by Paul Dana

The automotive press whipped up quite a frenzy over the Audi TT Coupe when it hit these shores last May. And who could blame us? Seldom have we seen such a daring design achieved through purity and simplicity of form. Inspired by the original "bathtub" Porsches and the Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s, the TT Coupe makes onlookers snap to attention, but it does so with subtlety. The rearward slope of its roofline speaks of speed. The aluminum-trimmed interior oozes authenticity.

The TT Roadster, due here in the spring of 2000, makes an equally emphatic statement, while possessing its own unique design and engineering touches. Park the two together on the showroom floor, and prospective buyers (at least, those who don't think bathtubs are a horrible basis for car design) are likely to be torn between two sources of rapture. The Coupe, arguably, is more serious. The Roadster, more true to its roots.

From the beginning, Audi intended to produce both versions. In fact, just a few months after the Coupe concept debuted in 1995 at the German Motor Show in Frankfurt, a Roadster concept appeared in Tokyo. Like the Coupe, the TT Roadster is built on the same platform as Volkswagen's Golf, Jetta, and Beetle, but the Roadster was designed from the outset to take into account the lack of a roof, and it boasts a number of integral chassis-stiffening measures. These include a meaty dashboard mount and windshield frame, thicker steel side sills, and strengthened A-pillars that contribute to excellent rollover protection. While the Coupe is a 2+2, the Roadster is a two-seater, allowing Audi to retain from the original show car the classic roll hoops behind each seating position. You're forgiven if you think you're sitting on the grid at the Nurburgring.

The Roadster comes with either a manual-operated top or an optional power unit activated by a single button. A tonneau cover keeps the lines clean when the top is down, while an innovative, electrically powered glass windbreak, shaped to mimic the curves of the roolhoops, slides up behind the passengers to minimize cockpit buffeting.

New on the Roadster is an optional "Authentic" interior package, most notable for its use of prominent baseball-glove stitching on the seats, together with reddish-colored leather on the steering wheel, gear shift, door panels and the aluminum struts that join the console to the dashboard. The thick leather stitching was one of the styling triumphs from the concept car, and we're glad to see it reappear in production.

The Roadster is available in two versions. The base model carries the 185-horsepower, 1.8-liter, 20-valve, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that powered the original Coupe, with a five-speed manual and front-wheel drive. Enthusiasts will opt for the six-speed, quattro, 225- horsepower version, making 207 foot-pounds of torque, up from 172 foot-pounds for the base model. The gains come courtesy of increased boost pressure and cleaner intake and exhaust breathing. Expect 0-60 mph times with the more potent car to fall into the 6.0-second range.

Audi expects to import around 10,000 TT's next year, split evenly between Coupe and Roadster (up from 4000 Coupes in '99). Audi's Roadster faces stiff competition from category-creators like the BMW Z3 and the Mercedes SLK, plus new contenders such as Honda's screaming S2000. Nevertheless, if there is such a thing as German soul, the TT has it. Its striking appearance, plus the availability of four-wheel drive, will undoubtedly create converts.

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© 2000 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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