Audi brings back its performance badge with the launch of the 2012 Audi TT RS.

We’ve never understood why Audi has been so stingy with its performance line-up.

True, there was a time when BMW’s M models and the Mercedes-Benz AMG offerings would come and go, disappearing for a model-year or two, but these days they are mainstays of their respective brands.  Not so the comparable Audi RS line, which hasn’t planted its badge on a U.S. offering in three years.

The good news is that the performance brand-within-a-brand is back, making its return debut on the 2012 Audi TT RS – with the RS5 set to follow.  That’s not the best-kept secret, we have to admit, Audi having set out to slowly build buzz with some carefully crafted social media campaigns over the past 18 months – which only made us more eager to climb behind the wheel when given the chance.

Our destination: New England and upstate New York, a perfect time of the year considering the fall colors.  Or, at least it would be were it not for the steady drizzle that threatened to drench our initial enthusiasm.  Then again, considering the 2012 Audi TT RS will only be offered with the German maker’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system, we came to realize it really was the perfect opportunity to test the car’s mettle.

The original S6 Plus Avant and the 2012 Audi TT RS.

We spent the first half of our day driving through backwoods Connecticut, charging down delightful country roads, before landing at the Wilzig Racing Manor, a sprawling manor owned by semi-pro racer Al Wilzig.  Not many folks have a 1-mile racetrack out behind the barn.  Then again, not many have done as well as Wilzig, who augments his time in an LMP2 racer working as a banker and very successful investor.  The track he has been working on is an elegant piece, with several fast straights and a high-banked 180-degree turn that provided a good opportunity to press the TT RS to its limits.

Like the Audi R8 the new TT RS is built by Audi’s Quattro GmbH subsidiary, which put out its first performance machine, the S6 plus Avant, back in 1996.  Since then, it has sold 55,000 RS-badged models worldwide, but relatively few have made it to the states.

Audi will offer a wide range of color choices but just a limited package of options.

The newest offering features an impressive 360-horsepower turbocharger 2.5-liter inline-five engine which features an iron block, aluminum head and direct injection.  It’s a torquey little package, hitting its peak of 343 lb-ft at just 1650 RPM.  To put that into perspective, the standard-edition TT makes just 211 hp.  Another measure is that the TT RS is churning out 145 hp per liter, among the best numbers you’ll see short of the supercar segment.

That engine rides inside the second-generation TT which, like the original, features an aluminum and steel spaceframe.  It’s a lightweight approach – the RS package weighing in at just 3,300 pounds, a key to delivering 0 to 60 times of around 4.1 seconds, with a top speed of 174 mph.

On the down side – for some, anyway – the U.S. version won’t be offered with the European dual-clutch gearbox.  But the 6-speed manual that Audi has opted for is a sweet, smooth, short-throw package that offers little to complain about.

The U.S. version of the turbocharged 2.5-liter I-5 makes 25 hp more than the European package.

Another change from the European edition is that we won’t be getting the launch control system that automatically ensures you’re operating at the optimum revs to maximize launch – something we clearly might have appreciated on those wet New England roads.

Nonetheless, the standard Quattro system shone brightly, allowing only the slightest wheel slip even when we occasionally overcooked a corner.  Most of the time, the AWD package operated seamlessly and invisibly.  The only complaint came on the track where, in particularly aggressive cornering maneuvers it had a tendency to push into the turns.  But with the added grip in the wet it was clear we were making far better lap times than had we been driving a comparable vehicle with either front or rear-wheel-drive.

The TT RS has been lowered 10 mm to improve its aero and lower its center of gravity.  The new model’s handling is further enhanced by the use of magnetorheological shocks – what we first got to know on General Motors products as Magneride.

The 2012 TT will be the first RS-badged model from Audi in 3 years.

Using a magnetic fluid allows the suspension to be adjusted in microseconds to changes in road conditions and driver demands.  Add the wide sport tires and the 2012 Audi TT RS remained poised in virtually any situation it encountered.  Perhaps the biggest frustration was trying not to exceed the local speed limits to the degree we might immediately have our driver’s license torn up.

Steering, in particular, was tight and responsive, with an excellent on-center feel.  The TT RS is the sort of car that can make even a driver of middling talent feel like a pro.

The car is a particular delight on a track or exploring the back roads.  The exhaust system uses bypass valves to improve flow-through under hard acceleration.  And that delivers a reassuring roar when your foot nudges the floorboards.  Unfortunately, there’s an inherent imbalance to a 5-cylinder engine that tends to create a buzzy exhaust note when you’re simply flying down the freeway at 70.  But, with a car like this, you’re going to want to find an open road whenever possible.

The front seats are comfortable, the rear cramped and largely useless.

For an extra kick, tap the “S” button and the suspension tightens up, the exhaust opens up and the throttle shifts to a more aggressive mapping profile.  You can also power down the Electronic Stability Control system, though we chose to refrain considering the wet conditions on the day of our drive.

Stability control is part of the typical package of electronic safety features.  But we were particularly pleased by the 14.6-inch cross-drilled brakes, with their four-piston calipers, which could shave off speed fast without any sense of grabbiness.

From a creature comfort point of view, the 2012 Audi TT RS is functionally a 2-seater.  Yes, you can tell the insurance company you’ve got room for 4, but anyone stuck in the back won’t be a friend for long.  The front seats are pleasantly comfortable yet supportive, not nearly as difficult to get in and out of as some sport seats, with a nice grip in hard turns from the suede inserts.  The gauge package is nicely lit and easy to read, though purists might find the overall dashboard appearance a bit different from the typical, eye-catching Audi layout.

The 2012 Audi TT RS can hit 60 in 4.1 seconds with a top speed of 174 mph.

If it really matters, expect to get about 20 mpg combined in the 2012 Audi TT RS.  Audi plans to import less than 1,000 cars a year and it appears you’ll have to get in at the end of a long line if you want one.  Offered with only two option packages and a handful of standalone options, the 2012 model will set you back $57,725 – which includes an $875 destination charge.

We’re pleased to see Audi bring back the RS badge and look forward to getting into the RS5 next year.  For those who want something a bit smaller and more nimble, though, the TT RS is the way to go – if you don’t mind the wait.

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