Is four-wheel drive an advantage in a normal road car? And which model comes out on top?
Sunday 01 June 2008
Model: Audi TTS
Price: £33,390 coupé, £35,390 Roadster
Engine: 1,984cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, direct injection with turbo, 272bhp at 6,000rpm, 258lb ft at 2,500-5,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-62 in 5.4sec, 29.4mpg average, CO2 191g/km (all with super unleaded; normal unleaded will reduce performance)
Yesterday evening I had a conversation with past world rally champion Walter Röhrl, as you do. Having driven Fiats, Lancias, Fords, Porsches and Audis to victory – cars with a wide variety of engine and transmission layouts – he was ideally placed to answer my burning question. Is four-wheel drive really an advantage in a normal road car?
We have often been told that four-wheel drive is a great idea, because a car can find extra grip when all four wheels share the transmission of power to the road, instead of relying on two, whose limits are breached sooner. Audi's original Quattro was the first widely available car (the 1960s Jensen FF was a bit exotic) in which four-wheel drive was there to improve roadholding instead of being used, Land Rover-fashion, to help traction on tough terrain, and Röhrl used rally Quattros to great effect. And we've all seen DCI Gene Hunt driving a Quattro in Ashes to Ashes. Even he couldn't get it to power slide without extreme provocation.
Yet just the other day I had an unsettling moment in a new Audi TT TDI quattro (small Q, as it's a description of a system rather than a model name), and I wondered if four-wheel drive had made it worse. I was driving the TDI, co-star in this road test with its glamorous 272bhp TTS sibling, on a long, fast, wet left-hand bend, and I released the accelerator at the same moment as the road turned slippery, perhaps thanks to a diesel spillage. You might have expected either the nose or the tail to slither sideways, but both ends slithered together towards the barrier, which left me powerless to make a meaningful steering correction. Would that have happened with front- or rear-wheel drive?
What I did, I think, was steer a little more to the left, then steer right to try to catch the wayward tail. I didn't hit the barrier, but it seemed neither four-wheel drive nor stability systems made the task easier. I had to make two corrections, not one. Was I being unfair? Walter Röhrl was unequivocal: "Four-wheel drive is better on the road ... safer and faster."
All I needed to do, then, was have faith in the engineers. And, after all, I didn't crash. As for the new Audi TT models, it must be said that the TTS would have a hard time getting its 272bhp and 258lb ft of torque to the road tidily without four-wheel drive. This is the raciest TT yet; the extra energy coming mainly from a bigger turbocharger.
Other changes, compared with the starting point of the 2.0-litre TT with its direct-injection engine, include firmer, lower-riding suspension, bigger brakes and wheels, plus revised electric power steering. There's a toothy radiator grille, big lower intakes and a row of light-emitting diodes under the headlights as optional daytime running lights. At the back we find four tailpipes.
Does all this make a better TT? It's a more rapid one, able to scoot to 62mph in 5.4 seconds, yet its CO2 output isn't too tragic. Many buyers will opt for the double-clutch, sequential-shift transmission known as DSG but now called S-tronic by Audi, and it does give shifts of startling speed and smoothness – with a potent-sounding pop from the tailpipes.
But I'd sooner have a purer, lighter, more driver-engaging TTS Coupé with the alternative manual transmission. This is a potential rival to a Porsche Cayman at a lower price (£33,390), but it still seems a lot of money for a car with just four cylinders.
The TTS is good fun to drive, helped by crisp steering and Audi's excellent magnetic ride dampers. But the engine's bigger turbocharger takes the edge off its initial accelerator response.
Overall, it's hard to make a case for the TTS, given its price, and when the regular TT 2.0 is so pleasing. Then there's the new TT TDI turbodiesel, with a hefty 170bhp, the same 258lb ft of torque as the TTS, and the promise of 50mpg and a 140g/km CO2 score. It even sounds racy, with a keenness to reach engine speeds rare in a diesel. This new common-rail unit is an excellent engine, able to propel the TT TDI to 62mph in 7.5 effortless seconds.
Here is that unlikely creation, a convincing diesel sports car. Meet the TT of choice for the modern world. And keep away from diesel spillages.
BMW 135i M-Sport coupé: £29,755
It looks dumpy, but it has a 3.0-litre straight-six with twin turbos and 306bhp, plus wonderfully interactive rear-wheel-drive handling. Good value next to TTS.
Nissan 350Z: from £26,795
A bargain in this company, with its 3.5-litre, 313bhp V6, great looks and enjoyable rear-wheel-drive dynamics. CO2 of 280g/km is its downfall.
Porsche Cayman 2.7: £36,220
One of the most dynamically pure cars you can buy, but this 'base' 2.7-litre version isn't particularly quick. Unusually, costs more than its open-top relative, the Boxster.
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