Clarkson on: the Audi TT
It's happened again. Just months after Mercedes was forced to recall all its A-class hatchbacks because they had a worrying habit of falling over, Audi has had to pull the TT.
It seems that if you lift or brake while cornering at high speed, the back will snap into violent oversteer and you will slam into the crash barriers. Already, in Germany, two people have been killed, and Audi have had to act fast.
Remember, Audi were pretty well wiped out in America 10 years ago by rumours that their cars suffered from ‘unintended acceleration'. Dim-witted Yanks said that even if they had their foot on the brake, the car kept on accelerating at full speed until it slammed into a child/pensioner/dog.
I must confess that I felt rather sorry for Audi on that one. It was, let's face it, the fault of America's education system and a proliferation of lawyers rather than an engineering problem over in Ingolstadt. A car simply cannot accelerate unless its driver hits the wrong pedal - easily done in a land where the smart bombs can't even be guaranteed to hit the right country.
And now I feel sorry for them all over again. Quite apart from the major redesign, they're having to pay a small fortune to fit the 40,000 examples they've already sold with different stabilisers, altered dampers, modified wishbones and a new rear spoiler. They've got two deaths on their hands and they're looking down the barrel of a serious public relations disaster.
The trouble is, the TT never really knew what is was. If it had been billed as just a motorised jacket, a poseur's pouch with no delusions of race-track glory, they could have fitted wooden suspension and all would've been well.
But it was, after all, going to carry the quattro badge, and it was going to have a 225bhp engine, so it needed to be sporty as well. And that meant it had to have some lift-off oversteer.
In motoring magazine land, we'll tolerate front- and four-wheel-drive cars only if they give us this handling quirk in spades. Lift-off oversteer is more vital than customers. If we can't get a car to go sideways while careering past a photographer, it is dismissed as a hopeless dud. Understeer is for wimps.
It's a saloon-car thing. It's pants. And the car makers know this, so they dial it into their sports cars to keep us happy. Oh sure, they know full well that in the wrong hands, in the wrong weather and on the wrong road it can be fatal, but they want good reviews...
"In motoring magazine land, we’ll tolerate front- and four-wheel-drive cars only if they give us this handling quirk in spades"
The thing is, though, that the Audi was by no means the worst offender. If you want real lift-off oversteer, try a Peugeot 306 for size. That thing behaves like a hungry puppy, wagging its tail at the slightest provocation. And while this is a huge hoot on an airfield, it can be downright scary in the wet.
Just think. You're barrelling along, snicking through the gears, feeling the tyres scrabbling for grip when, all of a sudden, while going round a corner, you find a tractor coming the other way. So, in a panic, you lift off. And whoa, now you have to miss the tractor while controlling a lurid tail slide.
Only recently I was called old and fat for saying I'd rather have a Golf GTi, which always ploughs straight on, than a 306. But it was for this very reason. On a race track, the 306 kicks the Golf's arse but in the real world, I'm telling you, it's the other way round.
I congratulate VW for ignoring the pleas of us motoring journalists. And Alfa Romeo too. Back in the summer, I went to an airfield with a GTV and tried everything in my limited repertoire to make it misbehave, but it wouldn't. So, if you're faced with an emergency, there's one less thing to worry about.
And what about the Focus? Car of the Year. Best selling car in Britain. Darling of the motoring press corps. And why? Because when you lift off in a bend, the tail swings out.
Audi were only trying to get some of this glory with the TT, and that is probably why they were so angry with Tiff and me when we came back from the launch and said it was a dog.
We said there wasn't enough feel and that the oversteer, when it came, was rather cynical; a bit of icing to disguise the fact that the cake itself was a bit stodgy. Autocar, of course, raved, saying the handling was in fact superb. Just like they did with the Mercedes A-class.
And Audi pointed this out to the two TG boys who wouldn't tow the line. Everyone else likes it, they said. We've had rave reviews in Germany, they said. And now they are admitting that the car's handling ‘in certain circumstances' has been criticised. I can't tell you how good that makes me feel.
But I still feel sorry for them and that's why I have spent the last few minutes working on a solution. Cars which oversteer need to be ugly, and that way people who want a car to pose around the harbour bar are not going to be caught out when the damn thing starts doing the waltz at 150mph.
Enthusiasts are forever saying they don't care what a car looks like, so fine. Get someone from Morphy Richards to come up with some poseur-repelling styling and all will be well.