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(Nearly) 25 years of the Audi TT | PH Video

Audi's coupe sold like hot cakes and left an indelible mark on its era - but is it actually any good?

By Dan Prosser / Monday, March 16, 2020

Traditionally it would be silver for the Audi TT's 25th anniversary, but this being PH we've picked out a far more appropriate gift: we're reassessing its reputation as a sports car. The TT has only been in production for 22 years but the TT concept, first shown at the Frankfurt motor show in 1995, will reach the quarter-century this September.

I wasn't out of primary school in 1995 but I do remember seeing this futuristic-looking coupe in the pages of magazines - at a time when the Montego had only just gone out of production. The side windows were reshaped for the showroom model and, eventually, a small rear spoiler was tacked on to the bootlid, but for the most part the show car's minimalist, faintly Bauhaus design was kept intact.

Since then, the original TT has become an automotive design icon and made industry titans of the men who penned it, most notably Peter Schreyer. But Audi's 2+2 coupe, which throughout its life has been more closely related to the humble VW Golf in a mechanical sense than Audi would like to admit, has never earned itself much of a reputation as a driver's car.

So the question is this: with the benefit of hindsight and the assistance of the sportiest versions of all three generations, have we in fact been unnecessarily harsh on the TT in our judgement of it as a sports car? It was on a very misty day in South Wales that we gathered together a current TT RS, a second-generation RS and the most unusual TT of them all, the Mk1 Quattro Sport, to answer exactly that. You can watch the video below to find out what we concluded, or simply read on.

Fastest, most expensive and newest of the bunch is the Mk3 RS. Its 400hp five-cylinder turbocharged engine is probably the best performance motor with fewer than six cylinders on sale today. Flexing its muscles via a dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive, it punches the RS to 62mph in 3.7 seconds and on to 155mph (although you can pay to have the limiter raised to 174mph). The RS starts at £54,895.

You can pick up a Mk2 RS for around a quarter of that. You'll be giving up 60hp from what is basically the same engine and, if you please, you can have a manual gearbox, as in the case of the car we borrowed for the video. The first TT RS arrived in 2009 and set the blueprint for the one that followed: thumping turbo five-pot, four-wheel drive using Haldex hardware, huge point-to-point pace and a very well appointed cabin. It managed 62mph in 4.5 seconds and also topped out at 155mph.

The Mk1 Quattro Sport, finally, is from 2005 and one of only 800 built for the UK. Quattro Sports were based on the mid-range model with the 1.8-litre turbo engine rather than the more potent 3.2-litre V6, albeit with power notched up to 240hp (now within 10hp of the V6 version). 62mph came by in 5.9 seconds and the top speed was 155. The bodykit from the range-topping V6 and two-tone paint gave the Quattro Sport a look all of its own, while retuned suspension for sharper handling and a 49kg weight loss programme (achieved by ditching the spare wheel and rear seats, the latter replaced by a chunky strut brace) meant it was the most driver-centric TT Audi had yet produced.

Not all Quattro Sports got the fixed-back Recaros, although our test car has them. Combined with the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel and the huge void where the rear seats should be, the Quattro Sport doesn't so much have a whiff of Porsche's 911 GT3 as stink of it. Leggy cars trade hands for around £6,000 today while the best examples are double that.

The current TT RS looks small, wide and squat but also powerful, like a bull terrier. Immediately you realise its steering is over-sharp, as is the way with so many steering systems nowadays, but while it lacks any sense of connection it is at least accurate and consistent enough to be no kind of hindrance after the first few miles. In true Quattro fashion there's enormous mechanical grip, really crisp and positive drive away from a tight bend with steadfast traction, plus bundles of stability.

It isn't hard to see where the car's colossal cross-country pace comes from. Power, torque, near-instant gearshifts, grip, traction, stability, reasonably compact dimensions... that's pretty much the blueprint for it. High-performance Audis haven't always been supple enough to smother poor road surfaces, but the TT RS does just that. Or at least it does to a point. You'll be aware of the suspension busily and effectively doing its thing, only for the road to turn really three-dimensional and the surface to change for the worse. After that, the chassis runs out of ideas and the car will either go spookily light over crests, thud heavily into its bump stops, or the texture of the road beneath will rattle the entire car like it's trying to shake it to pieces.

For the most part, though, the TT RS is seriously capable. What would be faster along a Welsh B-road? Nissan GT-R, perhaps. John McGuinness out for a Sunday ride. But not much else. The thing is, speed alone has never been the defining characteristic of a great sports car. Where's the throttle adjustability, the intuitive sense of connection, the exploitable balance, the predictable bleeding away of grip? All absent, reserved only for the very best driver's cars.

The engine is a masterpiece, though. It's heartening to know you could have one in a TT for only £15,000 or so. The Mk2 RS has the same pugnacious stance as the Mk3 and although its cabin feels much more dated, its seating position is actually far better. The clutch pedal is heavy while the gearshift is light, albeit with a slightly notchy throw. Beneath your right foot you have immediate response and bucketloads of power and torque. I just wish the exhaust wasn't quite so restrictive because the gruff, vocally off-beat soundtrack that you know must be in there somewhere never quite finds its way out.

The Mk2 behaves a lot like the Mk3 on the road, just in a less sophisticated way. The suspension feels more brittle and there isn't the same precise individual wheel control. While it doesn't manage a tricky road surface anything like as well, it remains astonishingly fast along a road. What helps is the massive front end grip, which even on greasy surfaces never seems to diminish. Who says these things understeer?

Similar in character, but not as well resolved as the Mk3 TT RS, the Mk2 is no unheralded sports car masterpiece, either. But what of the oldest car here, the Mk1 Quattro Sport? It reminds me that even a vehicle of only moderate technical capability can still be hugely enjoyable to drive. The soundtrack is strangely muted, as though the engine and entire exhaust system are wrapped in thick blankets, but there's strong, urgent performance in a straight line. Again, traction is absolute thanks to four-wheel drive. The gearshift is as light as a city car's and the steering the slowest of the group. You have to recalibrate for that, but even when you're tuned into it there's no real interaction.

The Quattro Sport's biggest shortcoming from an objective point of view is also the thing that makes it the most enjoyable car of the three to drive. You could criticise the chassis for its failure to keep the body in check, allowing it to rise and fall exaggeratedly over the shape of the road, sometimes scraping the underside of the car against the asphalt or letting wheels and body get hopelessly out of phase. But then you would lose the car's expressive and loose-limbed way of navigating a hillside route.

I enjoyed stroking the Quattro Sport along at eight-tenths far more than I thought I would, feeling the car rising and falling, its weight shifting over to the outside rear corner the moment you tip it into a bend. After the pair of RSs, which mistake raw speed from point A to point B for involvement, the Quattro Sport is really quite an engaging thing to bob along in.

What it isn't, though, is any sort of cut-price 911 GT3. It doesn't come close to backing up the promise of its bucket seats, Alcantara wheel and stripped out cabin with a driving experience to match. At best it's a cosplay of the Porsche - the right costume, but none of the substance.

So in light of all of that, do we now need to revise our opinion of the TT as a sports car? No, I don't think we do. I swapped one for another from sunrise until sunset and never once sensed any real sports car genius in any. The sheer performance that certain versions of the Audi TT are able to extract from VW Golf underpinnings, however, is remarkable. They can be incredibly capable all-weather performance cars, effective grand tourers and effortless everyday devices. But truly great sports cars? Nah. They're a different thing altogether.

2,480cc, five-cyl, turbo
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch
Power: 400hp @ 5,850-7,000rpm
Torque: 354lb ft @ 1,700-5,850rpm
0-62mph: 3.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Kerb weight: 1,450kg
MPG: 30.7-31.0mpg
CO2: 181g/km
Price: £54,895

2,480cc, five-cyl, turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Power: 340hp @ 5,400-6,500rpm
Torque: 332lb ft @ 1,600-5,300rpm
0-62mph: 4.5 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Kerb weight: 1,450kg
MPG: n/a
CO2: n/a
Price: from £15,000

1,781cc, four-cyl, turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Power: 240hp @ 5,700rpm
Torque: 236lb ft @ 2,300-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.9 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Kerb weight: 1,416kg
MPG: n/a
CO2: n/a
Price: from £6,000


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