As the Audi TT hits a significant historical milestone, it appears to be on the verge of taking an altogether different kind of hit.
It isn’t every birthday celebration that doubles as a wake, but the times are not what they were. Twenty years after Audi unveiled the production TT sports model, speculation is rife that the current iteration is likely to be its last – at least in the format we have come to know and love.
Indeed, this last component may form part of the problem, since the love affair has, it appears, run its natural course. Certainly, senior Ingolstadt management, when they can tear themselves away from their boardroom agonies, appear to have concluded the sportster has outlived its commercial usefulness – or so the rumour mill spins.
First seen in concept form at the 1995 Frankfurt motor show, the TT delighted both motor journalists and public alike, who clamoured for Audi to build it. The car’s initial design, widely held to have been primarily the work of Freeman Thomas, was neither retro nor contemporary, more a highly accomplished synthesis of both.
In keeping with the ulm-influenced design themes established under the styling leadership of Hartmut Warkuss, and deputy, Peter Schreyer, the TT’s pared, geometric surfaces and bold graphic elements, combined with a canopy which appeared more redolent of pre-war streamliners, resulted in what was as much design object as consumer durable.
Productionised in strikingly similar fashion to that of the concept, the TT perhaps best embodied a contemporary recasting of VW’s much-loved Karmann-Ghia. Employing a variation of the Mark IV Golf platform, the TT was initially offered in two states of tune and with Quattro four-wheel drive as standard. Intended by Audi engineers as a driver-focused machine, the car was set up with rear-biased handling characteristics, which entailed a degree of lift-off oversteer in extremis.
However, following several serious accidents (including a number of fatalities), Audi was forced to re-engineer the chassis, softening the suspension, adding an electronic ESP system and a rather tacked-on looking tail spoiler to reduce rear-end lift, the combination of which was said to have spoiled the car. A convertible model was nevertheless added a year later and in 2003, a version was offered with the VW 3.2 litre VR6 engine.
2007 saw the announcement of the second generation model. Longer and wider than its predecessor, the styling was more angular, based upon themes set out under then styling director, Walter de Silva. A more driver-focused machine than the original, owing to better weight distribution and the extensive use of aluminium, it was also offered with a wider choice of engines and for the first time, diesel power units.
The current iteration was announced in 2014. Styling this time came under the purview of Audi designer, Jurgen Löffler, under the overall supervision of Wolfgang Egger, with the intention of creating a more ‘masculine’ design. The soft surface treatment of the earlier cars was replaced with a hard-edged, linear, more technical form. Audi made much at the time of how the TT had become a design ‘icon’ and while still recognisably a descendant of the original, it had by then lost much of its character and timeless appeal.
The TT was always a fairly niche product, with European sales forming the bulk of the model’s viability, peaking in 2007 (upon the introduction of the second series model) at 38,335 units. Lowest ever was in 2014, (just prior to the arrival of the third series) with a mere 9,768 being sold. This year, Audi should round matters out at about 12,000 units. Surprisingly, given its traditional predilection for cars of this ilk, the market for the TT in the US is considerably smaller. 2008 proved the TT’s most successful year on record with 4,486 delivered. So far this year, only 1,244 have found homes.
But sales numbers only tell part of the story, because while TT fortunes have ebbed and flowed at various times throughout its lifespan, Ingolstadt has up to now kept faith with the model line. But in today’s more febrile climate, under-performing model lines that cannot pay their way are no longer to be tolerated. What has been clear for some time is that sales of close-coupled coupés and roadsters are tailing off and with traditional markets losing interest, and no compensatory demand from elsewhere, the TT, it seems, must evolve.
Autoexpress recently quoted an Ingolstadt spokesperson, who said, “If you set falling demand against rising costs, it’s obvious Audi cannot sustain its present course in the medium term. Instead, there has been intensive consideration of the coupé and the convertible in the compact segment.” A statement which leaves a good deal of room both for ambiguity and speculation.
Currently there appears to be plenty of both, with three distinct strands to this change of course, all of which stem from the forthcoming Audi A3 model, set to debut in 2019. First of these comes from German publication, Autobild who suggest that Ingolstadt executives have elected to discontinue both the A5 and TT convertibles, to be replaced by a single model, to reprise the A4 nameplate, which will be developed from the forthcoming A3’s modular platform.
Autocar meanwhile reported upon the forthcoming Q4 model, which will be a coupé-crossover model aimed at BMW’s X2. This car, based on the current Q3 platform, is said to reflect the design theme of the 2014 TT Offroad Concept shown at that year’s Beijing motor show. Further to this, the UK weekly also speculated upon the likelihood of a fastback A3 coupé model being readied to rival that of Mercedes’ popular CLA. Autoexpress also reported on this, interpreting it to be a development of the TT Sportback concept, first shown at Paris 2014.
Speculation, surmises, guesswork. What we can be reasonably confident about however is that should either see the light of day, neither will much resemble the TT as we currently recognise it. Yes, there may be a similarly arched roofline here and a shallow DLO treatment there, perhaps the occasional detail-design nod, but Audi’s visual centre of gravity has departed from the TT’s comparatively spare visuals.
As much as Ingolstadt might have trumpeted the TT as icon, Audi’s designers have never directly acknowledged it, currently following a wildly divergent stylistic course, one which refers back to arguably Ingolstadt’s true North, the original 1980 Quattro Coupé. Hence, the preponderance of steroidal wheelarches and the widespread infestation of Sport Quattro addenda.
Given the current state of affairs, not to mention the likely profit potential in producing both a sports CUV and a fastback five-door Coupé, (both of which have Global appeal), it makes commercial sense for Audi to take this course. But surely what we’re looking at is not a reinvention at all, but instead the likely death of the TT, a matter which might have elicited a little more genuine regret had Audi nurtured the model’s evolution with more care. As it is, it’s probably as good a time as any to bow out.