In 1998, Audi named its small sports car after the legendary Isle of Man TT race. Twenty years later, we're back to drive the latest incarnation on the island's speed limit-free roads.
It can be hard to think of an interesting, yet relevant place to take a car for a test drive. Luckily with the Audi TTS, the clue is in the name.
Being given the freedom to drive as fast as you want is a rare commodity. Getting to do so legally on public roads is almost unheard of in the developed world. Germany's Autobahn is, of course, the notable exception, where sections of the smooth, wide highways are de-restricted, with multiple lanes of traffic where drivers (mostly) stick to strict lane-keeping rules and all go in the same direction.
There is another place, though, that lets drivers take responsibility for their own actions on speed-limit-free sections of road. The Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between the UK and Ireland, is an independent nation that, as a protectorate of the British crown, adopts the majority of its laws. With the exception of a national speed limit.
Unlike its German counterpart, however, these roads are single-lane, two-way country affairs, often with stone walls to one side and a drop-off like a rolling hill on the other. Cars and motorbikes alike can -- and do -- travel as fast as they like, in both directions, taking blind bends and hill crests at whatever speed they see fit.
Above all else, the island is known for the TT, the most famous motorcycle road race in the world, and one of the most deadly motorsport events in history. Over 270 lives have been claimed since the event started in 1907. Ten of those deaths have been in the last three years, and this year's race cost two riders their lives.
It was in full knowledge of this that I waited for my turn to drive a 20KM section of the TT course, which had been closed especially for us, in the new 2019 Audi TTS Coupé.
It was the very first time the island's authorities had permitted a section of the track to be closed to public traffic outside of the TT race, and I wasn't going to let those terrifying stats deter me from taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive part of this notorious road circuit without fear of oncoming traffic.
I had driven on the island before. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to tag along on an event held by BAC, and I drove the single-seat madness that is the Mono on those same roads. But this time, I wouldn't have other road users to content with. This time, all I had to worry about was keeping myself on the road. This time I could take the racing line.
The Audi TT does indeed get its name from the infamous race. Although Audi itself does not produce motorcycles, one of the four companies that were merged to become the modern Audi - each represented by a ring in the marque's badge - did. DKW won the race in 1938 in the lightweight 250 class. It's that heritage that Audi drew upon when giving their sportswear its monicker when it launched in 1998.
And now, 20 years on, I'm ready to take the latest incarnation of the TTS on a stretch of the road that gave it its name.
Before I do, though, there's some time to take in the car's exterior. I have to admit that for the longest time, I wasn't a fan of the rounded off, smooth lines of the TT. It wan't until the introduction of the third generation in 2014 that its new, sharper, more aggressive stylings really started to appeal to me.
For 2019, those angry lines remain in place, but a few subtle changes have brought it back from the brink of going full Honda Civic Type R, delivering an overall look that's a touch more refined.
The front splitter now accentuates the width of the car and joins up with new intakes in the front, which look great, but upon closer inspection, appear to be fake. Sometimes, design wins over function. Similarly fake vents on the rear look great and give a great overall finish to the car, but nothing useless can be truly beautiful.
The front and rear corners of the car have seen the majority of the tweaks, erasing a few of the sharpest of edges in favour of something lightly more sedate.
The overall effect is a very pleasing-looking car that looks mean, without being all-out bonkers. It may not age as well as the original TT (which after revisiting I have now finally begun to appreciate), but against its competition, it looks unique, modern and stylish.
The interior has not changed as much from the previous version, but still holds up as one of the more modern looking cabins available. The virtual cockpit with its 12.3-inch display in place of traditional analog dials is the only screen in the car, putting all of the information needed right in front of you. Unless you make a habit out of making your passenger set the air con and the radio station for you, it quickly feels very natural not to have to glance to your side to get the information you need.
It all feels very driver-focussed, which is reassuring, as the drive I was about to embark on would require every ounce of concentration.
The powerful motorcycles that tear around these roads every summer can hit speeds well in excess of 170 mph, a bone-chillingly frightening idea when you consider that, unlike me, they don't have a cage of metal wrapped around them for protection. I wouldn't be hitting speeds anywhere near that in the TTS. With a 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph, my TTS with its 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque would to be taking the course at half the speed of those insane machines. The narrow roads and obvious hazards along the way would, however, still make it a thrilling ride.
Luck of the draw had my car the first to go up the section of the TT course, starting at the legendary Creg Ny Baa pub and winding its way up into the roads of Snaefell mountain, first taking the course in reverse before turning and coming back down.
The famous pub is a great viewing spot on a tight 90-degree bend connecting two long straights and our first leg was one of those stretches. A perfect opportunity to test the standing start.
The last TT I drove was the still-current TT RS model, and although the TTS lacks the ferocity of that car, there was still plenty of power available to get a decent push off the line. As I propelled the car towards the first turn at Kate's Cottage ,it was obvious that keeping momentum would be more useful than trying to win back speed through acceleration. This meant taking the first bend with little more than a slight lift on the throttle in the hope that the understeer of TTs of the past would not rear its ugly head.
The new TTS is fitted with the latest generation of Audi's Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system, which takes a lot of the guess work out of fast corners. With torque being shuffled quickly, front-to-back and side-to-side when needed, I could throw the TTS into bends quicker, and the forgiving nature of the handling meant that a less-than-perfect line though a sequence of bends went largely unpunished.
The feedback from the steering was slightly lacking, which left me less eager to cut corners as far as I possibly could, and the slight slack in the throttle -- even in the dynamic driving mode -- meant that small corrections on the go-pedal mid-corner weren't the best way to get yourself out of trouble. The suspension in its Dynamic setting was a shade too stiff. What looked like a smooth surface soon betrayed every single tiny bump making for some very uncomfortable driving at speed.
Even the comfort suspension setting, which I engaged in the middle of my run through the car's "Individual" mode, couldn't really be described as as soft. It kept the car pretty flat though in the twisties and gave a better sensation of weight transfer, aiding in the judging of the grip levels.
Being able to dial in the parameters for the engine, gearbox, steering and suspension separately does allow you to configure the car to your exact preferences and indeed the driving conditions. For this drive, everything was in dynamic, with the exception of the slightly softer suspension.
Heading up the mountain towards the Bungalow and the memorial to TT legend Joey Dunlop is Windy Corner, where the road widens briefly, allowing you to take a sweeping bend completely flat, staying on the power all the way through.
By now, the characteristics of the car were apparent, and my confidence grew to build more and more speed though the stunning landscape. Although the car gave me complete confidence, I knew that it would still be very much possible to outdrive myself if I didn't treat these roads with the respect they deserved.
Passing the aptly named Gooseneck bend and heading down to Ramsey Hairpin took us to the end of of the stretch that had been closed for us, arriving at an opportunity to let my pulse rate settle and to gather my thoughts.
The TTS is a sports car with enough power to have a lot of fun, but little more than that. There isn't a wave of horsepower left untapped -- everything the car has to offer can be fully exploited, and its great grip and decent handling give you the faith to push right up to the fringes of your comfort level. Slightly numb steering and moderately over-stiff suspension can't take too much away from what can be a brilliant backroad blast down your favorite driving routes.
With the roads still closed off and the car ready and waiting to give more, it would have been rude not to take full advantage. If wanting to get right back in a car again as soon as you get out isn't an indication of a great ride, then I don't know what is.
Having the TT course closed off and at your disposal, though, makes it a complete no brainer.
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