We take a second look at revolutionary Audi TT coupe in first generation form
The Audi TT is not long for this world. The car as we know and love it – a svelte, style-conscious coupé – will die off following a looming transformation into a coupé-style crossover around the time of the original model’s 25th birthday.
Yes, the Mk1 TT really is almost a quarter of a century old. And yet, looking at the 1999 example in front of me (part of Audi UK’s heritage fleet), you wouldn’t know it. This is still a fabulous car to behold, with its curvaceous, minimalistic design – said to be inspired by the German Bauhaus movement – ageing amazingly well.
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Stepping around the back, there’s something missing – a spoiler, which leads us to a tricky subject that must be broached when talking about this car. A series of fatal high-speed crashes, all taking place on German autobahns, led to a recall early in the TT’s life to tame its behaviour at speeds above 110mph or so. The two-stage recall involved recalibration of the ESP, suspension tweaks, and yes, the fitting of a rear spoiler that interrupted the coupé’s sleek lines.
Two-and-a-bit decades on, the sight of a bespoilered TT is so ubiquitous that seeing one without seems odd at first. It turns out the fitting of the aero device wasn’t a legal requirement, so a very few Mk1s – this one included – went without, and those examples now tend to be more valuable. Given that we’re driving around rural Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire rather than a chunk of derestricted autobahn, I don’t think we’ll need the extra downforce.
Inside, the TT is showing its age a little more, but it still looks great, helped by a design that’s as restrained as the exterior. Crucially, it feels nothing like its lesser platform- mates such as the Audi A3 and Mk4 VW Golf. You feel nicely cocooned inside, rather than cramped, although the seating position could do with being a little lower, particularly for those on the taller side. This TT has clocked up over 130,000 miles, but it still feels quite fresh. Even the Bose audio system – hidden under a neat, TT-embossed flap – sounds pretty damn good considering this car’s age.
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Pulling away, the TT quickly reveals itself to be a car with very flowing damping. These days, when even some fairly ordinary and supposedly non-sporty crossovers are too firm, the TT is a breath of fresh air.
It tracks over bumps in the road smoothly and with little fuss. It’s a car you could do a long trip in without thinking about it, and you wouldn’t need to pack light – the boot has an impressive 305-litre capacity, which can be expanded by folding the rear seats. They are a bit of a token effort, though, and not much use for anyone other than very small children.
Show the TT a corner, and – despite that soft-by-modern-standards damping – the body stays fairly level. It’ll happily change direction quickly with minimal fuss, and even offers a little bit of feedback from its steering. On that subject, the rack isn’t hugely fast compared with the latest TT’s, but it isn’t sluggish either, and the steering weight is spot on.
The TT – particularly the Mk1 – has a reputation for being vague to drive, with its handing dominated by understeer, but driving one now proves that isn’t the case in ‘normal’ driving. That steering feel is matched by a four-wheel-drive platform that delivers an abundance of traction and a generally neutral stance that sees the front end push wide in the face of serious commitment from the driver.
The unusual five-valve-per-cylinder four-cylinder engine puts out 222bhp here, making for a 0-62mph time of 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 150mph. The 1.8-litre unit also came in 178bhp entry-level trim, where the punchier car’s all-wheel drive system was switched for a front-wheel-drive set-up as standard (quattro was an option), and a little later, a 247bhp 3.2-litre ‘VR6’ narrow-angle V6 hooked up to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox was added.
In 222bhp guise, the 1.8 serves up an acceptable helping of turbo lag, followed by a decent hit of acceleration. It starts pulling strongly from about 2,500rpm or so, getting into its stride from 3,000. The four-pot sounds a little gruff compared with the super-smooth EA888 unit fitted to the current TT (and all sorts of other VW Group products), but it’s certainly not an unpleasant din. The performance, meanwhile, feels brisk rather than fast.
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With peak torque of 280Nm coming in at 2,200rpm and peak power arriving at 5,900rpm – some 900rpm before the red line – this isn’t an engine you need to rev out. And when you do need to change up or down a cog, the six-speed manual gearbox’s shift is a delight. It provides a short, satisfying throw from a stubby lever, with just a tiny hint of notchiness. The pedals, meanwhile, are well spaced for rev-matching during downshifts. When it comes to slowing down, the brakes – the same set-up as the original Audi S3, with 312mm discs up front – are perfectly adequate.
It’s funny how time can change the perception of a car. In comparison with modern sports cars with electric power steering, efficient but often dull automatic gearboxes, and lots of driving modes, the Mk1 feels involving and fun, despite original reviews saying it was dull and inert to drive. It uses ordinary ingredients shared with lesser hatches from the Volkswagen Group, yet elevates itself beyond those cars with its lower centre of gravity, bespoke set-up and the sense of occasion provided by the cosy cockpit. But it’s elevated only slightly; sweet though the TT still feels to drive in 2022, the looks remain its most important feature.
When the original concept graced the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, Audi had nothing like it in the line-up. It drew inspiration from the past in both its name (from the NSU TT) and the styling, said to evoke the mighty Auto Union racers of the thirties. Yet it looked futuristic, and still did three years later when the production version arrived.
Audi had made its fair share of exciting cars by that point, including various rally-bred Quattros and the monstrous RS 2, but a truly cool, stylish car for the masses? That was conspicuously absent from the German company’s range until the TT came along.
The second and third generation weren’t quite as impactful upon their debuts, but the TT has always been a good-looking model, underpinning its sales success. Granted, the sports car market is on its knees, but the TT still manages to outperform most rivals thanks in large part to its wide appeal. Yes, there are performance versions including the warble-tastic, five-cylinder TT RS, but if you just want a great-looking car with a modest and frugal engine, the TT can deliver that too. The TT’s replacement has the potential to sell in far bigger numbers than this iconic creation, but will the new version set pulses racing quite as much as the original did when it first broke cover? We’re doubtful.
What we said then
- Issue 514, August 1998
“It is a seriously desirable alternative not just to mainstream coupés, but also to the likes of the Mercedes CLK 320, or Porsche’s Boxster. However, the driving experience is a matter of personal taste. It is hugely quick and reassuringly sure-footed, but that extra degree of driver involvement seemed lacking on the autobahns where we drove it.”
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The TT’s 1.8-litre engine is a pretty robust unit, but it must be cared for. The cambelt and tensioners need to be changed at 80,000-mile intervals or every five years, and if it hasn’t been done before, get the water pump changed to the uprated version with a metal impellor. V6s can develop rattly cam chains, so keep an ear out, because rectifying this is a costly, engine-out job.
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The manual gearbox shouldn’t give you any issues, but it’s possible the DSG automatic will; if it’s struggling to engage gears, you might need a new ‘Mechatronic’ unit. The Haldex clutch on Quattro versions should be renewed every 20,000 miles.
As with any car of this age, check for rust. The roof rails are particularly prone to the dreaded tin worm. Inside, meanwhile, the ‘dashpod’ instrument cluster is a common failure point – a reconditioned unit will cost about £300.
Audi TT Mk1
1.8-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
6-speed manual, four-wheel drive
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