The TT coupe arrived for the 2000 model year at a time when Audi was looking for a car to play the Miata in its lineup. You know, something small and sporty with lines so seductive you simply can't turn away when you see one rolling down the street. Something with so much personality that it can speak for an entire line of cars. A roadster version arrived a year later, and now in 2004, one has to regard the TT as a successful image builder: The Audi brand has never been stronger in the U.S., while TT styling cues have shown up on the Chrysler Crossfire, Nissan 350Z and any number of concept cars touring the auto show circuit.
Of course, with a starting price in the low $30Ks, the TT is no Miata. And with a soft suspension and a generous curb weight, it's not a true sports car, either. Instead, this beautifully finished Audi has been likened to mobile art. Even in the car's fifth year, the coupe and roadster bodies still cast distinctive silhouettes, while their aluminum-trimmed cockpits continue to set the standard for interior design in this price range.
Yet, sales have cooled considerably, as strong performers like the BMW Z4, 350Z, Crossfire, Mazda RX-8 and even Audi's own A4 Cabriolet have given consumers reason to shop around. With a redesigned Mercedes SLK on the way, the TT needs an edge to see it through the next couple years. And so for 2004, Audi has fitted its image car with a new six-cylinder engine teamed with an all-new transmission. After spending half a day with this pair, we can tell you that it's the most satisfying drivetrain the TT has ever known.
Until this year, the most powerful engine you could get in the TT was a 225-horsepower version of the 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (1.8T) found in the A4 and most Volkswagens. When that kind of power is extracted from such a small-displacement engine, you're basically assured that said engine will have a peaky, high-strung demeanor out on the road. Thusly equipped, the TT is subject to frustrating amounts of turbo lag off the line and a delightful rush of acceleration once peak torque hits at 2,200 rpm. This is not a driver-friendly combination in heavy traffic, but it can be entertaining when an open road stretches out before you. The 225-horse engine has never been offered with anything but a six-speed manual transmission, though, so anyone who didn't feel like shifting his own gears had to settle for the considerably less riveting 180-hp TT, which picked up a six-speed automatic last year.
A better alternative is the 3.2-liter V6 now offered under the hood of the top-line coupe and roadster. In keeping with the space constraints of the TT's small engine bay, the 3.2-liter makes use of a compact "VR6" design, whereby the cylinder banks are mounted at a narrow 15-degree angle. Output is rated at 250 hp at 6,300 rpm and a steady 236 pound-feet of torque from 2,800 to 3,200 rpm. To ensure a broad range of usable power while increasing efficiency and cutting emissions, the V6 makes use of continuously variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust valves, as well as a variable-length intake manifold.
Managing the shifting duties is something Audi calls a Direct Shift Gearbox or DSG. If this term sounds familiar, recall that BMW offers a similar transmission with a similar name Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) in the Z4 and M3. In either case, we're talking about a real six-speed manual transmission that can effectively function as either a manual or automatic transmission. Peer into the cockpit, though, and you'd swear the TT 3.2 had a regular old automatic: There's no clutch pedal in the footwell and what appears to be a conventional automatic gear selector has the usual "P," "R," "N" and "D" slots.
But beneath the surface, all the elements of a conventional manual gearbox are in place, clutch and all (and there's no torque converter as in an automatic). Actually, the DSG has two electrohydraulically controlled clutches an advantage, according to Audi, in that two gears can be selected at a time to minimize interruption in power delivery during shifts. For instance, while first gear is engaged, second gear is "preselected." As Clutch 1 opens to disengage first gear, Clutch 2 closes to engage second. When the TT is in second, third, fourth or fifth gear, the DSG relies on computer control logic to decide whether an upshift or downshift is imminent and preselect the appropriate gear. Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard, so power is automatically routed to all four wheels via an electronically controlled center differential.
Once seated in the cockpit, most drivers will find the DSG as user-friendly as operating an automatic. If you want the transmission to do all the shifting for you, simply move the gear selector to "D" (regular mode) or "S" (sport mode). In S mode, the DSG waits longer to upshift, hastens downshifts and generally turns out quicker, firmer shifts. If you'd like to take matters into your own hands, just slide the shift lever to the right to access the manual mode. To shift, you can either bump the lever up or down, or use the thumb paddles mounted on the steering wheel. We were partial to the paddles, which allow the driver to keep both hands on the wheel.
Our initial drive took us through the Texas hill country outside Austin, where the TT was first introduced back in 1999, and in this setting we found the 3.2 to be a pleasant and forgiving companion. We were slightly annoyed by delayed throttle response when laying into the accelerator pedal from a stop a quality present in both the coupe and roadster we drove but thereafter it was nothing but smooth sailing. The 3.2 asserts itself with a moderately deep exhaust burble upon takeoff, but this tapers off to allow quiet highway travel.
Low-end torque won't overwhelm anyone who's driven a 350Z recently, but as the needle climbs the tach, a very strong midrange opens up. It's all too easy to find yourself cruising along at triple digits given the engine's supreme smoothness. Passing and merging maneuvers come and go without fanfare, even in sixth gear. Motoring along in an Imola Yellow roadster, we were unable to escape the attention of a small-town state trooper, who coolly informed us we could either pay up or stay on until the following Tuesday as a "guest of the state." Audi claims a 6.4-second 0-to-60-mph time for the coupe and 6.6 seconds for the roadster.
People accustomed to driving an automatic will find the DSG a suitable substitute. In both D and S modes, shifts are as crisp and unobtrusive as they would be with any automatic transmission. Downshifts occur right when you need them. Moreover, the twin electrohydraulic clutches allow for such smooth gear changes that the fore and aft pitch you typically get with a manual-shift car (as the clutch is engaged and released) is nonexistent. The fact that Audi's engineers were able to refine this out of the TT 3.2 is a remarkable achievement.
The manual mode is a bit less enjoyable, at least from an enthusiast's standpoint. The DSG is certainly responsive, as firm shifts occur as soon as the driver taps the "+" or "-" paddle or bumps the shifter. Call for a downshift when heading into a corner, and the transmission will blip the throttle with a level of precision matched only by masters of the heel-toe technique. Unfortunately, we noticed that under full throttle, the DSG would automatically upshift for us at or before redline. This certainly reduces the risk of driver error, but to us, it defeats the point of having an advanced manual transmission with a manual mode.
Of course, if you're mainly looking for the convenience of an automatic transmission but with added responsiveness and control the DSG could be just right for you. It's definitely more fun than the so-called "automanual" modes that carmakers offer with conventional automatic transmissions. Versions of the DSG are likely to show up in other Audi products, though not right away, according to company executives, as the transmission is currently compatible only with transverse-mounted engines most Audis have longitudinally mounted motors.
Meanwhile, buyers looking for a more authentic "clutchless" manual experience should consider a Z4 with BMW's SMG, which is designed for a predominantly enthusiast audience. Interestingly, European TT 3.2 models are available with either the DSG or a regular six-speed manual transmission, but Audi officials said there were no plans to offer the latter option in the U.S.
When fitted with the six-cylinder engine, the TT coupe and roadster put on about 80 pounds each. This isn't a substantial weight gain, but engineers decided to move the battery to the rear of the car to improve the front-to-rear weight ratio. More importantly, 3.2 models benefit from upgraded running gear to help them cope with the extra power. These cars wear a larger set of ventilated disc brakes, and we can attest that brake feel is excellent. Additionally, the front and rear antiroll bars are larger in diameter and the spring rates and damper settings have been tweaked. The relatively straight roads along our driving route provided little opportunity to push the cars around turns, but it's fair to say that 3.2 models retain the mild-mannered demeanor of other TTs. That means a comfortable ride and capable, but not sporty, handling.
Equipment on 3.2 models is the same as on other TTs, but they have a few distinguishing cosmetic touches, including a revised front grille, larger intake ducts, a larger rear spoiler and, below the car's flush-mounted rear bumper, a honeycomb plate that surrounds larger exhaust outlets. Additionally, the TT 3.2 is eligible for an exclusive set of nine-spoke, 18-inch wheels.
Unquestionably, the addition of a V6 engine gives the TT much broader appeal among luxury coupes and roadsters. And even though the Direct Shift Gearbox doesn't live up to the performance potential of BMW's SMG, it should be a good match for the majority of buyers. If there's anything that gives us pause about this coupe and roadster, it's their $40,000-plus price tags: Cars like the 350Z, RX-8 and even the Z4 pack in more fun for less money. But if your budget is flexible, keep in mind that none of them can touch the Audi's interior.