Considering how 2016 has gone, you’d be a brave soul to call almost any head-to-head early these days.
Photography: James Lipman
But surely a fast Audi TT – even one as ballistic as the new 394bhp TT RS – can’t topple the best M car of its generation? The BMW M2 is everything its bigger brother, the M4 isn’t: a friendly, entertaining sports coupe that thrives on having a simple spec. The BMW has it all to lose here. But stranger things have happened.
And neither could argue they aren’t fighting over the same customers (though whether or not you can actually buy either is a matter we’ll return to shortly…) Both have back seats (unlike an F-Type), and neither would claim to chase the ultimate in chatty chassis’ (unlike a Cayman). And while the Porsche desperately hopes to woo you with handling from the gods to distract from the fact its engine is considerably less enjoyable than it was this time last year when the world made sense, that’s not a problem for either the TT RS or the M2. The art of the bombastic, memorable motor is alive, well, and spewing fuel from multiple exhausts here.
The TT RS splutters flatulently so much upon prodding the steering wheel’s red starter it’s a little surprising there’s any unleaded left to pump into the 2.5-litre turbo engine. Actually, there’s enough making it into the five offset-fired cylinders that still hang ahead of the front axle to develop an identical output to a Ferrari 360 Modena. Except with two clutches and four powered wheels, the performance, up to 100mph, is more of the Enzo variety. It’s a madman, the RS. An absolute rocketship.
That ought to catch a few folks unawares, because it’s not overtly lairy on the eyes. It’s a car of superb details – the Quattro grille motif, the wing spars that look like the toast rack in Tony Stark’s kitchen. But the basic bodywork itself is standard TT, and in Pearl Effect Daytona Grey, it’s a bit Q.
Not an issue for the M2, which seems to share only a roof with the standard 2 Series. I love how the body panels swell to bursting point from every angle, stretching over the wider tracks and blistered around the blobby tail lights. Just like the old 1M, it’s a car of stance and swagger, and saturated in Want-One glow.
Until you get inside, perhaps. Much more boggo 2 Series here. My geek streak spots a different steering wheel spoke, suede gear gator and some M stitching. The seats are immediately comfortable but apparently mounted on the car, almost Focus RS-style, not into it, and the materials are unimpressive. I ought to like its no-nonsense, no-gimmick focus, but I’ve just climbed out of the TT RS and frankly, I miss its feel-good supercar ambience.
A TT has the best mainstream car cabin in the world right now, worthy of a car at £100k, let alone £51,900 for an RS or £27k at entry-level. It’s a genuinely innovate, boundary-pushing piece of design that’ll be as widely copied in a decade’s time as BMW’s iDrive has become.
This particular RS has some optional carbon, some optional Alcantara, some optional red highlights and two standard ‘Super Sport seats’ which are bum-grazingly low and pleasingly clasping. I actually prefer it to the current R8’s cockpit, because the heater controls are better resolved, storage cubbies are easier to access and it’s slightly more angled at the driver.
You’ll have spotted the Audi is racking up a chunky list of cost-extra equipment. This particular car doesn’t have adaptive suspension or ceramic brakes, but it’s worth £65,165. The BMW’s in a comparatively simple guise with manual gearbox, some posh iDrive and the best paint, all for under fifty grand.
And while we’re on semantics, you can’t actually buy either of these cars right now. Sorry. The BMW’s waiting list is measured in years not months unless you’re paying to jump the queue, and Audi’s measly 200-unit allocation of TT RSs for the UK has gone. All are pre-specced, so if you see one, the owner probably didn’t get to choose that colour, or those wheels. They likely just took what the dealer had, such was their need for Noughties supercar performance. In a TT.
That’s the thing about the TT RS. It’d win you over on a test-drive. Not that many Audi buyers take them – no car company shifts more stock ‘blind’ without the buyer ever grabbing some seat-time. But regardless, the Audi’s exquisite details, irreproachable interior and easy-access performance that a child could extract 100 per cent of makes one hell of a first impression.
It’s only over miles upon miles you start to notice that the turbo lag is more pronounced than the latest four-pot turbo engines, that the ride (here supplied on standard dampers) is actually nicely sorted until it runs out of travel at high speed, and the pedals are fixed too high up the footwell, so the driving position’s kinked if you’re taller than six foot.
So the TT RS gives itself to you on day one, minute one. You set off, you go fast, and its talents are laid bare. Boom. The M2 asks a bit more of you, if you’re not to be left with the sinking feeling it’s a phat 2 Series with biblical tyre roar.
What’s the best thing about the M2? It’s how unmistakably rear-wheel drive it feels. There is a palpable moment as the torque takes hold when you feel the car tense, then push itself forward from the rear axle, like a swimmer getting a boost off the pool wall at the turnaround.
The front end isn’t the M2’s strong point – it’s nailed to the road thanks to its 60mm wider track and wouldn’t understeer on a frozen lake – but the steering’s got less to say for itself than Jeremy Corbyn. The wheel is too big, too thick, and too squidgy. It’s not steering you savour, the M2’s. It’s steering you use, while enjoying the car’s punch, its playfulness. The addictive overspeed of the rear tyres as the boost comes in, that has the rear skating ever so slightly across the surface. It’s up on its toes, but not out of your depth.
It’s the chassis – the planted, responsive, encouraged chassis that’s the star of the show. The M2’s a ‘greater than sum of parts’ car. Steering? Pretty remote. Gearshift? Pleasant, but a tad notchy. Brakes? Powerful, but the pedal’s as squidgy as the steering wheel. And the M2’s turbocharged motor, despite having sharper response than the Audi’s, lacks character and doesn’t reward a top-end rev-out too enthusiastically. Audi’s got the BMW’s engine on toast, frankly. The straight-six is good; a solid, decent motor, but not an M car star.
And yet, all of this fine, seven outta ten stuff melds together in the most approachable, involving M car of its generation. One with traction, sensible grip that’s overcome if you fancy, and a beguiling flattery about it – it’s good when you’re good, but doesn’t punish when you cock up (like an M4 does). It feels broad, muscular and brash – a bit of a wideboy. It brandishes more personality than the current M3 and M5 combined.
Swapping back into the TT RS and looking for similar titillation, there is a lot to like. Taking 26kg off the front axle with a lighter, aluminium-cased engine has done the RS all sorts of favours. You simply would not credit the TT with being a relative of the terminally nose-heavy RS3. It’s much more in the vein of the TTS – epically quick across the ground, but it’s not so much provocation it needs to come alive underneath you, as a declaration of all-out war.
On one brief occasion, I successfully get 100 per cent of drive sent to the rear wheels. Pity this only occurs when you’ve induced enough understeer to make you question if the steering rack has in fact broken in half. Corners aren’t for devouring, except for the anticipation you’ll soon be back on the throttle and one of the fastest-accelerating land-borne objects within a hundred miles.
It’s somehow less disappointing that the Audi has numb steering and over-servoed brakes, that it’s not particularly entertaining beyond the eye-drying quantity of its performance. Because it’s a TT. Be honest, it’s never the sharpest tool in the box, the TT. But this RS is the most entertaining one Audi’s ever built. Awkwardly, it’s still not got as sparkling a chassis as a fast Golf, with which it shares so much engineering. Weird.
That said, it’s not going to keep you coming back for more smiles as often as the best BMW to currently wear the ///M tricolore. The M2 is good enough to rise above forgone conclusion semantics. It is infectiously fun: part M-car throwback, part modern day hero. It doesn’t feel the most modern inside, or the most sophisticated an object, but driving a machine that aches for you to have a laugh will never go out of fashion.