Thursday, 18 October 2012

2003 Audi TT 3.2. Meh...

So, the Audi TT, then. It's been around since the late '90s, I've driven pretty well every iteration (except, oddly, the TDi) at various points in time, but have never thought to write about it. Actually, come to think about it, I've never really thought about the TT at all.

So now the original TT has been dead for several years, it feels like a reasonable moment to reasess Audis fashionable urban plaything.

I never really fell in love with the styling. When it was new there were complements flying around from every direction imaginable. People were calling it pretty.  I thought it was neat, well proportioned, but a bit, well, smug. Too overtly brand-dependent, with that ginormous rectangular grille with its big central badge. Somehow, from the front three quarters the car reminded me of some kind of massive cartoon skull; and skulls aren't pretty. It's also rather too symmetrical for my liking.

Considering that everybody was harping on about the return of the iconic Auto Union racing cars of the 'thirties, the actual form of the TT was nothing like those slim, athletic powerhouses. The Mk1 TT was / is squat, short and; in black, quite woodlouse-like.

As a device, though, it was great. Bollocks to the styling,  if you took the thing apart you'd end up with fifteen thousand absolutely beautiful components. The car is awash with detailing that stands up really well to close scrutiny; although I think it's a great shame that not every model came with the glorious baseball-glove style coarse stitched leather that made such an impact when it was released. Indeed, it was really the detailing; the jewellery, the trinketry that made the TT so wantable. It was nothing to do with styling; it was everything to do with image.

But what about the driving? Well, the TT shared a big chunks of underpinnings with the humble Volkswagen Golf MkIV, and that's basically irrelevant. Magazines, pundits, Armchair Experts and Naysayers went on and on about this being a terrible thing and, yes, it's a shame that the TT couldn't have been designed around a bespoke sports car chassis. But at least the Golf chassis was sufficiently bland that the TT couldn't be accused of sharing its character; because, well, there wasn't any to share. 

The chassis had no specific flavour with which to taint the TT experience. Rival offerings from BMW and Mercedes had their own appeal; the BMW Z3 offered raw rear-wheel-drive waywardness, the Mercedes SLK was nostalgia-rich and excelled on "barelling along" in a genteel way. The TT, though, was slightly harder to pin down for actual personality.

This being a Golf chassis, four-wheel-drive was available. What a coincidence, thought Audi, who are always keen to nail a "quattro" sticker on their product line up, and the off-the-peg underpinnings were almost made to measure. Indeed, TTs were available quattro-only until a few years down the line, when a front-wheel-drive model was introduced to expand the model range downmarket and soak up money from those who value image over ability.

It was no coincidence that such a machine featured heavily in the film "About A Boy" starring Hugh Grant, in which the lead character was as deep as a puddle and as substantial as a shadow.

Driving a TT was never really anything to get desperately excited over. In fact, the one thing that really set itself apart from any other car was the unique feel of the interior, with its slot-like windscreen, forward A-Pillars and hunkered-down posture. If you somehow flush the familiarity from your mind and forget that you've sat in a TT before, it is possible to remember how strange the cockpit actually is. The driving position, the height of the shoulder-line and the positioning of the controls all suggest "sports car", but in truth the actual layout of the car is nothing like any proper roadster that went before it.

Thanks to the Golf oily bits, the transverse-mounted engine is forced right up towards the headlamps, obviating the need for a long bonnet and thus bringing the cab forwards. This also brought the cabin towards the front so you don't feel like your hips are next to the rear wheels like you might in so many rear-wheel drive rivals.

You soon discover what all this weight in the nose means; understeer. We're not talking about Talbot Alpine levels of the stuff. more a determined reluctance to steer if the the front end is loaded up into a corner. Whether it's a front wheel drive or a four-wheel drive, the Mk1 TT never gives the impression that it want's to do anything but either plough straight on or just pander obediently to the whims of the pilot if he steps back from the throttle for a mo. What it won't do, what it can't do, is showboating.

Which means, well, it isn't really a sports car at all. And this brings us back to the initial question of proportion and content. It isn't made of sports car components, it doesn't have sports car proportions. We're back in trinket territory.

This one is the 3.2. That means the same engine as the Golf R32, or as a point of fact almost exactly the same mechanical package. We also have the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox with gear-shift paddles; actually one of the few genuinely pioneering aspects of the car itself. The V6 is a great engine, with 247hp and all this brawn on tap all the way through the rev range. It makes a terrific noise, too.

Yet, somehow, it too leaves me cold. It's a powerful enough lump alright, and it bestows the TT with quite noteable performance; all of it available right now, immediately. With the DSG box, too, it all comes nicely indexed for convenient access. With that "next gear on standby" modus operandii, you're ready to catapult out of every corner, always turning at the right ratio.

And I don't like it.

It makes life too easy. It's like cheating. When playing poker, it would obviously be very remunerative if you always had the best possible hand, but it wouldn't be much fun. Here, with spades of accessible power, you can go quickly, like, now. But there's nothing to look forward to. Now, it's likely that none of you will agree with me here, but here it is: The 3.2 is less fun than the 1.8 Turbo.

Now, my ancient A4 features the same engine, albeit in a more moderate state of tune, as the TT. It's a neat little unit, economical, smooth-ish for a straight four, and when pootling around it's resolutely unsporty. However; there's a turbocharger in the mix, too, and this means Xtra Fun on demand. Around town my A4 is sluggish and clumsy and can be hard work, but get it on a good road that you know well, keep the revs up past 3300rpm and ensure that the KO3 never, ever stops spinning, and a grin is assured. There's a lot of fun to be had in the upper sectors of a turbo'd four tacho, and the best bit is getting there.

Consider that that 1.8T can churn out up to 225hp before you start tarting around with chips, bigger turbos, less restrictive breathing and all that stuff, and you realise that the 3.2s advantage isn't actually that enormous. The smaller, funner engine doesn't make the car any more convincing as a sports car, per se, but it does make it less derivative. Look at the rest of the German "sports car" set of the late 90's and into the decade after, and they were all available with big, powerful six-cylinder motors. The TT, though, was the only one to offer a turbo four. And that's before we remember the four driven wheels.

Suddenly, the original TT starts to feel more appealing. Forget it as a sports car, instead consider it as an entirely parallel kind of car and it makes sense. Especially as a convertible.

Sometimes less genuinely is more.