Celebrating 20 Years of the Audi TT at the Isle of Man
A paragon of Bauhaus design revisits its namesake
DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN — What does a small island in the Irish Sea and the legendarily perilous motorcycle race held there have to do with a design-forward German sports coupe?
The thread begins in 1938, when former mechanic and backup rider Ewald Kluge rode a DKW motorcycle to victory in the TT Lightweight class. DKW, you might know, is one of four ancestor companies of modern-day Audi represented by the marque's interlocking-rings logo. NSU picked up the thread in 1965 with the Prinz TT, a rear-engine, rear-drive, four-wheeled homage to NSU's motorcycling successes in the 1950s, including a TT class win in 1954. Then, in 1998, Audi brought its TT to production, and two successful generations later we're celebrating the car's 20th anniversary at the place that spawned it all.
What's not to love about the history tied to a brilliant, gorgeous little sports car with deep motorsports roots, even if that history was made on two wheels rather than four? For the record, there are a few points of fact worth clearing up.
Although DKW was part of Auto Union (together with Audi, Horch, and Wanderer) at the time of Kluge's 1938 TT win, the Auto Union that DKW belonged to ceased to exist shortly after the end of World War II, when the Soviets took over the newly formed East Germany, dissolved the company, kicked it out of the Zwickau facility, and seized all assets. An all-new company with a similar name was formed from the wreckage in West Germany, and a new headquarters was set up in Ingolstadt, but not until 1949. The Zwickau plant went on to build the oft-lampooned Trabant until the 1990s, when it came under the Volkswagen Group umbrella and thereby back into Audi's orbit.
The new seven-speed arrangement allows for the first six gears to be a bit closer, aiding acceleration, and the seventh gear to be a bit taller.
As for NSU, at the time of its victory on the Isle of Man, it was an independent company. Not until 1969, when the VW Group acquired NSU, did the marque come into the four-ring fold—and only just. NSU's tenure with Audi didn't last long; by 1977 the latter dropped the NSU brand completely.
Claiming any sort of direct lineage from the Tourist Trophy to the Audi TT is, therefore, a bit suspect. But it's also unnecessary to justify or sell what is, fundamentally, an excellent car. The TT features stunning design and impressive performance, and its history—or arguable lack thereof—mitigates none of the joy that comes with driving it.
We know this because we've just driven the latest TTS Competition over a closed section of the Snaefell Mountain portion of the TT race circuit. Hustled at a brisk seven-tenths, the TT is lively, rewarding, and deceptively fast—it requires very little effort to maintain triple-digit speeds over the winding, undulating mountain pass. Of course, we're nowhere near the 180-plus-mph speeds of a modern Isle of Man TT motorcycle racer over this section, but we're also nowhere near as close to death.
"Composed" is perhaps the most apt description of the TTS' handling. There are few situations that leave it out of sorts, and despite the typical Audi front-cantilevered engine location, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system does a good job vectoring the torque around to keep the chassis feeling neutral and pointed in the direction the driver intends. Steering feel isn't tremendous or particularly tactile, but it's enough to let you know when grip is about to run out, and the ratio is quick but not so quick it makes it hard to be smooth. It's better suited to the fast, sweeping, smooth-surfaced curves of Snaefell than the more frenetic inputs required over the bumpier, 1.5-lane interior island roads. All in all, it's a well-rounded package.
But this isn't just the TT's 20th anniversary; this is also the midcycle update. The main technical change is an additional gear in the dual-clutch transmission, up from six to seven. The new seven-speed arrangement allows for the first six gears to be a bit closer, aiding acceleration, and the seventh gear to be a bit taller, improving cruising economy slightly. In practice, the difference is not massively obvious, but the transmission still shifts crisply and quickly, and it's still a pleasure to use.
The new shorter gearing means more low-end mechanical torque, too, which means better in-gear acceleration at any speed. The TT carries forward its standard 220-hp, 258-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo-four, and the TTS pumps up the 2.0-liter turbo's output and also continues with the same 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque as last year's model. Quattro is standard on every American TT—and it was welcome on the back way between Ballaugh (site of the famous bridge jump) and Kirk Michael, making the most of the TT's low-end grunt out of every corner.
Otherwise, the differences are mostly those of appearance and equipment. U.S. cars get a new front bumper design and some new competition-themed package options
but not the updated 3-D-style grille of the European car; we heard mumblings of something about U.S. license plates not allowing for much fun to be had.
As for those competition-themed packages, there's the Audi TT S line Competition, not to be confused with the Audi TTS Competition. Although the S line treatment has been around for a while, the 2019 TT gets a few updates to its S line package, which includes aluminum S line door sills, a three-spoke flat-bottom steering wheel, unique contrast stitching, brushed aluminum inlays, Alcantara and leather sport seats with embossing, a new Sport mode for the Virtual Cockpit display, 19-inch Audi Sport wheels, gloss black exterior details, red brake calipers, a spoiler, and a 0.4-inch-lower S line sport suspension.
The TTS Competition package, on the other hand, is a new treatment for the midrange TT and includes an Alcantara and leather flat-bottom steering wheel with 12 o'clock position indicator, brushed aluminum inlays, Alcantara and leather sport seats, an extended interior leather package, color-themed interior elements, 20-inch wheels, gloss black exterior details, a new spoiler and exhaust, and red brake calipers. With the 20-inch wheels and the sporty suspension tune, the TTS Competition was fast but skittish over the less maintained roads on the north side of the Isle, a trait we noticed as we hustled from The Cronk to the Point of Ayre lighthouse near Bride.
A 20th Anniversary version of the TT will be offered, too, called the TT 20 Years. Audi will build just 999 examples for the global market, with only 40 coupes and 40 roadsters destined for the U.S. We don't expect prices to rise much from their current mid-$40,000s (TT) and mid-$50,000s (TTS) starting points.
2019 Audi TTS Specifications
|ON SALE||Early 2019|
|PRICE||$55,000 (base, est)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/292 hp @ 5,400-6,200 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,900-5,300 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, AWD Coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/27 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||165.0 x 72.1 x 52.8 in|
|WEIGHT||3,2450 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||4.6 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|