Scott Mead, Contributor
If you were to ask a bonafide car nut what makes up a true sports car, chances are one characteristic that will come up in conversation will be the "roadster" body style - the likes of the Sunbeam Alpine, MG-TC and legendary Shelby 427 Cobra.
In the past decade, we've seen this aspect of the automotive industry become a boom to manufacturers. Starting with the Mazda Miata in 1990, BMW introduced the Z3 in 1996, last year we got a taste of the Honda S2000 and for 2001, Audi joins the hunt with the TT Roadster.
Our introduction to the latest offering from Audi was under the bright, sunny skies of Phoenix, Arizona, where we were not only treated to a day of driving the front-wheel-drive, 180-horsepower version, but to Audi's upgraded 225-horsepower motor and famed quattro all-wheel-drive system, which debuted nearly 20 years ago.
Looking over the TT, we couldn't help but notice its round bodylines, similar to the New Beetle, but with an aggressive, industrial look. Large wheel arches frame the standard 16-inch alloys (17-inch with the quattro) and the flat edges of the arches meld perfectly with the round and graceful lines over the rest of the bodywork.
We wish Audi were able to solve the vehicle's tendency to lift the rear end at speed with measures other than the mandatory winglet across the transom - a piece that does a superb job of breaking up the car's natural lines. We suspect there'll be a long line of TT owners who want the wing removed and holes patched at local body shops.
We loved the aluminum fuel cap cover with its exposed allen-head fixtures and the quattro's dual exhaust outlets (the front wheeler only gets a single tip), which only add to the "don't mess with me" look.
The interior of the TT is just as hard-edged as the exterior, with an abundant use of aluminum, exposed allen-head fasteners and closed-loop carpet. Our quattro tester was fitted with the optional $1,000 baseball-glove-leather interior, which featured hand-stitched seating with baseball laces adorning the seams. While this is a great-looking novelty, we question the practicality and longevity of the laces with the normal wear and tear of a daily driver.
Like in any good German automobile, ergonomics are paramount and the TT doesn't disappoint. Aluminum-framed gauges reminded us of our old 356 Porsche Speedster days and were placed for optimum viewing. The usual turn signal/flash to pass and wiper stalks felt like natural extensions of our fingertips.
The TT's climate controls took a little getting used to; they use rotary-style knobs, that toggle left and right to increase or decrease fan speed and the cabin's desired temperature. Buttons flanking the toggles controlled venting, recirculation and heater elements in the rear glass.
The TT Roadster is a heavy hitter in the safety department as well. Fitted with dual front and side, head and chest air bags, the chassis is also beefed with 18% thicker door sills and an aluminum cross member that runs parallel behind the seats and connects to the dual roll-bar hoops. So strong is the chassis that, should a TT roadster ever roll over, occupants would have the same level of protection as in the full-bodied coupe.
Jump in the front-wheeler, twist the "switch blade" key, and the turbo'd 1.8-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine springs to life, settling down to a silky smooth purr. Selecting first, we let out the clutch and added throttle input, finding out there's absolutely no power under 2,000 rpm.
The snail won the race for the first 30 feet.
Once the tachometer reaches the 2,500 hash mark, the turbo kicks in and there's a decent amount of linear power that stretches all the way to redline. Keeping the 5-valves-per-cylinder engine between the 3,000 and 5,000 rpm powerband was a rewarding experience with strong pull while rowing gears until you hit fifth, which felt rather short and left us aching for the quattro's 6-speed gearbox.
But one shouldn't bear judgment of the front-driver by horsepower alone. Like the Austin Healey 100 of the mid-1950s, a Corvette could easily outrun it in a straight line, but not on a twisty patch of pavement. The same premise holds true for the TT Roadster.
The TT's suspension is a bit on the harsh side, utilizing a moderately stiff spring and soft shock combination. We found the highway ride to be a bit stiff -- especially on expansion joints -- but without jolting the cabin's occupants into kidney failure. Like a true sports car, handling capabilities outweigh ride comfort and twisty canyon roads are where the TT Roadster shines.
As with the roadsters of yesteryear, the TT front wheeler is nimble through the twisties, carving the canyon roads as cleanly as the car's own bodywork. Miss an apex or get the back end out of shape? No problem. The standard (only on the 180-horsepower version) traction control system kicks in, helping to right the car in a split second.
Braking was nothing short of sensational. Touch the brake pedal and you can instantly feel the four-wheel, ABS-assisted calipers gently squeezing the discs. Pedal modulation is excellent all the way through full-tilt emergency stops, which were linear and confidence inspiring. ABS pulse and kickback was minimal - just enough to let you know the system was working. Without a doubt, Audi has developed one of the most communicative brake systems on the market.
If sun worshiping with 180-horsepower isn't enough or if you think you'll need additional traction in the winter months, the 225-horsepower, quattro version is a real ticket to ride.
For a mere $5,700 over the base front-wheeler (which carries a MSRP of $33,200), you'll find more than a chip-tuned upgrade. Audi fortified the 225-version with higher compression pistons, upgraded cylinder heads, new intake and exhaust manifolds and twin intercoolers for the turbo. Throw in a power top (the 180-horsepower model is manually operated), 6-speed manual transmission, Audi's quattro IV all-wheel drive, and a parallelogram, multi-link rear suspension and the driving experience increases by a fun factor of two.
The quattro feels heavier because it is heavier -- by 342 pounds -- with the all-wheel drive system. On the road, the added weight is noticeable in the steering, which is firmer than in the front drive version, but equally communicative. We could also "feel" the quattro system working while pushing the car's limits on twisty roads, literally helping to "pull" us around corners.
With an additional 45 horsepower on tap, the quattro pulls long and hard, but still suffers from a lack of low-end grunt. Once the tach reached 2,200 rpm, the rush of power is almost never-ending, forcing our backs hard against the leather seat all the way to redline.
Are the quattro and 45 horsepower worth the extra $5,700? You bet they are, if you want the extra whomp when the throttle is nailed to the floor or if you even think you'll see snow. But if your budget won't allow you to spend $38,900 for the quattro, don't worry; the front-wheel drive version doesn't disappoint. In fact, despite the added extras in the quattro, we'd recommend the 180 over the quattro just for its lighter feel and purist approach.
But no matter how you slice it, the TT Roadster squarely hits the mark on pure topless and trendy fun in the sun. Just be sure to load up on SPF-45 sunscreen before you leave the dealer's lot
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