MOTOR MOUTH: Driving beauty

MOTOR MOUTH: Driving beauty - Audi has replaced BMW as the love object of affluent professionals. The evolution from front-wheel-drive curiosities, via re-badged Volkswagens to potent status symbols has taken time but is now complete. Mercedes' combo of s

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Audi has replaced BMW as the love object of affluent professionals. The evolution from front-wheel-drive curiosities, via re-badged Volkswagens to potent status symbols has taken time but is now complete. Mercedes' combo of snobbismus and technical supremacy is not (yet) under threat, but in all subjective matters - quality, style, cachet and so on - Audi makes BMW look sad sacks.

The fantastic Audi TT is the most cunning development in the Volkswagen Group's plan for world domination. Besides Audi, the group owns Spanish Seat and Czech Skoda, meaning it can spread the costs of developing a car across four brands. The single most expensive component in a car is the most banal: the platform. Every car needs one, although the consumer never sees or touches it. Ingeniously, the Volkswagen Golf platform also provides the underpinnings of the Skoda Octavia and the new Seat, not to mention the Audi A3 and, naturally, the TT.

The Volkswagen policy is a perfect demonstration in metal of the belief that 'design' is the chief differentiator in today's market, since technology is shared and common. For nearly 20 years Audi design has been brilliant, and never more so than with the TT. No other manufacturer has better understood how pragmatism and reticence could combine with strong form and perfect proportions to make winning shapes. Inside the cars, no other manufacturer better understands the evocative use of textures and the erotic thrill of superb physical quality.

But the essence of Audi's achievement lies in aesthetic continuity. Because each successive model has so clearly evolved from a predecessor, it conveys a sense of pride and preciousness. A manufacturer who does bonkers radical at every model change gives the consumer the impression that outgoing cars were not much valued; Audi designers seem to be nurturing motifs held in sacred trust.

Yet the TT is artistically like no other Audi. Nor is it dynamically like a Golf. It is, however, one of the most gorgeous designs ever. Aesthetically, it is a pair of big wet lips that - to mix anatomical metaphors - you can't take your eyes off.

I've looked hard at the TT and tried to understand just how the designers achieved this. It's something to do with the uncompromising geometry of the car, which is all Bauhaus-inspired radii, in concert with emphatic cut-lines and details. It is like a tutorial in how to achieve impressive surface effects. The stance is perfect too: the wheels fill the arches and, on the move, observers note an atmosphere of elegant menace about the car.

Add to this a tangible sense of quality (the paint is like glass) and an overall shape that brings to mind the magnificent Auto-Union racers from the '30s and you have a sculptural package so seductive that, a year after its introduction to the British market, heads turn everywhere you go and waiting lists stretch to infinity.

The fun continues inside. Truth be told, the TT's cabin is claustrophobic and a bit of an ergonomic bodge. Like all Audis, you feel you're sitting in a trench looking out of slits, and the handbrake is awkward. Profoundly unfunctional perhaps, but this is like saying you can't put your Sevres porcelain in the dishwasher.

Despite the ads, this is not form and function, this is art. The emotional benefits of letting Bauhaus groupies loose with space-age materials compensate for some technical shortcomings: instruments have beautifully contrasting bezels, there's a Kama Sutra of interesting textures and polished metal braces between the instrument panel and transmission tunnel that don't do anything at all but look magnificent. Which is, of course, a function all by itself.

For sure, the aesthetically and intellectually curious can have as much fun in a stationary Audi TT as they can in a moving one, but the car is an absolute blast to drive. The more powerful turbo quattro is mainline dynamic pleasure, handling as if on a cliche and with a perfect mixture of commodity, firmness and delight. TTs corner flat, change direction with gearcut precision and squirt quickly.

You may have inferred that I enjoyed this Audi sports car. True. It's also true that success has many fathers while failure is a bastard. At the moment, at least three prominent auto industry designers are claiming authorship of the TT.

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