupes and sedans too, with two-wheel- driven and four-cylinder cars also enjoying a market rub-off from the model's racing success. Which made it all the more astonishing when Audi dumped fives for sixes, left rallying and other racing efforts and even eased-off with its other at one-time unique selling proposition: quattro four wheel drive.

For the moment, there is no racing programme for the TT RS, and the TT per se has already aligned itself as the design counsellor's advised "best choice" in the styling field. The TT RS is a stand-alone Audi user of the re-introduced in- line five-cylinder engine format - at least for the time-being - and it's to be savoured. Not the least because of the engine's ability to have little - if any - effect on the car's weight distribution. Sitting exactly where the TT's four cylinder engines would be and only being a few centimetres wider than those units, because of its sideways placement, it doesn't impart the understeery lead-tipped effect of the more weighty turbocharged and normally aspirated V6s that can also be found under the bonnet of TTs.

This is borne-out as soon as you attack a familiar bend. The car goes exactly and uncannily where it's pointed, just like one of those bogus dogs with a stick for a leash in Benny Hill clips. Instead of washing wide until the all-wheel-drive takes over as with the V6s, the Turbo five-powered car, just slices neatly through the apex and drivers will be as amazed as I was as to how early and completely the car's prodigious power can be reapplied.

This is helped by the turbo five's seeming bottomless pit of torque which means you're not anticipating a sudden rush of urge - which used to rather overwhelm the inexperienced in the 350kW-plus Sport rally cars 25 years ago.

While the car's steering does not have quite the ultimate level of incisive directness you'd perhaps get from an R8, 911 or Z4, it's pleasingly tactile, faithful, and with power and torque always on hand, the TT RS can be compared very favourably with my personal favourite handler of all time: the Porsche Cayman - a car that's priced very closely to the Audi and must be an alternative buy.

Possibly the only drawback, and one that will surely be put right before too long, is the absence of a DSG or double-clutch two-pedal manual transmission. The TT RS would revel in it, and I'd love to hear the five-cylinder engine note during such a transmission's split-second shifting process.

As it is, the conventional six-speed manual gearbox is accurate and precise, though its action is just a little deliberate for me. You can't rush your shifts through the gate and the clutch take-up point was just a little too late in the pedal's travel for me to enjoy the process as much as I usually prefer.

Mind you, with so much torque available, the car can be used in higher gears than you expect, even when commuting. I was astonished to see that I could drive the beast almost the length of Christchurch's 50 to 60kmh Cranford Street without having to drop down to fifth or lower.

The car's ride is amazing, thanks to its magnetic-fluid adaptive damping, a system shared with Cadillacs and HSV Holdens. I've driven TTs with and without the system, and if you can afford to option it on lesser TTs, I'd do it without thinking.

You could easily do long journeys with this car, it's comfortable even over rough surfaces. Its aerodynamics consign wind-noise to a background flurry, but the low-profile alloy wheels and tyres do mean you'll always have road noise to contend with.

As with all Audis, the TT RS feels taut and well-made, displaying all the nice, neatly interfaced touchy-feely textures the company's famous for in the cabin. Externally, the car's panel- gapping is exemplary, and the paint absolutely flawless.

It's a fine car, the only pity being that it looks like any other TT, with just the badges to show for its Porsche-bashing performance. Such a well-sorted car with an engine as brilliant as this deserves a little more to my mind.

AUDI TT RS

* Drivetrain: Turbocharged, all- wheel-driven, 2480cc twin cam transverse-mounted 20 valve 5-cylinder, producing 250kW at 5400rpm and 450Nm from 1600 to 5000 rpm. Six-speed manual gearbox.

* Performance: Max 250kmh, 0-100kmh 4.6 secs, 9.2L/100km, 214g/km CO2.

* Dimensions: L 4198mm, H 1342mm, W 1842mm, W/base 2468mm, F/track 1555mm, R/track 1546mm, Weight 1450kg, Fuel 60L.

* Price: $132,900. Other TTs from $84,900.

* Hot: One of the great engines; implacable chassis; unimpeachable build quality; great ride.

* Not: Little to differentiate it from ordinary TTs; gearbox, no DSG; remains a little effete.

* Verdict: Stormingly well-sorted drive and well worthy of Audi's once signature engine format.