Marbella, Spain -- You know you're in for a treat when the drive to the racetrack passes through a mountain. That's exactly what we're up to in a 2016 Audi TT, which we're driving a full year before it goes on sale in the United States. With four-wheel drive and a 227-hp turbo four-cylinder, the 2016 Audi TT makes quick work of the curving climb. The sun-soaked Spanish coast stretches out somewhere below us, but right now we dare not take our eyes off the next corner, lest we should accidently direct the flat-bottom wheel toward the guardrail. Perhaps we'll slow down enough to sightsee when we return this way at the end of the day. Or perhaps we won't.

Audi is serving us this mountain-track-mountain sandwich—better than anything on In-N-Out Burger's secret menu—to prove that the third-generation, 2016 Audi TT is a serious car.

Conservative corporate styling

The original TT was one of the "it" cars of the late 1990s, not to mention an important stepping-stone in Audi's ascendance. Ulrich Hackenberg, then and once again the man who's running the Audi brand, remembers well when J Mays presented him this unconventional design based on the humble Volkswagen Golf platform (the TT is often credited to designer Freeman Thomas, as well).

"We got support from [Ferdinand] Piëch and it really turned into a success story," Hackenberg says.

After Hackenberg's presentation, a clutch of journalists pass around cell-phone pictures of the latest hot design -- that'd be the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata -- debating every crease in its design. An employee from Audi AG saunters over to get a look. A full-size, third-generation 2016 Audi TT parked nearby on an outdoor stage garners less attention.

In fairness, the TT had already been unveiled at the Geneva motor show months before, so no one was expecting buzz akin to the MX-travaganza taking place at the same time across the world. Still, there's no doubt the new, 2016 Audi TT's styling plays it safe. The overall form evolves carefully from the second-generation TT, and the grille closely resembles those of the numerous Audi Quattro concepts we've seen in the last few years. Audi representatives point out a few first-generation cues, like the metallic fuel cap, but the truth is this is a highly corporate car, right down to its LED headlamps (optional in Europe, but likely to be standard in the United States).

That surely makes for a handsome car. Like everything that's come out of Audi design chief Wolfgang Egger's studio, the 2016 Audi TTS is nicely proportioned and chiseled to perfection. It will look at home among far more expensive and exotic company. Yet we'd have hoped for something less predictable.

Excellent corporate parts

As always, the Audi TT shares lots of parts under the skin with the Volkswagen Golf. Those parts are better than ever, as the VW Group has developed the lightweight, flexible MQB architecture for all of its compact cars. The new architecture, along with attention to mass savings in everything from the seats to the electrical wiring, yields more than 100 pounds in weight savings from the previous car. The powertrains also improve -- the 2.0-liter turbos put out more power than before. They again pair with fast-shifting, six-speed dual-clutch automatics. Quattro all-wheel drive will again be standard on the TTs sold in the United States. The Quattro hardware is similar to that in other Audi cars -- a hydraulic clutch pack sends torque forward and aft and a mechanical differential directs it to individual rear wheels -- but the software has been improved such that it recalculates the proper torque split every hundredth of a second and can send up to 100 percent of its torque to the rear wheels.

We’d honestly be happy to see Audi’s MMI system in every car, everywhere.

The best infotainment system…ever

One thing Audi does not source from the VW parts bin is the TT's new infotainment system. The brand has invested enormous time and money into its so-called Multi Media Interface. The result is a state-of-the-art system that Audi will be providing to all its VW Group brethren -- even rival Porsche.

We'd honestly be happy to see this system in every car, everywhere. Sensibly placed steering wheel buttons join the familiar MMI controller. The four shortcut buttons -- navigation, telephone, radio, and media—have been condensed into two toggle switches. All inputs read out instantly on the TT's fast-reacting LCD instrument cluster. The default view for the gauge cluster is a large, high-resolution Google map with a small speedometer and tachometer in the corners. A second view enlarges the gauges, and a third, offered only in the TTS, puts the tach in the center. Intuitive dials in the air vents control the HVAC system, and a small knob adjusts radio volume.

It's all just about perfect. We're able to work the system with barely a second thought after only a few minutes of driving. Later, when an engineer takes us through the ins and outs of the system, we can't help but nod along impatiently and think, "Well, yes, of course, how else would it work?" Which is, naturally, the point.

If there's one problem here (you knew that was coming), it's that Audi's interior designers haven't quite figured out what to do with all of the new real estate the engineers have given them. For the last decade, electronics have dominated the center stack of every luxury car. The TT's elegant system takes up very little space, leaving a handsome but austere and somewhat somber cabin. The biggest brainwave designers had was to cant the dash toward the passenger, creating what looks like an airplane wing from above. Alas, the passenger sits at eye level with the dash, not above it, and thus can appreciate only a vast expanse of black plastic stretching toward the windshield. Where, we can't help but wonder, is the fanciful baseball-glove stitching that wowed us in the first- and second-generation cars?

Attacking Ascari and dieseling around town

Enough playing with computers. After our breathless climb up the mountain, we arrive at the Ascari race resort, the same venue where Lamborghini invited journalists to drive the Huracán. We are assigned a 9:35 a.m. track time (oh, how the Germans love scheduling) with a searing yellow TTS. Compared with the TT we had been driving, the S squeezes nearly 80 more horsepower from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder, for a total of 306 hp (all specifications are for European cars). Firmer dampers, stronger brakes with fixed front calipers, and standard eighteen-inch wheels round out the package. The TTS also makes more delicious noises -- a distinct turbo "pfft" during hard acceleration and a "pop, pop, pop" through the exhaust when you let off the throttle. Some of the soundtrack is, shall we say, enhanced. A device under the cowl -- not a speaker, Audi insists -- picks up on certain resonances and pipes them through the windshield.

We go out for five laps, stopping in the pits after each and stepping up to a sharper driving mode (comfort, auto, dynamic). The Audi TTS is a sharp tool, ready to carve up this highly technical track. It stays flat through a chicane and its Hankook summer tires feel planted to the tarmac when we flatten the accelerator around a long, banked turn. We don't detect the power oversteer Audi says the Quattro system is capable of providing, perhaps because the car minders have disabled the "ESC off" button on the track cars. Neither do we suffer from understeer, an amazing feat considering the TTS still carries 58 percent of its weight up front. The direct steering communicates more of what's going on at the front tires than some rear-wheel-drive competitors.

For all this fun, the 2016 Audi TT truly snaps into focus for us only after our Ascari excursion, when we venture out in a pearl-white, front-wheel-drive TT TDI with a six-speed manual (sorry, it's not coming to the United States). This model's palomino brown interior feels far warmer than the gray and black tones fitted to our TT and TTS test cars. With only 181 hp from its 2.0-liter diesel, it's not nearly as quick as its gasoline-powered siblings, yet it still feels nimble and nicely damped as we leap through corners at a quick but casual pace. This, we can't help but think, is the right attitude for the TT: most of the performance of a rear-wheel-drive sports car but with higher fuel efficiency, a more practical interior, and more style.

Conclusion: More competent, less charming

The original Audi TT was a disruptive car from an automaker trying to break into the luxury-car establishment. Now Audi is the establishment, a fabulously successful brand that half the industry is trying to emulate. The 2016 Audi TT reflects this progress. It's a far more capable car, one that, despite its front-wheel-drive origins, can look other German sports cars dead in the eye. Yet, in this bid to be taken seriously, it loses a bit of the cheerful exuberance of the original. Perhaps some of that will be restored when the roadster debuts next year, around the same time the car goes on sale in the United States.

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