The original Audi TT was one of the most un-altered, un-compromised designs to reach showrooms in the modern era. Then it killed five people.
(Welcome back to Carspotting! It’s been a while but we’re back with The Worst Walking Tour of New York City, headed by me, a hack who is barely qualified to tell you how to get to the Empire State Building from here. We’re out to find the best cars of the Big Apple.)
The original Audi TT got one of the more unusual recalls I can remember. You had to go back to the dealer to get a spoiler on the back of your supposedly already-quite-sporty two-door.
The cause was that without the spoiler, the original TT was unstable at high speed. At least five people died, including a former rally driver, as The New York Times reported:
The TT Coupe made its debut to great acclaim, with particular praise for its sleek, Bauhaus-inspired design and its $31,000 base price. The car’s luster dimmed in Europe, though, after an unusual number of high-speed crashes. Last fall, Audi announced a voluntary recall to fit the cars with a rear air spoiler, to help hold down the back of the car at speed, and new suspension components to improve handling.
As the number of accidents rose in Europe, including five fatalities, German TT owners complained that this solution was insufficient. The death last month of Peter Hommel, 60, a former East German rally driver, added to the clamor. Soon after, Audi A.G. said it would offer owners the option of adding the stability system, which it calls E.S.P., for the equivalent of $325.
Oddly, the Feds over here didn’t see any big problem with the car, and it has to do with our speed limits, as the NYT explained:
Neither Audi of America nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report any American complaints about TT handling problems. Audi said the European fatalities occurred in accidents at speeds exceeding 110 miles an hour; such speeds are not unusual on German autobahns but are extraordinary in North America.
“These all are very unfortunate incidents,” said Jennifer Garber, a spokeswoman for Audi of America. “But we believe the problem is related to unique driving conditions in Germany that don’t apply here.”
So the car had its perfect retrofuture 1930s-to-1990s styling disturbed by a little duckbill on the back. It was a concession. Not a great one, but a tradeoff.
When the second generation TT came out, that tradeoff continued. The car got new styling, more aggressive. More sporty. It looked like it was eternally leaning forward. Even with a spoiler that hid away at low speed, it lost the pure spirit of the first generation.
And now we’re in the third generation of TT. The car is more capable than ever before. I bumped into a new Audi TT RS on the street the other day while filming this episode of Carspotting and I had forgotten just how aggro it looks in person, all wings and chin spoilers.
It makes sense. The outside conveys what’s going on inside. Close to 400 horsepower from a turbo inline five, all-wheel drive and some extremely serious performance. The TT has never been so capable.
But it has also never stayed so far from its looks-for-looks-alone original generation.
I get it. Audi couldn’t sell the first-gen TT forever. It needed to do some kind of update. And car design really is all about tradeoffs. Performance versus styling, power versus economy, cost versus complexity. Very few cars ever reach the showroom looking like everything was exactly as the designers wanted it to be, but the original TT did. And look at how that turned out.