TT turns 21


Is Audi’s futuristic coupé a true modern classic?

It’s hard to believe that the Audi TT turns 21 this year.

You’d never guess that this fresh-faced coupé dates back to the era of Cool Britannia and the Spice Girls, but it first appeared in 1998. In fact, its roots stretch even further back, as the production car is a remarkably faithful facsimile of the TT Concept that Audi wheeled out for the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995.

Today, the Mk1 TT still looks every bit as futuristic, but it’s now being hailed as a bona fide classic. To find out if it deserves that status we’ve descended on the windswept roads of Dartmoor with TT owner Neil Roberts and his immaculate 225PS quattro coupé. And to keep it honest we’ve brought along the very latest third generation TT in 245PS quattro form.

The first thing you notice about the two cars is the difference in scale. On its own, the current TT looks pert and compact, but park it next to the original and there are times when you wonder whether Audi might have delivered an A5 by mistake. In reality, the new car is only 150mm longer and just 68mm wider, but the delicacy of the original has been replaced by something chunkier and more aggressive. It’s still one of the most recognisable silhouettes in the car industry, though, with that trademark bubble canopy and the same distinctive proportions.

“The looks of TT were what drew me to it in the first place,” admits Neil. “I’ve always liked them, ever since the first car came out when I was a kid.” Following a string of Alfa Romeos and Land Rovers, he bought this example in 2017. Ease of ownership was part of the attraction, he says, with his previous purchases often living up to their temperamental stereotypes. In contrast, the Audi has provided plenty of trouble-free motoring, with only routine servicing required.

As with the exterior, there’s a bold, confident feel to the cabin. You sit low, cocooned by the TT’s swooping roofline and staring out through a letterbox-like windscreen. The exposed aluminium beams and polished chrome trim were apparently designed to lend a nautical feel and they still look fresh and quirky today. Even the plastics have worn the last 19 years and 119,000 miles remarkably well.

It’s my turn to drive the Mk1, so we swap seats and head onto serpentine road that snakes its way up from Dartmeet towards Poundsgate. Within a matter of yards you notice just how fresh this car feels. The gearbox has a lovely mechanical action, while the 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine pulls with a distinctly modern vigour and an impressive absence of lag. There are no creaks or rattles either and road noise is perhaps better suppressed in the old car than it is in the current TT with its rubber band tyres.

There’s a bit of rasp to the exhaust and occasionally a faint whoosh from the turbocharger, but the soundtrack is quietly understated as a rule. The same could be said of the handling. This car has an aftermarket Haldex controller fitted to push a bit more torque to the rear wheels and dial out some of the understeer, but it still feels essentially front-wheel drive. Go into a corner and the steering, although precise, is relatively lifeless. However, the TT’s keen turn in, excellent traction and resolutely neutral balance allow it to cover ground at a pace that still feels rapid today.

There are those who will bemoan the TT’s lack of adjustability, but the flipside to this surefooted nature is that it gives you the confidence to press on, even when the rain is coming in sideways and the roads look more like rivers. In some ways, that sums up the whole experience. Mechanically, the Mk1 TT is capable rather than flamboyant (certainly in four-cylinder quattro form). Its modern equivalent ratchets that concept up another couple of levels, with more grip, better body control and significantly more straight-line pace (even in relatively mild 245PS form). And yet they’re remarkably similar in character given that the two designs are separated by 21 years and based on totally separate platforms.

Ultimately, it’s the looks and the feel good factor that remain the TT’s main attractions – particularly where the Mk1 is concerned. Yes, it’s still essentially a Golf underneath, but it has a sense of occasion that its hatchback cousins could never hope to emulate. And two decades on from its launch that iconic Bauhaus design still looks like it belongs on a concept car rather than something you could jump in and drive to Sainsbury’s. What’s more, a well-cared for example like Neil’s still feels fresh, potent and easily good for another 100,000 miles.

A genuine modern classic? No arguments here.