Top Gear Awards: Coupe of the Year
Is it possible to be too good-looking? Extreme physical attractiveness might bring people a greater number of potential mating partners and likelihood of success in certain careers, but it doesn't necessarily bring happiness. In great literature, tragedy always seems to befall the beautiful; in mundane real life, they mostly have to suffer being taken for empty-headed bimbos. Beauty is like money. We all want it, but once you've got about the average for your society, the correlation between being endowed with any extra and growing any happier is scant indeed. "You can never be too rich or too thin," said Wallis Simpson. Thinness being a proxy for beauty in fashion, I'd say she was wrong on both counts.
Pictures: Lee Brimble
This feature was originally published in the October 2014 edition of Top Gear magazine.Advertisement - Page continues below
Which brings us to the cross the Audi TT has always had to bear. It's so striking-looking that everyone assumes it has no other talent. Fair enough: that did apply to the first version. It really was just a dollied-up Golf, and the Golf in question was the soggy MkIV. But come on, that was waaaay back in 1998. The 2006 MkII got the lighter part-aluminium body and magnetic dampers and, later, the five-cylinder RS engine, and yet it too could never shake off being sneered at: an empty-headed car for empty-headed people. Hugh Grant drove an early one in About a Boy. He's more boffin than buffoon but, like the TT, he has the opposite reputation. Too good-looking, see.
Whatever, this new car is just as handsome as a TT should be, and its familiar proportions are given extra bite by some very sharply drawn feature lines. Does it need that big chromey grille? In my view, no: it's a lily gilded.
But its technical braininess is on a whole new level. This time around, the body's front skeleton and its floor structure are high-strength steel, yet the entire superstructure and skin are now various kinds of aluminium. Fixing all these different metals together is a major feat, but Audi has the experience. The subframes are aluminium too, and some of the bigger suspension bits. This body takes components from the VW Group MQB matrix, so all the engines are new and fit the same mounting template.
I'm in the TTS. That means a 2.0-litre with a stout 306bhp and 280lb ft, and even as a manual it makes 0-62mph in under five seconds. Model for model, it's another 50kg lighter than the old TT, which was itself a similar amount less thanthe original. That deserves some sort of medal. It means our TTS - with 4WD and rear seats, remember - is lighter than a Cayman. There's a FWD diesel that deploys its lightness and engine efficiency to keep CO2 pegged at 110g/km, but it still does 0-62 in 7.1. Absolute company-car catnip.Advertisement - Page continues below
Outside, this TTS has the optional multiple-LED headlights, connected to a camera so that they automatically mask their way around dazzling anyone else on the road, but brighten what's left. They shine round corners - not just when you turn the wheel, but an instant before, under the instructions of the satnav's knowledge of the road. The indicators are also rows of LEDs, and they fan hypnotically outwards instead of simply blinking.
Inside, the dash consciously presents the traditional TT shape, a horizontal spar carrying prominent round vents and no central screen. But the whole affair has been rethought. The climate controls are in the centres of the vents. They're knobs you twist and push and which have illuminating graphics to show their states, while the actual controls for the vents' force and direction are around the periphery. It's a brilliant idea beautifully wrought. The stereo is mostly operated by the main controller knob aft of the gearlever, which itself is duplicated by buttons and rollers on the steering wheel. So the centre stack looks light and clean. Everything operates with that characteristic Audi damped click.
All other information is laid before the driver via a single high-definition screen. You can have big dials, encompassing digital read-outs, or reduce their size and give prominence to maps or phone lists or music folders. A ‘virtual cockpit', they call it. It takes a while to learn, and meanwhile there are times when you find yourself lost in dense thickets of menus, screaming for a button labelled "just get me back to the simple dials, already". But in the end, it makes sense, and the graphics are tremendously well-worked if at times annoyingly gimmicky in their animations. Still, if the virtual cockpit's purpose in life is to demonstrate this car is no bimbo, it succeeds magnificently.
But we've come to find whether the TT has dynamic smarts, not just an impressive set of infotainment semiconductors. Let's go. You drop into a seat that grips you in a matey man-hug around your shoulders and back. The wheel, festooned with buttons, has a self-consciously flattened and contoured rim. Er, what was so wrong with round again? Steering wheel - the clue's in the name. Still, the clutch and throttle have a nice solid weight and definition. High time to dab the starter button.
The 2.0-litre engine runs a balance shaft for delicious mechanical smoothness. Its exhaust is burbly enough, via a slightly OTT set of four tailpipes and some mild artificial synthesis too. So the absence of cylinders number five and six never amounts to a deprivation. The rev limit is 6,800rpm, and it's worth taking that trip. This isn't one of those turbo engines that gives generously in the mid-range then runs out of puff. It wants to go the whole way round. Result is a proper push in the back, and heaps of overtaking shove. And, of course, the way it thwacks you out of a corner is even more of an event, because the quattro traction means you can use nearly all of it, nearly all the time.
There's turbo lag, though. It's not lengthy, but enough that you have to drive around it, either by stretching your right foot mid-corner slightly before the tyres are ready, or by using a lower gear. The gearshift is no hardship, but it doesn't have the gorgeous precision of the Cayman's. Still, most people will get the S tronic twin-clutch and, even though in regard to automated transmissions I personally follow the lead of Ned Ludd, I can see why they would.
As is now the norm, you can alter the state of alert of the principal driving electronics calibrations through a Drive Select button. Cycling up through the states buys you sharper throttle mapping, more engine noise, a more downshift-happy S tronic transmission if fitted, a firmer damper programme, an inclination to send more torque rearward as soon as you turn the steering wheel, and looser ESP. But the difference isn't overemphasised. Some cars try to use this button to mutate from Bambi to the Monarch of the Glen and end up being sorted in none of their states. This one is decently balanced in any of them - it's just a matter of subtle emphasis, and I stick with Dynamic most of the time as it doesn't ruin the ride or make the engine jittery, except at the slowest town speeds.
But a Dynamic button on the dash doesn't necessarily a dynamic car make. A veil of rubbery sog casts a pall over the steering. Oh, the system is accurate enough and its progressive-rate rack ramps up smoothly, making it suave in fast curves but handily quick in slow hairpins. Yet however much lock you're using, it just lacks a little bite. Which exacerbates the shortage of feel. On my first few miles of interesting road, the TTS would burst right through its limit in a second-gear bend without the steering weight changing in the slightest. But it's a road polished to a greasy smoothness and might as well be wet. Later, on a grippier and faster stretch, the steering begins to wake from its coma, but intimacy with the tyres isn't one of the car's strong points.Advertisement - Page continues below
Neither does it much alter its cornering attitude in answer to the throttle. It operates in a narrow window from mild understeer to very mild oversteer, the front-rear torque balance being shuffled to keep everything pointing cleanly down the arc. For the record, a dirt road proved it'll do big sweeping ESP-off drifts when friction is sufficiently low, but that's an exceptional circumstance. On any normal surface, its balance is hugely reassuring and almost exactly what you want from a road car. The light weight and dabs of torque-vectoring via the inside brakes also give it a terrific talent for dancing through a series of tight corners.
So all that keeps the TT's chassis from greatness is the want of feedback and definition while it does it. After a while, you start to pick up the signals, but they're too subtle. As with the engine's slightly tardy throttle response, the connectedness of a truly great sports car isn't there. I suspect Audi could have dialled up the interactivity via different bushes or axle kinematics, and for that reason I'm salivating for the TTRS. But for the TT and TTS Audi just chose not to, because history shows that's not what Audi drivers want. They want a feeling of utter reassurance, rather than being told they're close to the edge.
Of course, the TT is perfectly set up to bring a shaft of light to the dull everyday jobs. Down a motorway, it's rock-solid and decently quiet and comfy, which clears the stage for a very fine optional B&O stereo (I'm surprised by that, given the screechiness of the B&O set-up in Audi's saloons). The outward visibility is surprisingly good, even though you seem to snuggle deep into the body's womb. There's a useful boot under that hatch, which grows further if you fold the backrests of the exceedingly occasional rear seats. Happily, too, the TT has remained compact, its overall length and width being slightly less than the old one's, even though its wheelbase is longer and its track the same. And all the time, you're lifted by the specialness of the thing. The design and the quality, the attention to detail in everything you see and touch - the sheer physical attractiveness.
That's amply backed up by speed and sports-car capability. OK, at the extremes the TT's dynamics might be a little aloof, but they are absolutely not dumb. It's not just a pretty face, y'know.Advertisement - Page continues below