Up close: the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T

We try on TAG Heuer’s latest revolutionary watch, a £12,100 tourbillon chronograph

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

A lot has changed at TAG Heuer in the past 18 months – its CEO, much of its management and whole swathes of its strategy. Only a couple of years ago TAG was still bringing out spectacular high-frequency mega-watches with names like Mikrotourbillon and Mikrogirder, while setting its targets on the development of a new market segment at around the £20,000 mark, and had spent millions – including the building of an entirely new factory – producing an all-new, high-spec volume chronograph movement.

Yet within weeks of its launch the movement was shelved. LVMH watch chief and all-round watch biz legend Jean-Claude Biver stepped into the CEO position to personally oversee a root-and-branch overhaul, re-focussing TAG Heuer on its core sub-£5,000 market. Value for money has been Biver's battle cry at TAG, and any talk of £20,000-and-up market segments has vanished. At the very least, it seemed as though its adventure with extravagant, avant-garde haute horlogerie was over.

And now this.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

I'm not sure you'd call the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T "haute horlogerie" – in fact I'm sure you wouldn't, though it is a tourbillon chronograph. A chunky, industrial-looking tourbillon chronograph at that, which follows the same muscular and modular design code first seen in last year's Carrera Heuer 01, and found again in the TAG Heuer Connected smart watch launched before Christmas.

Most incredibly, it is a tourbillon chronograph costing just £12,100. (And if you were to pick it up in Switzerland or the USA, it would cost you even less – at "just under" CHF 15,000 and $15,900 respectively, equating to around £10,500-£11,000, it's a good lesson in the bum deal the UK gets in current exchange rates). It's about £50,000 less than you'd normally expect to shell out for a Swiss-made tourbillon wristwatch as a bare minimum, and a mere £98,000 less than the last tourbillon announced by TAG Heuer, the belt-driven V4 Tourbillon.

As such, the Carrera Heuer-02T does rather call into question the entire positioning of tourbillons within the luxury watch market, and the aura of virtuosity and exclusivity that surrounds them.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

The Tourbillon

None of which is to say that this is technically anything to be sniffed at – it's a flying tourbillon, it's COSC-certified – though no doubt there are plenty who will indeed sniff at the design, and quite possibly at the very idea.

But on the subject of the whirlwind mechanism itself, TAG Heuer tells us that its design is, in fact, related to that from the V4 – as with that watch, we have a flying tourbillon with three pointed arms extending from the centre, with parts made in titanium and carbon. The balance spring is produced by Atokalpa, which belongs to the Parmigiani family of companies, while the "main components" are made by TAG Heuer; TAG also states, rather obliquely, that it has set up an "industrial framework to optimise assembly".

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

Noticeably, there's very little of the hand-finishing and polish generally associated with a high-end tourbillon, and even in cheaper ones: Raymond Weil's deeply odd £27,500 Nabucco tourbillon from last year was, at least, pretty nicely finished for the price. But Raymond Weil is making just 10 – or rather, is having just 10 made. The TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T is unlimited, in-house, COSC-certified and still less than half the price. And hey, finishing or not, you still get a kick from the constant tourbillon rotation.

The movement: Calibre CH80 rises again

Interestingly, the base movement is not TAG Heuer's established Heuer 01 (formerly known as the 1887) caliber; it is, in fact, CH80, the column wheel chrono TAG appeared to have scrapped without putting into production.

There's a simple enough reason and it's all to do with subdials: the Heuer 01 has a 6, 9, 12 subdial arrangement, the same as the Valjoux 7750 found in most Swiss chronographs.

This restriction was at least partly behind the development of the CH80 in the first place. It was designed with the more classical 3, 6, 9 arrangement, as evidenced by the panda dial beauty in which the CH80 was launched – a watch that, sadly, will never see the light of day.

What this means for the CH80's future use remains to be seen – perhaps there will be more to add to its story at Baselworld next month, though I wouldn't bet on it. However, if you want a tourbillon at 6 o'clock and two chronograph subdials, you need a movement with a layout like the CH80. On the technical side, it runs at 4 Hz, with a power reserve of 65 hours, which is respectable with a tourbillon rotating constantly; and it's a COSC-certified chronometer.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

On the wrist

So how is it to wear? In a word, chunky. The case is 45mm across, and it's a big 45mm thanks to the heavy-set bezel and thick lugs. Big it may be, and pretty striking thanks to the latticework of semi-skeletonised dial layers, but it isn't heavy - the case is made from titanium, a lightweight metal, which is attached to a thick rubber strap.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

If you're on board with the idea of a burly, industrial-looking TAG Heuer chronograph tourbillon at a rock bottom price, you might still expect that the thing is legible. The Carrera Heuer 02T's cut-away dial sections, however, all in black and grey, might please Batman but don't make for easy timekeeping, let alone getting a clear readout from the barely-visible chronograph indications.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

On the other hand, this really, really isn't a watch designed for anything so mundane as straightforward timekeeping, even if it is a COSC-certified chronometer. It is a lifestyle watch: an expression of a certain kind of swaggering laddish cool, its tourbillon offering that bit of extra excitement and complexity. It's brash and a bit ridiculous, but it's also fun and impressive, and delivers on the value-for-money mantra in spades.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

So does this belong at TAG Heuer? Look, if you consider vintage Camaros and Carreras to be the ultimate expression of all things Heuer, then this will never be your thing; forget about it, though, because there's still plenty in the Heuer Heritage line-up to enjoy. Contrastingly, the argument behind the Mikrogirders and Mikrographs – the avant-garde haute horlogerie of ancien regime TAG Heuer – was that, even at the dizzying costs involved and six figure retail prices, they were at least driving forward the cause of accurate mechanical timing, extending chronograph technology as far as it would go – and that in itself was a very Heuer pursuit.

This is nothing like that. It is, in many ways, junior Hublot – there's really no getting around that designation given Biver's involvement, and the proximity of the design language. The calculation has evidently been made that there's a clientele out there who may well buy into the sporty mythos of TAG Heuer, but long for something more outré, more complex and spectacular – the kind of thing you need "Hublotista" spending power to own.

Tag Heuer
Tag Heuer

Now you don't. You can get it for £12k in a watch that is genuinely fascinating, and pulsing with character and wrist presence.

It's a tasty concoction, but that doesn't make it tasteful. For some, there will remain the slightly queasy sense that it's a character that really isn't that of TAG Heuer. I'll include myself in that. But for TAG Heuer the fast-moving mega-brand – the brand of Cara Delevigne and Ronaldo and surfing, and bright young millenials who dig on those things and have no more interest in what "Calibre 11" was than I do in the ouevre of David Guetta (another TAG ambassador), this is a doozy. And really, if TAG Heuer is going to do tourbillons, you could argue that funky, accessible and fresh – rather than high frequency craziness costing six figures – really is the way it should do it.

The TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T tourbillon chronograph is priced at £12,100. There is also an even more blacked-out version, the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T Black Phantom, priced at £16,150.

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