New Audi TT keeps your hands on the wheel and a death grip on the road

The route I'm following in the 2016 Audi TT turns twisty, with hairpins tracking the mountain topography. As it turns out, it becomes perfect ground to test the little car's handling. Try as I might, though, I can't get the tires to squeal, as the TT's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, corner braking and low center of gravity conspire to keep it firmly planted, refusing to give an inch of grip.

A glance at the instrument panel shows that I'm on Bible Creek Road, but the surrounding forest obscures any sign of water. Those trees are, however, shown in satellite view on the instrument panel, as the 2016 TT comes with Audi's new Virtual Cockpit system. That means a full LCD panel in front of the driver combining virtual gauges and infotainment functions, including Audi's Google Earth-connected navigation system, hence the satellite imagery.

2016 Audi TT
For its third generation, the TT gets styling cues from the Audi R8, establishing a sport sub-group in Audi's line-up. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With its oddly bulbous shape, the TT became an instant icon when Audi first introduced it about 15 years ago. The 2016 TT represents the third generation of the car. Previously released in Europe, the new TT gets styling that emulates the more ferocious Audi R8 , a new driveline and body structure, and also premieres the Virtual Cockpit, an infotainment interface Audi will roll out among its other models.

My time in the car was spent during an Audi-sponsored press event near Portland, Oregon. As such, I got to spend a good couple of hours driving with TT product manager Anthony Garbis, who said the previous TT models were merely "sporty cars" while the third generation was a "true sports car". From talking with Garbis, I deduced that Audi's idea of a "true sports car" needs to have superior power and handling, but also a distinctive look. With those factors in mind, the TT certainly qualifies.

Every TT coupe in the US comes with a 2-liter four cylinder engine using Audi's well-developed direct injection and turbocharger technologies, a six-speed, dual clutch, automated manual transmission -- "S tronic" in Audi nomenclature -- and Quattro all-wheel-drive. The engine produces 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque while also boasting mid-20s average fuel economy. Quattro can throw all of its torque to the front or rear wheels, depending on what the car's sensors tell it, and the driver can choose between Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual drive modes. Those modes affect steering, throttle response and exhaust sound, while the transmission has its own Sport and manual gear selection modes.

On the throttle I felt just a little lag before the TT's thrust kicked in, but once going it didn't want to stop. In Dynamic mode, it accompanied hard acceleration with throaty snorts from the engine. The S tronic shifted extremely fast, with almost no rev drop between gears. Enthusiasts might lament the lack of a manual transmission option, but Garbis justified that decision by citing how few buyers would actually want it. And with the TT's price point well north of $40,000, I'm not surprised. Three-pedal enthusiasts skew younger, with cars such as the cheaper Mazda MX-5 and Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ aimed at them.

2016 Audi TT
The TT comes standard with LED headlights, and its twin vertical parking lights give it a distinct look. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

In low-speed city driving and cruising down the highway, the TT's manners proved very refined. The ride quality was firm but comfortable, such that I could see taking the car on a longer road trip. Twelve cubic feet of luggage space under the rear hatch makes that idea even more realistic, at least for a couple of people. The rear seats serve better as auxiliary cargo space than people-holders.

The steering, with electric boost, felt direct and responsive. Garbis explained that the steering's variable ratio goes from 14.6:1 down to about 9:1, so that I never ended up with my arms crossed in a tight turn.

One thing Audi apparently didn't count on when selecting this drive route was Oregon's occasionally rough pavement, intended I think to lend traction in the wet, which made for relatively loud road noise in the cabin. To overcome it, I turned up the volume of the car's Bang & Olufsen audio system, an optional treat for music lovers which uses 12 speakers around the cabin, a 680-watt amp, and the brand's highly balanced and refined sound quality. The heavy bass and rich vocals alternating with single percussion in songs off of Lykke Li's "Youth Novels" album really let this Bang & Olufsen system show its stuff.

2016 Audi TT roadster
Click here to read CNET's first take review of the 2016 Audi TT roadster. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

I chose that album using the Virtual Cockpit panel in front of me, playing from my iPhone plugged into the car's USB port. That's right: the new TT has two USB ports, and if you know anything about Audis that is something of a revolution. Audi has scrapped its proprietary system, requiring a multitude of adapter cables, for the simple USB port, able to accept thumb drives and phone cables.

As for the Virtual Cockpit display, Audi took a chance by dropping the head unit and climate controls from their traditional place in the center of the dashboard. The climate controls very cleverly move to the vents themselves, which is very logical, while navigation, phone, connected features and audio appear with the gauges on the instrument cluster. Audi maintains its basic control paradigm, with a touchpad dial and buttons on the console, but includes buttons on the steering wheel that let the driver perform most infotainment functions and vehicle settings. Voice command remains another control option.

2016 Audi TT
At the touch of a button, the virtual gauges take a more or less prominent position on the display. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

A button labeled View toggles the virtual gauges between larger and smaller sizes, which I found extremely useful when going between highway cruising, where I wanted to pay attention to navigation, and flogging it on the twisty roads, when RPM became more important. The steering wheel buttons take a little getting used to, as their cramped arrangement on the spokes isn't quite as logical as the control pod on the console. And I did have to go to the console touchpad when I wanted to trace letters for conducting a destination or music search.

That's another nice simplification of this interface -- instead of choosing address or points of interest or any of the other myriad means of entering a destination in other navigation systems, the TT's Virtual Cockpit has a single, simple entry field, which automatically searches for addresses and places depending on your alpha-numeric entries. And Audi also implements Google search over the car's built-in 4G/LTE data connection.

While the Virtual Cockpit seems to rule out passenger involvement in music selection or navigation, the instrument panel is actually quite easy to see from the passenger seat, and the console controls are in easy reach.

As I drove the twisty Bible Creek Road, I had merely to glance down at the instrument panel, where I might look anyway to check the revs, to see from the navigation map that a particularly vicious turn was coming up. And reiterating a point made earlier, the TT held the road so well that I would have to get into truly stupid speeds to break the tires loose. I also noticed a lack of throttle response after each turn's apex, however, when I wanted power for the out. I switched the car to manual shift mode, as I found the Sport program not working as aggressively as I would have liked, but even near redline in second gear, there was that power loss.

Reasoning that the car's electronic stability control (ESC) tended conservative, I pushed a switch on the dashboard, enabling an almost hidden Sport ESC mode. Now, even with the sensors telling the car it was on the verge of catastrophe, it let me have the power I wanted. The suspension held the car firm and the tires dug in, front and rear, and the handling became even more exhilarating while still feeling perfectly safe.

2016 Audi TT
As with many recent Audi models, the TT delivers on multiple fronts. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The 2016 TT follows a trend with Audi to get everything right. From power to handling to design, the third-generation TT makes for a unique little sports car. The cabin tech, especially the virtual cockpit, is beyond what you will find on any other car. LED headlights also come standard, and though it's a small thing, the inclusion of USB ports for audio devices makes a big difference.

The new TT isn't cheap, and Audi pits it against the likes of the Porsche Cayman to justify the price. I suggested the Nissan 370Z as a natural competitor due to form and handling, but Garbis pointed out that car's heavier engine and less refined cabin. When you consider the TT's all-wheel-drive, cabin electronics and sporty design, there is nothing that really compares.

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