“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” said Doc at the end of 1985’s Back To The Future. That’s a fitting intro for a review of a DeLorean flying car, if a DeLorean or a flying car of any sort actually existed today, some three-and-a-half decades later.
Last I looked, automobiles still needed hot mix, and the union remains an integral part of the review assessment. But if there’s one model where on-road performance is (arguably) less critical than most, it’s the Audi TT. Case in point, the recently updated 2020 Audi TT Coupe 45 TFSI here for review.
You see, Audi’s TT concept wasn’t meant for the road, per se. So let’s quickly jump Back From The Present to see why.
The original TT concept car lobbed at the 1995 Frankfurt show as a design statement. Motoring folklore states that production and converting style to road-going substance were something of an afterthought, with evidence being that early gen-one TTs had a habit of wanting to swap ends at high speed with terrible consequences.
By gen-two’s arrival, in 2005, the TT embodied Audi’s statement of high-brow design, construction and tech. The clever circular styling motif of its predecessor was replaced by a contrary curve, or ‘S’, theme to its body contours. It was built predominantly from aluminium, and the surrogate affordable sports car of the Audi stable was where you’d first discover Audi Magnetic Ride adaptive dampers. Or, in the current third-gen (from 2014), the debut of Virtual Cockpit.
That the TT always was, and remains to be, a handy tourer and corner-carver is somewhat incidental. Further, even Audi’s considerable efforts in creating red-hot versions in the TT RS have long-proven cases of diminished returns. So to be fair, it’s worth at least acknowledging the breed’s reasons for being before sticking the boot in for not quite being the purist driver’s tool, say, a Porsche Cayman is.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
Long gone are the V6s, diesels and front-wheel-drive versions and, right now, the TT can be had in a choice of two different four-banger quattro guises: our base tester and the sportier, more-powerful S version. The TT Coupe 45 TFSI quattro S tronic, to give it its full name, starts at $79,990, though our test car clocks in at $89,840 before on-roads with the inclusion of metallic Glacier White paintwork ($1950) and S-line sport package ($7990).
Outside, S-line brings with it specific front, rear and side (skirt) styling tweaks – including a diffuser look in the back – as well as 19-inch five-arm alloy wheels in grey. Inside, the package adds TT S-spec sport seats with electric side bolster upgrades, front seat heating, nine-speaker/155-watt audio, and aluminium and stainless steel highlights to go with the obligatory smattering of S-line logos.
In short, this is as handsomely presented as this variant gets, and it’d want to impress because, for not dissimilar money, there’s a long list of sports coupes vying for buyer attention under six figures: Alfa 4C, M240i, Supra, Renault Alpine, Mustang GT… Even, interestingly, the two-door Audi A5 45 TFSI quattro (at a grand cheaper than the TT). And that’s before considering drop-tops in the Z4, Lotus Elise, Benz SLC, et al, or mentioning pricier no-brainer alternatives such as the Cayman.
In geekery terms, the gen-three TT foregoes the circular (gen-one) and ‘S’ (gen-two) exterior design approaches for one based off straight lines. All the key accent lines are straights, and all of the body creases have a crisp edge. It’s what makes the third TT iteration unique, and once you discover it, it’s hard to unsee it.
The coupe’s styling is conspicuously highbrow, if arguably less handsome and organic than its forebears, though this edgier-as-modern interpretation runs deeply through Audi’s approach to contemporary style. It’s rich in detail, particularly the specc-y LED headlight and tail-light treatment, and the alloy ‘motorsport’ fuel cap remains a TT signature.
TT cabins have always been ripe for designer indulgence, and the gen-three is no exception. The ‘aero-foil’ dash top and turbofan-like circular air vents look conspicuously inspired by aeronautics, and that’s precisely the case, forming an asymmetric format skewed almost selfishly towards the driver. The functional design of the air vents, which integrate the climate controls inside the housing that adjusts the directional flow with a simple twist, is as clever as it is elegant.
Like its bigger sports car brother, the R8, the TT has no central infotainment screen: everything, down to audio, is solely displayed through the driver’s Virtual Cockpit screen, though the steering wheel controls are supplemented via Audi’s old-school console rotary dial and short-cut buttons (being phased out on other model lines).
Although Virtual Cockpit debuted on the TT, it’s not its most satisfying application, mainly because some of the functions – Apple CarPlay in particular – are so damn clumsy to navigate using the wheel controllers alone. So, while the one screen certainly cleans up the cabin's look, using features such as phone, navigation and settings is a more drawn out and distracting task.
Form-wise, the cabin is impressive enough: looks sporty, feels sporty. But packaging-wise, there are some compromises. The driver’s foot well and pedal placement are quite shallow, demanding the seat be adjusted quite rearward, even for an average-height driver such as your author.
This further impacts the almost nonexistent rear leg room of the tokenistic and largely unusable rear seating, offering no improvement in head or shoulder room. You’d get a small child (without a booster seat) in there, awkwardly, with the front passenger seat jammed fully forward. But like a good many small sports cars, the rear accommodation is extreme emergency usage only, and the TT is best approached as a two-seat prospect only.
The front pews, with their gloss-finished shells, look the biz, though their snug bolstering trades a bit of long-haul comfort for body-pinning focus. The flat-bottom wheel looks and feels fantastic – ditto the golf-ball-dimpled transmission selector – though the upmarket ambience is spoilt a little by the hard and shiny plastic used on the upper door skin that's not befitting of a premium German at this pricepoint.
What the cabin loses in rear occupancy is gained handsomely in boot space. Not only does the incredibly deep space offer a generous amount of luggage capacity – 305L expandable to 712L once the rear seatbacks are folded – the huge lift-back door makes for extremely practical access.
The TT mightn’t go down in design annals as the most ostentatious, dramatic or sexiest coupe out there, but it is sophisticated and remains iconic even after two wholesale remodels. And it would make for a fetching garage ornament alone if it didn’t threaten to nudge six figures with on-road costs. It’d want to be pretty decent rolling along on the hot mix, whether fancy style/construction/tech requires roads or not.
At 169kW and 370Nm, the turbocharged 2.0-litre four and six-speed dual-clutch powertrain offer responsive and lag-free progress that's assertive and entirely satisfactory… Provided you conveniently forget that a Golf GTI makes more power (180kW) and offers similar straight-line performance at half the price. Yes, it’s quite a ‘soft’ tune for the engine – the TTS version outputs 210kW – and 5.3sec for the 0–100km/h sprint is decent, if fairly ordinary for a sporty $90K machine. Nor does it prove to be nearly as frugal as its advertised 6.6L/100km combined claim.
Overall, though, this combination remains polished and refined, be it dawdling around town in normal drive mode, or once you tap the transmission controller in Sport for a quick burst of acceleration off the mark or extended warm punts along twisty roads. It mightn't offer the larger ratio selection of the seven-speed DSG offered elsewhere in the Volkswagen/Audi family, but nor does it lack for it in the experience. The gearbox is also quite brisk and positive cog-swapping in Sport, complete with the occasional rev-matching blurt.
Quattro drive is more a faithful companion to promote traction in crook weather and inhibit torque-steer than it is some sort of dynamic enhancer. Find some curves and push on and the TT’s handling character defaults to safe, planted, if not overly even, balance that works the front end a little harder than the rear. The upshot – or downshot, depending on your viewpoint – is that you’ll likely discover understeer well before the tail even thinks about nudging sideways, and will do so under extreme provocation (with a bit of compromised grip thrown in to help).
Not that the TT can’t be fun. Get on it and the coupe can be enthusiastically brisk A to B with some corners thrown in between. It works its 245mm Bridgestones well, offering a ton of mechanical grip, while the steering is accurate, even and progressive. It sits flat, tracks confidently, and that oversteer will only arrive at a very antisocial velocity on-road. Combine a tail end that refuses to budge, and it can be rapid transit for drivers of modest skill levels. In short, there’s plenty of sporting ability in its DNA, even if it’s not the biggest fun on the sports car block.
The biggest markdown on-road is the ride quality. Adaptive suspension, with three modes and 10mm of sportier height drop, is optional and not fitted to our test car – and at this pricepoint it should be. The ride is beyond terse at low speed, and is at times downright punishing. And unnecessarily so.
The result? It's a chassis that certainly doesn’t negotiate bumps as smoothly and cleanly as a basic sports package should, yet doesn’t quite handle as sharply as you'd expect such a firmly set suspension package might.
Assistance-wise, you get active lane-keeping and blind-spot monitoring, as well as a reversing camera – projecting the image inside the digital instrumentation – with rear cross-traffic alert and front and rear parking sensors. Bar the near incessant glow of the blind-spot lighting within the mirror housings, everything seems well calibrated and generally annoyance-free.
A slim three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, typical for premium German marques, looks under-baked when Volkswagen offers five years on quick Golfs of similar mechanical origins. There are two pre-paid servicing plans offered of three years ($1800) and five years ($2870), which is comparable to a petrol A4 and a little cheaper than a higher-spec TT S or TT RS.
The TT concept of offering a particular blend of stylised design, smart construction and forward-thinking tech, in a package underpinned with satisfying sportiness, has served particular buyer tastes well for three generations now. But today’s version struggles more than ever to shine its points of difference in a motoring climate inherently more flamboyant in design, higher-brow in DNA, and more tech-focused across all segments and pricepoints than it was last decade – let alone when the Audi gen-one sports car arrived as such an inspired vision back in 1995.
Further, the pace at which Audi’s tech trickles down from the highest to the lowest rungs of its own stable has become ever quicker. Scrolling indicator lights, digital instrumentation, et al: the faster they find their way to A3 hatchbacks, the less sense of premium value they hold. Today, the TT has fewer inimitable ‘tricks’ than ever, even though its intrinsic uniqueness remains, in itself, the key drawcard.
It would transpire that Doc’s 1985 prediction of a 2015 future was wrong. Five years on, in 2020, there are still no flying cars or hoverboards in anything like the forms once predicted. Yes, Doc, we still need roads. Some things haven’t changed, or haven’t changed enough, perhaps including the TT.
There are strong signs that the TT concept has run its course. That Audi’s somewhat charming and interesting small sports car will be replaced with a prospect less inspired and more predictable (electric) and boring (crossover). Something its maker hopes will be more popular with a good many more buyers. That is a shame.