The Isle of Man TT course covers 60.72 kilometres of the most varied and challenging tarmac in the world. On the barren mountains, rains sweep in without warning and wildlife darts across the road; in the towns, narrow streets thread between close-packed buildings and saw-toothed stone fences. The road is unpredictable, so your ride better not be.
Enter the Audi TT, a pretty little coupe that’s essentially a slimmed-down Golf R with more options. That’s not meant to be a backhanded compliment, as the R is currently the hatchback to beat in terms of everyday livability and outright pace. This year, the TT receives a minor facelift and, more importantly, a powertrain upgrade that ups the pace.
The TT brand is 20 years old this year, with the original coupe launching in September, 1998. The car takes its name from the Tourist Trophy motorcycle races held annually on the Isle of Man, with one of Audi’s parent companies, DKW, taking an overall win in 1938.
For our test drive, a fifth of the mountain course – about 12 kilometres – has been closed to traffic for a high-speed run between the restaurant at Craig-ny-Baa and the hairpin turn coming down into Ramsey.
“You've got to think of it like classical music,” says Richard Quayle, one of just three local Manxmen to have won a TT. “There's a flow and rhythm to the course.”
At about 145 kilometres an hour, braking in for a blind right-hander, it’s comfortable enough behind the TT’s wheel to dwell momentarily on the bravery of the motorcycle racers who run this course. For one thing, the bikes cover this ground much faster, at speeds of 300 km/h or more. For another, they do so without the protection of a steel shell and all-wheel-drive. As an avalanche of seagulls suddenly flutters across the road, causing brake lights to flash on, a thought is clearly illuminated: Race a bike here? You’d have to be a lunatic.
However, in a car as unflappable as the TT, you just want to go faster. The variable magnetic-ride suspension eats up ruts and bumps and the combination of a torquey turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive lets you accelerate early post-apex. Turn-in is far sharper than you’d expect from a car with all-wheel-drive and the standard-equipment Pirelli tires enable an indicated lateral 1 g or more.
The steering isn’t alive with feedback, but offers a sharp precision not normally associated with Audi. Further, it’s variable-ratio, meaning it’s less nervous and fidgety at higher speeds, but quick through the hairpins.
Smooth-rumped and sharp-clawed as a Manx cat, the TT scampers over the road unperturbed by seagulls, damp patches, or sudden dips. There are more exhilarating machines out there, ones that pivot under you in a delicate ballet. The TT just grips and goes.
Despite a new engine that brings a mild power bump, the updated seven-speed gearbox is really the only major mechanical upgrade for the TT. It's hard to fault its quick responses, whether left to its own devices or shifted manually with the paddles.
With the unrestricted section done, a quick run of the rest of the TT course is a great way to take a brief tour of the picturesque towns dotting the Isle. You see the odd Ferrari or Porsche, but most of the quick cars here are of the hot-hatchback variety: the Civic Type R, the Focus RS.
The 2+2-seater TT isn’t a true, purpose-built sports car in the mould of a Porsche Cayman or similar. It is essentially a well-polished machine built on the bones of a hot hatchback.
But for sheer pace across a tricky piece of road, it's a sure-footed companion that vacuums up imperfections and spits out raw speed. On the Isle of Man, the bikes operate on the bleeding edge, split-seconds between life and death. In the TT, clawing four-wheeled out of a slippery turn with the tachometer sweeping up into the red, the risk is gone, but the reward remains.
You’ll like this car if... you like your backroads twisty, gnarled and tricky.
- Base price: TBD
- Engines: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic; All-wheel
- Fuel economy: TBD
- Alternatives: Porsche Cayenne, BMW 2-series
Tweaked to more closely resemble its big-brother, the R8, the TT gets new front and rear fascias while keeping all the sheetmetal essentially the same. It’s a sharp-looking car, though it doesn’t take any revolutionary risks like the late-1990s original.
While it’s not a true sports car, the TT’s cockpit is most certainly driver-focused. Moving infotainment functions to the instrument panel makes for a clean layout across the dashboard. The rear seats are incredibly tight, an emergency-only proposition for an across-town ride.
The new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine only bumps power by 5 per cent or so, to a total of 302 horsepower. It emits a surprisingly burly growl from its quad exhaust tips, and produces a healthy 295 lb.-ft. of torque from 2,000-5,300 rpm. Brake-based torque-vectoring combines with all-wheel-drive to get power to the ground under any conditions.
Audi’s virtual cockpit debuted in the TT and it remains one of the best systems for eliminating the tacked-on iPad look of many modern cars. It functions well, with navigation easily capable of directing you through the tight and confusing confines of Douglas, capital of the Isle.
A small car is helped out here by a useful hatchback layout. Total space in the TT is 340 litres and since those rear seats aren’t much use, you might as well fold them flat for a little extra room.
The verdict: 9
Minor powertrain updates and a fresher face make an oft-overlooked sporty coupe that much better. Properly quick, no matter the weather.