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2004 Audi TT 3.2 Quattro DSG Track Review

Before getting into this, I have to confess something... I had never driven an Audi TT before. Not until this one, anyway. But that hasn't stopped me from forming an opinion about it from the comforts of my own couch while reading and watching reviews online. After all, if you've never done that, do you even know what the point of the internet is? Now, we all interpret reviews differently. Call it confirmation bias if you will, but if you like a car, you'll read a review and look at the positives as what makes the car great and the negatives are but a few quibbles you have to live with. If you don't like a car, the positives are a few things the manufacturer got right while screwing up everything else. It's a bit harsh to put the TT in the latter category, but that's where it ended up for me...

I never took the TT seriously. The problem with the TT for me isn't that it's a Golf underneath, per se. There is nothing wrong with a performance car sharing a chassis and a drivetrain with a humble nameplate (as long as you don't call it a "sports car"). That's specially true when the humble nameplate is built on very good bones. There isn't a hot hatch out there isn't built on a humble nameplate. The problem in this case is the (hot) hatchback itself; the Golf.

What's so special?

The base TT was FWD and had a 1.8 litre turbocharged 4 cylinder, just like a GTI. It was tuned to make more in the TT with about 180 hp but that was nothing to write home about. You could get it with more power and the same engine in a higher state of tune, more boost, and a bigger turbo making 222 hp, but that sounds more like an aftermarket tuner fiddling with the car, rather than something special. A few years after it was released, you could get it with VW's 3.2 litre VR6 engine, but they went and dropped that in the R32 as well. Quattro? It isn't a real Quattro, it's the same type of Haldex system VW used in 4motion and R32 models. The question is this: why get it over a Golf? It's just a Golf in a fat suite (or, a skinny suite, rather... and a fraction of the utility). But I was wrong.

I remember an episode of Top Gear UK quite a while back where they reviewed the Aston Martin Vanquish and they kept saying that they couldn't justify it over the DB9. The two Astons were as close as makes no difference in terms of size, looks, engine, power, speed, etc. yet the Vanquish was a lot more money. But at the end, Jeremy figured it out. He said the Vanquish is a DB9 "where every little thing is made a little bit better." THAT is exactly what the TT is to the Golf.

The TT is a little stiffer. It handles a little better. It's much lower to the ground with a lower centre of gravity. It has a wider track and a narrower wheelbase. Wider wheels and tires, bigger brakes, more power, when properly spec'ed. And of course, it looks nothing like a Golf inside and out and it feels smaller thanks to the cabin and dimensions. Combine all of that together and you have something that feels completely different.

The Handling

This TT isn't stock (unfortunate for the objectiveness of this review, I'll admit). It has a set of ST coilovers. I'm not familiar with ST to be honest, so I don't know if they're high end units aimed at track use or not. Their price suggests they're middle of the road, but there are no complaints from me. The car was flatter than the Bonneville Salts. Body roll is a distant, faint reminder that the car does have a suspension. But it isn't just a rock stiff setup. Small undulations are entirely shrugged off. I couldn't do the ultimate test of a suspension - riding the rumble strips in the apex - because it wasn't my car, but nothing upset the chassis.

There are a few bumps on our track that seem to have been strategically placed to mess with you. One is just past cresting a little hill (Turn 5). The car is a unloaded at that point, it's just after the apex of the turn so the car isn't straight, and it leads to our "back straight" (it's not entirely straight) so you need to get back on power ASAP. Any speed you lose here amounts to a big time loss by the end of the "straight". Add in a few bumps, and you are really testing a car's suspension tune. This TT didn't like it (at first)...

I didn't know if it was the springs or the dampers, but I figured going softer would help the car. The car is also very low so I thought it might have been bottoming out in the back (owner checked this later and confirmed it was bottoming out, more on that in a bit). There's just so little suspension movement. But even with that in mind, it never once threatened to bite. If you trust the car and point it in the right direction, it will take the bumps and carry on.

And it gets even better. Since the coilovers are height adjustable, the owner raised ride height in the back to see if that helped in case it was bottoming out and that was a huge help. You can attack any turn flat out now with no hesitation. And the slight increase in ride height in the back must have shifted a little weight over the front axle because it feels a little more eager to turn. The extra ride height and suspension travel meant the car just shrugs off every bump and dip, despite the stiffness. Combine that with the improved front end grip, and the results are incredible. It's still easy to find understeer at the limit, just come in too hot and the front end will run wide. But it doesn't plow straight and it's very well behaved on power in corner exit. The upside to the stability is that you feel like you can throw it into a corner and it'll never go wrong.

This is all made even better by the steering. Feedback is great compared to the majority of modern cars I've driven on track. The brakes (all stock except for pads and SS lines) have great feel, great bite, and fade resistance. The wider track and shorter wheelbase - two of the advantages of the TT suite over the Golf body - make it feel more nimble, agile, and eager to change direction. All of that, combined with sitting lower in the chassis make you feel that much closer to the action (contact patches) so you can feel a lot of what's going on at the tires.

The Drivetrain

The 3.2 litre V6 (VR6) engine is such a joy. It has good power everywhere, revs freely, and makes a great noise. Like the suspension, the engine wasn't stock either. It has full exhaust and cams. It sounds great, easily one of the best sounding V6's out there. I always thought to myself that if I were to get a TT, I'd want the 4 cyl turbo because of potential to make more power and tuneability but no, give me this over the turbo any day. Power is immediate and so easy to modulate, the noise is miles better, and being naturally aspirated means no turbos, intercoolers, and additional heat and plumbing to worry about.

I probably would've liked to drive this car with a manual, but it's hard to complain. The transmission shifts quickly and holds gears to redline. It doesn't feel like it's holding the car back in any way. Want this car with a manual? I would too. If you want it with a DSG, though, I wouldn't blame you.

Lap Times

This is an area where - unlike the driving, which pleasantly surprised me - I was disappointed. Given the modifications and the grip, I was expecting more. I did one 1:27.2 lap followed by two 1:26.9 laps. That's the best I could manage. In addition to the power and suspension mods, the car is on Nankang NS-2R tires. Grip felt good, really good. I could carry good speed into the corners. The balance, as mentioned, was great. I think the biggest problem is the power. The car couldn't crack 95 mph on the back straight and barely cracked 80 mph on the front straight. Between the corners, I had no problem keeping up with another Boss 302 on track in the turns, but it was seriously down on power otherwise.

It's worth noting that I've driven this car 3 times so far. Twice was in 80+ deg F (28+ deg C) weather - including this test - and once was in 60+ deg F (15 deg C) weather, according to dash readouts. The difference in power as measured by my butt dyno is massive. I was very underwhelmed by the engine the first time and told this to the owner. But in cooler weather, it was a different animal. The owner agrees.

The engine feels alive in cool temperatures and eager, seemingly always tugging at the leash. In hotter weather, it feels very subdued. I imagine the engine tune might be conservative given that it's a track tune. Heat alone kills power due to a less dense air charge. Combine that with (potentially) a conservative tune that aggressively pulls timing to protect the engine, and you probably have a significant power difference in heat. I figure this car can do a low 1:22-1:24 time with better conditions. Hope I can find out at some point.

The Verdict

Although it's still FWD-based with a Haldex AWD and a relatively heavy V6 up front, it's very far from the terrible understeer that such a setup might conjure. Turn in is great and there's good front end grip. A bit of trail braking rotates the car very nicely once you start carrying more speed, yet it'll never bit. And corners that don't need braking just need you to back off the throttle just a little on turn in and the nose tucks in beautifully. I'd want a bit more mechanical grip up front. The tires are staggered 225/255 front/rear. A couple of times running hot into T1, the car ran quite wide. I don't think I'd change the suspension balance of the car, just a bit more tire up front should do the trick.

The forgiving and communicative chassis combined with AWD system makes it very (very) easy to drive fast. The car doesn't have an active suspension to help cover up your mistakes. There are no active diffs and million mode traction control systems. It's just a forgiving chassis and a boat load of traction. The owner even turned off stability control for my most recent drive to avoid having power cut out to get a lap time. But there was still no shenanigans. There are few cars other than my own that I feel comfortable pushing this close to the limit on track without the assists. This is certainly one of them.

I'll be the first to stand in line demanding the return of manual, RWD cars if (when?) they're all dead. For competitive rats like myself, it's far more satisfying and engaging to play with a well balanced RWD car. But after a day of pushing my much more raw and demanding Boss 302 at the Time Attack, there's genuine appreciation for driving this TT. It's speed without much drama, and not the sort of easy speed you get these days with modern cars that do a lot of work for you. No, you still have to drive the car properly. Short of the AWD system shifting power to the back when the fronts call for help, this is very much an analog car and you have to know what you're doing to drive it quickly. But when you do, it'll reward you with great feedback, effortless speed, and one of the best V6 soundtracks out there.

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