Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Audi TT. This is the car a New Beetle wants to be when it grows up. Faster. Stronger. More powerful. More mature. Unabashed. And quite possibly more authentic.
TT. Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, does it? But it's a unique name for a unique car. The 2000 model year has been a busy one for Audi in terms of new models. There's the TT, the svelte S4 sport sedan, the turbocharged A6 2.7T, and the V8-powered A6 4.2. All of these models are aimed at performance-minded enthusiasts, and the TT is the sports car vanguard.
The name pays homage to a legendary European motorsports event called the Tourist Trophy. The races were held from 1905 to 1922 on the Isle of Man (a small island situated midway between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). Audi's link to the event is through NSU, a motorcycle and car company that competed in the Tourist Trophy and was ultimately incorporated into the Audi body in 1969. To commemorate NSU's participation, a sport version of the popular NSU Prinz compact car was named TT in 1967. This early TT was built at the Neckarsulm plant, which today manufacturers the Audi A6 and A8. Twenty-eight years later, an Audi TT concept car appeared at the 1995 German Motor Show. People loved it. Audi decided to build it.
The 2000 production TT is put together in Hungary, and it shares common genes with the Volkswagen New Beetle and Golf/Jetta (Audi is owned by Volkswagen). Volkswagen and Audi should congratulate themselves for building such distinct cars off the same platform. The TT's styling is quite radical, and it works. Nothing else on the road looks like it. Classic, modern and mechanical themes all work together on this car. Sitting still, the TT looks tensed. Crouched. The bulked-up wheel arches hold unique 17-inch wheels and then attach to flat sides, themselves rising up to meet both sharp and curved lines. An exposed aluminum gas filler cap harks back to classic race cars. Audi says the edge that separates the roof visually from the tail was only possible by a new type of laser brazing production method. Conclusion? Batman wouldn't have any problem renting one to blend into Gotham traffic if his Batmobile was broken.
The heavy metal styling continues inside. And it's fantastic. Entertainment can be procured just by sitting and fiddling. Twist the aluminum rings that surround the ventilation vents. Notice how the two center vents line up perfectly to the sunken air-vent tubes atop the dash. Raise and lower the aluminum plate that covers the radio. Grab the support struts linking the dashboard to the center console and floor. Look at the exposed machine screws holding down the aluminum shifter plate. Push on the rotary knobs for the heated seats and watch them pop out. Twist them, and illuminated dots appear, indicating the desired level of heat output. This interior is a Playskool toy for adults.
So settle into those Valcona leather seats. They are height-adjustable, firmly padded, and supportive. Two adults fit just fine in front. The TT also has two rear seats, which is two more than the BMW M Coupe can claim. But two adults will not fit just fine in back. These seats (and rear headroom) have been mini-sized. There's actually a sticker on the doorjamb warning of dire consequences if people over 59 inches tall are placed in back. It's like a height requirement for a roller coaster, but opposite. Small kids only, please.
Is this all bad? No, not really. The vestigial seats make insurance agents less giddy. And when they are folded down, the hatchback design swallows a decent 24.2 cubic feet of cargo. If people continue to whine about the small rear seats, smack them and remind them that it's a sports car. Things OK to whine about: a CD changer that is too cleverly hidden in the driver's side rear-seat side panel. Climate controls that are not intuitive. Power window switches that are hard to operate. A roofline arch that even occupants of average height will hit their heads on while getting in. An optional driver information display that washes out in sunlight. Hard-to-reach cupholders. Style, it seems, often takes precedence over functionality when it comes to the TT's interior.
OK, let's get going. Flick out the cool switchblade ignition key and fire up the 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder. This is Audi and Volkswagen's workhorse engine, finding its way into a wide range of products. With five valves per cylinder and a small turbo, the engine has earned high marks for low-end torque and quick responses. It doesn't behave like a turbocharged engine should, which is good. The TT gets a slightly fizzier version, marked by a larger turbo, a different intake manifold and a revised engine management system. It makes 180 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 173 foot-pounds of torque from 1,950 to 4,700 rpm.
But it's not enough. One hundred and eighty horsepower, as nice as it is, is still only 180 horsepower. The TT is a sports car, yet your neighbor's middling Camry V6 has more grunt. Foul -- red card! Elapsed time from zero-to-60 (the Edmunds.com performance database lists it at 7.2 seconds) is about the same as many under-$25,000 sport hatchbacks and coupes can do. In some cases, it's slower. The TT is an underachieving student in the arts of acceleration and aural stimulation.
Our test car was without the $1,750 quattro all-wheel-drive option. Don't think that this would help acceleration. Unless the TT is placed on slippery roads, the extra 200 pounds of weight and minimal friction losses negate any traction gains. Only if the TT had more horsepower would all-wheel drive be more useful in terms of straight-line acceleration. Quattro-equipped or not, the TT comes with standard ASR traction control.
So no, you can't impress your friends by pummeling the throttle. Better to drive the TT out of the city grid and into worlds less populated. Let the TT stretch out and become aerobic. The short wheelbase and sport suspension that were somewhat detrimental to ride quality on city pavement suddenly become your favorite friends. So do the quick and accurate steering and the highly responsive brakes. Tight blind corner? Zip. Long sweeper? Zop. The optional 225/45R17 tires and 17-inch wheels take the TT to a very impressive .90 maximum g mark. Going around corners, the TT feels like a tether ball. A quattro-equipped TT would be even more fun on curvy roads, given its added traction, better weight distribution, and independent rear suspension.
At this writing, there is continuing hubbub over the TT's alleged unstable nature at high speeds. This problem was first noted by German enthusiast publications. To be honest, there was only one point during our 500-mile evaluation period where we noted any rear-end instability. And without these recent events, we would have forgotten all about it. It's unlikely you would notice any problems during normal or aggressive driving (unless your aggressive driving consists of taking corners at 100 mph and then totally lifting off the throttle). Regardless, Audi has announced a recall of all Audi TTs sold through November 1999 to install revised suspension components. Audi says these parts will be available by January 2000 and a rear spoiler by February 2000.
There's a lot going for the TT. Its styling is beyond reproach, which will no doubt initially attract lots of stylish people who want to look even more stylish. It has front-passenger and seat-mounted side airbags, and we expect the car to obtain excellent government crash test scores (based on the New Beetle's performance). Handling is quite good, and so is the fuel range and gas mileage. It's also more desirable and prestigious than cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, Toyota Celica GT-S or VW Golf GTI.
But it's difficult to compare affordable sporty hatchbacks to the TT. Keep the TT at its base price ($30,500 MSRP), and it's about $7,000-$8,000 more than those cars (with similar levels of equipment). Audi markets the TT as a sports car, and it is a sports car. Our test vehicle rang up at $33,925. Add quattro, and you're looking at $35,625. At this price, base levels of the BMW M Coupe and Chevrolet Corvette are only a few grand away. Both of these sports cars offer considerably more horsepower, performance and consequently, value. In 2001, a 225-horsepower TT quattro arrives on American shores. The price will be higher, but we expect it to be truer to what a sports car should be.
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