Designer car or driver’s car?

auditt1_3_49342a9b0b423-lightboxFor a lot of other people (including the majority of petrolheads) it represents the triumph of style over substance, having been described as “a Golf in a frock”, “a widescreen Beetle” and (worst of all) a “stockbroker’s car”. These are the printable ones, anyway. The designers’ faction fêtes the car’s classic, clean lines and gorgeous interior, while drivers complain about its anodyne power delivery, numb steering, dull handling, and the fact that designers like it so much.

Audi didn’t leave it there, though. In 2003 they released a special edition which featured completely revised suspension and much improved handling. It sold out, globally, in three months – and Audi decided to make the changes permanent. And what a difference they’ve made. I’ve driven a 2000-model TT, and it felt… well, it felt like a Golf, actually. Fine, as far as it goes, but I never really quite trusted it when pressing on, and the car’s computer-controlled Quattro four-wheel-drive system occasionally panicked, causing it to lurch unnervingly in mid-corner.

By comparison, my 2005 TT (£28,000 from a main dealer near YOU – but not for much longer) is much sharper, and the power transfer from front to back is much smoother thanks to updated software. Boot this thing onto a wet roundabout and if you ignore the initial, admonishing whiff of understeer you can keep applying power till the car adopts a slightly tail-out four-wheel slide, shuffling the torque from axle to axle to maximise grip; as you wind the lock off on exiting the roundabout, it’s full-throttle time and the power pulls the car straight and kicks it down the road. OK, it’s no 911 and the turn-in, while reasonably crisp, makes you aware of the car’s 1500-kilo bulk. There’s very little body roll in corners though, and once the initial inertia’s overcome, the TT remains adjustable as it moves round the corner. I’ve never had the impression, even in extremis, that one end of the car’s doing more work than the other, and that makes it feel nimble and lithe despite its (and my) considerable mass.

All this good behaviour can come across as being slightly too capable, somehow. Those wide, low tyres grip so well that roads which were entertainingly challenging in my old car are shrugged off contemptuously by the TT. It takes a lot to unsettle it, or to provoke any unpredictable behaviour, and I think this lies at the root of a lot of the criticism of the car. I’ve very rarely felt that I’m operating at the limit of its capability, and on the occasions when I have pushed it that hard the results haven’t been worth the effort. Clearly this is a car with more grip than power, even with 225 bhp under the bonnet.

225? Hmm. I’m sure we can do better than that, sir. Try a visit to a tuning company for enhanced engine management software along with some plumbing to help the engine breathe… I haven’t had the power measured on a rolling road, but the claim of 270-280 bhp seems reasonable. Now this, is more like it. The extra power makes it much easier to break the tyres’ grip, and while traffic-light wheelspin is still off the agenda it’s now possible to drift through a bend sideways and leave the corner with a nice little fishtailing flourish. This makes a spirited drive feel like real, proper, full-fat Fun. Give me 58 miles of scarred single-track tarmac in the Western Highlands, and I’ll arrive 65 minutes later in a haze of tyre and brake smoke, gibbering and twitching from the adrenaline.

The character of the engine is completely changed. You can still hear the sporty-yet civilised exhaust note at full chat, but it’s overshadowed by a banshee wail of pressurised air driven by a turbocharger that’s actually having to work for its living. The power delivery is intoxicating. This is the bloodshot-eyed Mr Hyde to the standard engine’s effete Dr Jekyll. The accelerative forces start sooner, and grow to be far stronger than anything the standard engine can provide. It just builds, and builds and suddenly… you need to change gear, again. This is my one gripe with this otherwise entertaining car. The one thing I would change. The gearbox action is smooth and pleasingly wristy, but the gears feel far too short. This car just doesn’t need a six-speed ‘box, but Audi have said, ‘everyone else has one, so we’d better stick one in, too.’ That’s your triumph of marketing over necessity, right there.

It stops as well as it goes, too; the brakes have the same solid, reliable, massy action as the rest of the controls, and haul the car down from imprisonable speeds without complaint. They could be a bit more feelsome, but really that’s just nitpicking. There’s not much to say about the wonderful, classy interior that hasn’t already been said. It really is that nice in here, dripping with surprise-and-delight – the car industry’s term for things that make you say ‘Woah. That’s so cool…’ The seats are excellent and despite the low roof and high windowsills there’s plenty of visibility and lots of headroom. It’s a comfortable place to be if you’re on the motorway or stuck in traffic, and it transforms into an ergonomic, effective cockpit if you’re hammering down a B-road.

In a little under a year of ownership – and 12,500 miles – the car hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been vandalised twice, though, which has led to me hanging a sockful of snooker balls next to the front door just in case I catch the little scrotes at it again. Servicing isn’t due for another 7,000 miles but the Pirellis are down to about 4mm of tread so will probably need changing sooner than that. At £150 a corner I’m clearly looking forward to that…

The only other forthcoming cost is insurance renewal (£1,200; this is what living in London does to you). The car’s reasonably frugal on the motorway (35-ish mpg) but driving round town and ragging it severely reduce its efficiency. Overall I see about 27 mpg in an average month.

So. Definitely not as dull as they say it is, my TT’s a quick, capable, surefooted car which is friendly enough to drive every day. The fact that it looks good as well shouldn’t be counted against it, should it?

 

 

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Rob Knox