by T. J. Cobb
Back to the future.
Base Price $31,025
As Tested $32,925
Just a few years ago, automotive enthusiasts were bemoaning the impending doom of the sports car. Surrounded by increasingly dense herds of sport-utility vehicles, the future looked bleak to folks who treasured cars dedicated to the notion that knife-edged handling is eminently preferable to a high seating position.
The arrival of the BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, and the superb Porsche Boxster have altered those dreary prospects dramatically.
And now, like some sort of Bauhaus-inspired exclamation point, Audi's TT shows that there may still be something new in the world of automotive styling. With plenty of driver gratification squeezed into the package.
Like Volkswagen's New Beetle, the TT is a production car that began life as an auto show concept car. And, like the Beetle, it drew on a legendary past to portray an exciting future. The response of show-goers was so overwhelmingly positive that VW-Audi brass decided to tool up and actually produce it. And we're glad they did.
You don't really need us to tell you the TT looks like nothing else on the road today. But perceptions of newness are often a function of how long the beholder has been on the planet, and for NCTD staffers who have been at this for awhile, the TT does conjure up echoes of other eras. For example, even though the basic layout is front-engine, front drive, its shape is strongly reminiscent of the original "bathtub" Porsches, and Audi designers freely admit they were influenced by the mighty Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the late pre-WWII era.
Nevertheless, we think this car represents a unique design achievement-a blend of Art Deco, '50s Porsche, and contemporary engineering as original and distinctive as anything rolling today.
And, perhaps just as important, it's an excellent argument in defense of multiple applications for a single chassis, emphatic proof that cars using the same basic platform can be truly distinctive from one another, as well as their competitors.
The TT shares its underpinnings with Volkswagen's new Golf, Jetta, and Beetle, plus several cars we don't see in the U.S. market: the Audi A3, Skoda Oktavia, and SEAT Toledo. Each of these cars competes in its own well-defined niche, and each has its own character. We suspect that part of the VW-Audi expertise in character-building from a single platform lies in the elasticity of the platform itself. For example, at 95.4 inches, the TT's wheelbase is 3.4 inches shorter than the Beetle's, and the car is 2.0 inches shorter overall.
On the other hand, the TT is 5.2 inches wider than the Beetle, with a slightly wider stance, and, at 53 inches, its roofline is 6.5 inches lower. So, basically, there's no dimensional commonality at all, and it's impressive that VW is able to achieve economies of scale with such broad disparities.
The Inside Story
We don't know the German word for gorgeous, but it certainly applies inside, where the TT is just as visually arresting as its exterior. The design eschews traditional luxury trim material-wood paneling-for burnished aluminum and stainless steel. It looks terrific.
Like the overall shape, the TT's detail touches delight with sheer inventive cheekiness. For example, the dashboard vents open and close by dialing their surrounding aluminum rings 90 degrees. The cupholders are a pair of aluminum circlets, the dashboard is secured to the center console by a pair of aluminum braces, and the racy-looking foot pedals are fabricated from stainless steel with rubber inserts.
Art Deco numerals on classic analog instruments reinforce the TT's 1930s heritage, when the 16-cylinder rear-engined Auto Union Grand Prix cars were adding fresh chapters to the book of racing legends. Side airbags are standard, along with the other usual passive safety features we've come to expect, a reminder that Audi is as mindful as anyone of the importance today's buyers place on safety.
The standard sound system is very good indeed, which makes us wonder if our test car's optional $1200 Bose unit, complete with CD changer, is really worth the extra money.
To be fair, there are some drawbacks imposed by the TT's radical exterior design. For example, the vertical proportions that give this car its cool chopped-top look-low roofline, high window sills-aren't conducive to ideal driver sightlines.
Most of our testers like a fairly upright seating position when we're behind the wheel, but even sitting almost bolt upright we found we weren't seeing much of the hood, and extending an elbow out of the window during warm weather cruising would be an awkward exercise. Overall, there's a sense of sitting down inside a deep bathtub, similar to - but not as bad as - sitting in a Plymouth Prowler.
Aside from the relatively low seating position, there's not much to complain about from a comfort point of view-just a couple of niggles. It would be nice if the upper mounts for the front seatbelts were adjustable, for example. Some drivers are likely to find them a tad low for comfort. And the rear seats rate as extremely cramped, even in a class of cars notorious for cramped rear seats. Color them useless.
However, comfort in the leather-upholstered front buckets is on a par with other Germanic sportsters. Here, too, Audi has added a unique design touch: cloth-and-rubber seat inserts that help keep driver and passenger centered when the road goes into a series of hurried kins.
Ride & Drive
The dynamic character that emerges in this iteration of the Golf platform is eager and aggressive, just as the squat, rounded shape suggests. Although the front-wheel-drive TT gives something away to its rear-drive rivals in absolute handling, it's a handicap that would require a racetrack to really exploit.
Our own experiences were confined to a varied collection of public roads, including some secret twisty sections that writhe like a snake. As we pressed on through this collection of decreasing radius turns and fast sweepers, our respect for the TT grew. The little coupe attacks corners like a terrier, and changes directions with scarcely a hint of hesitation.
Pushed to its absolute limits, it's a little more prone to understeer-a tendency to go straight on when the driver turns the steering wheel-than a car such as BMW's bizarre Z3 2.8 Coupe, but those limits are quite high, and we'd be surprised if an owner was disappointed with the TT's athletic responses, flat cornering attitude, or its laser-precise steering.
Similarly, we'd be surprised if anyone were to find fault with the TT's braking, which seems to us to be beyond reproach and among the best in this class.
Overall, the TT's dynamics remind us of the Honda Prelude, which is about as good as it gets in sporty front-drive cars. This applies to acceleration, as well as handling. With 180-horsepower from VW's versatile 1.8-liter 20-valve four-cylinder-turbocharged, in this application-the TT can scoot to 60 mph in a wink less than 7 seconds.
That's with the standard five-speed manual transmission, of course. An automatic would undoubtedly slow things up. But that's not an option, at the moment. The initial batch of TT coupes will all have manual transmissions; automatics will come along later, as will an all-wheel drive Quattro version with 225 horsepower on tap.
Money-wise, the TT falls into a sort of sport coupe twilight zone. Pricing starts at $31,025, some $5000 more than a Prelude SH, which offers almost identical performance and a lot more interior space, albeit in a less attractive package. And it's considerably less expensive-about $6000 less-than BMW's Z3 2.8 Coupe, a very good performer that offers only two seats.
But we're leaving an intangible out of the equation-call it the notice-me index. Besides being entertaining to drive, the TT is almost impossible to top for high-profile visibility. To get the same kind of cachet, you'd have to spend a quarter-million bucks for some sort of Italian exotic (Incidentally, VW has one of those now, too; it's called Lamborghini).
Even then, this little Audi would hold its own.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.