New Car Reviews

Celebrating 20 Years of the Audi TT at the Isle of Man

A design icon revisits its namesake

DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN — What does a small island in the Irish Sea and its legendarily perilous motorcycle race have to do with a design-forward German sport coupe? Not much, really, but they do share a name.

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, as you may know, is one of the four ancestor companies of modern-day Audi that is represented by the marque’s interlocking rings. 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 the TT to production. Three successful generations later, we’re celebrating that car’s 20th anniversary at the place that spawned it all.

So far, so good, right? What’s not to love about a brilliant, gorgeous little sports car with deep, deep motorsport roots, even if that history was made on two wheels rather than four? Well, it’s mostly made up, that’s what.

You see, while DKW was in fact 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. The Soviets took over the newly formed East Germany and dissolved the company, kicking it out of the Zwickau facility and seizing all funds. An all-new company with a similar name was formed from the wreckage in West Germany and a new headquarters setup 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 VW Group umbrella—and thereby back into Audi’s orbit. Moreover, the DKW that won the race was a split-cylinder two-stroke that bears even less relation to any of the technology deployed in the current TT other than the serpentine corporate rationale.

What about NSU? At the time of its victory on the Isle of Man, NSU was an independent company; it wasn’t until the Volkswagen Group acquired NSU in 1969 that the marque came into the four-ring fold, and only just—from 1959 to 1965, Audi was owned by Daimler-Benz. NSU’s tenure with Audi didn’t last long, however, and by 1977, the brand was dropped completely.

Claiming any sort of direct lineage from the Tourist Trophy to the Audi TT is, therefore, a bit suspect. Worse, this mostly made-up heritage spiel is frippery, mere marketing schlock unneeded to justify or sell what is, fundamentally, an excellent car. The TT stuns with its design, impresses with its performance, and requires no history lesson whatsoever to enjoy.

Perhaps the scattershot, disjointed connection between the TT and its namesake is the crystallization of everything it means to be Audi, from its far-flung and turbulent past to its present market prominence. The desire to link the modern Audi TT to the Isle of Man—and thereby its spiritual predecessors—is an expression of Audi’s desire to define itself and to establish an origin story that helps contextualize the present and give direction for the future. And regardless of the veracity of the link between TT and TT, the car itself is wonderful.

I know this because I’ve just driven the latest Audi TTS Competition over a closed section of the Snaefell Mountain portion of the TT race circuit. Hustled at a brisk seven-tenths, the TTS is lively, rewarding, and deceptively fast—very little effort is required to maintain triple digit speeds over the winding, undulating mountain pass. Of course we’re nowhere near the 180-mph-plus speeds of a modern TT motorcycle racer over this section, but we’re also nowhere near as close to instant death.

Composed is perhaps the most apt description of the TTS’s 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. All in all, it’s a very well-rounded package.

But this isn’t just the TT’s 20th anniversary; this is also the mid-cycle update. So what’s new?

The main technical update 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 is 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, while the TTS pumps up the turbo 2.0-liter’s output, and continues forward with 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, the same as last year. Quattro all-wheel drive is standard on all American TTs.

Otherwise, the differences are mostly those of appearance and equipment. We in the U.S. get a new front bumper design and some new competition-themed package options, but not the updated 3D-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 package, not to be confused with the Audi TTS Competition. While 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, spoiler, and a 10-mm 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/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 element, 20-inch Audi Sport wheels, gloss black exterior details, a new spoiler and exhaust, and red brake calipers.

A 20th Anniversary version of the TT will be offered, too, called the TT 20 Years. Just 999 examples will be built globally, and just 40 coupes and 40 roadsters will be destined for the U.S.

The 2019 Audi TT and TTS go on sale early next year. Final details and pricing will be available closer to launch date, but we don’t expect prices to rise much from their current mid-$40,000s (TT) and mid-$50,000s starting prices.

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
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
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