Motoring: Few, what a scorcher ...

It's gorgeous. So why is Audi being so mean with the TT?

BE PREPARED for disappointment at Audi's keenly awaited TT. Its main shortcoming is not the expected one - that its VW Golf underpinnings would create a sham of a sports car. Nor is it that the styling of the finished item is a shadow of the show car we all admired in 1995, because the styling has not changed that much.

No, the pin to prick the bubble of your dreaming is availability. The TT is a prime example of the motor industry's favourite by-product; the niche car, the happy outcome of component- and platform-sharing, the sort of car that wouldn't exist at all without these fashionable industrial practices. But only around 1,000 are slated for allocation to the UK.

We may end up with the situation we had at the launch of the Mercedes SLK, where the best chance of securing one was through a small ad placed by a speculator who had the sense to reserve one and who wanted a five- grand mark-up. This is absurd, because cars are not commodities, they are consumables to be enjoyed. And The TT is as enjoyable as it will prove elusive.

Back in dreamland, however, everything is rosy. The TT's novel profile is a mix of the Porsche 996 and VW's new Beetle; but where the Beetle's is formed from three intersecting arcs of roughly constant radius, the TT's combines near semi-circular wheel arches with a more sophisticated curve for the cabin, looking like a punctured Beetle in the initial stages of deflation.

Inside the nominally two-plus-two cabin you find a touch of austerity in the best German sports car tradition, as in the Porsche 911 (before that was turned into a tart's handbag) but with aluminium on gearknob, air vents, handles and anywhere else it can function as a highlight. This is mere retro pastiche, of course, but the effect is pleasing.

Two versions will be available over here - with 180 or 225bhp but otherwise the same, save for the exhaust pipe, which doubles up on the more powerful version. Prices are, roughly, pounds 25,000 and pounds 30,000 respectively - though if you are one of the few to get one, it won't be until next spring.

The 180bhp model is the better car, the engine a little sweeter, the four-wheel-drive hardware (borrowed from the Quattro) somehow tauter and the whole no less exciting in real-world driving.

Some testers expressed reservations about the handling, but I found it perfectly good, with nicely weighted steering and plenty of usable grip. The TT, a bigger car than it actually appears, also performs the incredible shrinking sports car trick rather well.

If I do have a complaint, it is with the gearchange, a cable-operated type that suffers a slight sluggishness (though perhaps only by contrast with the remainder of the car).

From the driving seat on a winding backroad, the TT's high waistline and shallow windows give the impression of a wide-screen video game. But, unless Audi's UK distributor can increase its quota, then a game may be the only way most people can get an impression of this fine car - a shame when the world's car market is suffering from vast over-capacity in dull stuff.

Specifications

Marque: Audi TT 180/225bhp. Price: pounds 25,000-pounds 30,000. Engine: 1781cc transverse in-line four, five valves per cylinder, 180/225bhp, 173/206lb ft. Transmission: front-wheel drive, five/six-speed manual. Performance: top speed 141/152mph, 0-100kmh (62.5mph) 7.4/6.4 secs overall.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo GTV 2.0: From pounds 21,945. As radical at its launch as the TT is now, and with a terrific rasping four-pot and flamboyant Italian good looks.

Fiat Coupe Turbo: pounds 22,800. Another Italian that stunned the world and still does. Something of a performance bargain in the latest turbo guise.

Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K: pounds 31,640. A beautiful piece of restrained design. Folding hardtop blends coupe integrity with roadster appeal, a quality not available elsewhere.

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