Not so long ago, Audi was happy to pose as the style leader. What the cars lacked in driving finesse, they made up for in haute couture. They were the automotive equivalent of Paris Hilton's dog — a neat accessory, but not much good at walking.
And no car epitomized this image more than the original 1998 Audi TT. It looked iconic, but its Bauhaus-inspired looks wrote a check that its VW Golf-derived chassis couldn't cash.
But in recent years, Audi has sought to change this image with the second-generation TT that was launched two years ago, a more focused driver's tool. Now this car has become the first TT to wear Audi's "S" badge. On sale here this November as both a coupe and a roadster, the 2009 Audi TTS is powered by a 265-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and it's meant to go toe-to-toe with the BMW Z4 3.0, Mercedes SLK350 and even (whisper it) the Porsche Cayman and Boxster.
We went to Germany to find out if the TT really has made the leap from poser's poodle to serious performance car.
Adding the Street Cred The more purposeful appearance of the second-generation TT has always been likely to lend itself to a body kit more readily than the finely drawn lines of the original TT. The 2009 Audi TTS gains a front spoiler and a rear aero diffuser, plus prominent rocker skirts and special 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels. It's detailed with quad tailpipes, LED daytime driving lights and the aluminum outside mirrors that are the trademark of Audi's S models.
This is a comprehensive package that clearly differentiates the 2009 Audi TTS from its lesser TT siblings, and we like the way the integrated look keeps the effort from looking like it has been inspired by the aftermarket. On the road, the TTS looks like a scaled-down, slightly friendlier version of the R8 supercar — a resemblance that's surely no coincidence.
Inside the TTS cabin, you'll find the familiar TT architecture. There are a couple of S-type features, such as instruments with white numerals on gray faces, but there's otherwise little to differentiate this car from the standard TT. You get the same mix of understated design, beautiful materials and immaculate build quality. For those in the front, the TTS is a splendid place to be, although the coupe's rear seats are best left to small children or desperate friends.
The Important Bits Hiding under the TTS's hood is a retuned version of the Volkswagen Group's familiar 2.0-liter TFSI engine. Featuring turbocharging and direct fuel injection, it offers 265 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, while 258 pound-feet of torque are on tap from 2,500 to 5,000 rpm. The engine block, cylinder head, connecting rods and the pistons have all been upgraded to withstand the power increase.
This output is not dissimilar to the TT V6's 247 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, but the nature of the power delivery is very different. The boost pressure starts to reach its 17.4-psi peak around 2,500 rpm, from which point there's a thrilling jab of thrust. The TTS feels rapid and the subjective impressions are echoed by the stopwatch.
Helped by the traction afforded by all-wheel drive, the TTS coupe will scurry to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, while forward progress ends at 155 mph. It delivers its thrust with a growl that's not displeasing, but don't expect this four-pot engine to match the thrilling sound afforded by the 3.0-liter inline-6 of the BMW Z4 or the 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six of a Porsche Cayman, and even the 3.5-liter V6 of the Mercedes-Benz SLK350 sounds better.
Nevertheless, Audi's cause is also helped by the S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, which is standard equipment. The dual-clutch remains a peerless combination of automatic operation and a crisp, mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. The S tronic offers automatic operation in Drive and Sport modes, while you can shift for yourself in manual mode. It's eerily smooth to the point where it almost feels too good. Thanks to even quicker gearchanges, the S tronic feels more like a computer game than a mechanical act.
Firmer Footing As before, the standard TT suspension continues with its front MacPherson struts and four-link rear suspension, but the ride height has been lowered 10mm (0.39 inch). More important might be Audi's first use of magnetorheological dampers. You can choose between standard and Sport settings for the damping action (electric voltage changes the characteristics of the special damping fluid with its magnetic particles). The latter results in a far more aggressive calibration of these fast-acting units, but since Audi is going for a sports car setup, the ride quality in the Sport mode will be acceptable, though we think it might feel a little too firm on U.S. roads. Fortunately, the standard damping setting is never uncomfortable.
The TTS coupe weighs 3,120 pounds, but this doesn't seem like much for a sports car these days. It's light, nimble and responsive in a way that no TT has been before. While the steering, with its electrically boosted rack-and-pinion, lacks the ultimate feel of a Porsche helm, it has an intimate relationship with the front wheels. The disc brakes feature sport-rated pads and they have a firm, positive feel.
Overall, the TTS feels like it's been built with care and precision. It's more failsafe and less adjustable than the rear-wheel-drive BMW Z4, with the kind of character that some enthusiasts might be quick to label disappointing, but the traction benefits of the standard all-wheel-drive powertrain should not be underestimated, especially in the wet. If you do get carried away, gentle understeer is the net result.
Sports Car or Not? We should not go too far here. The 2009 Audi TTS is a good drive and genuinely entertaining, but it's not a Porsche Cayman. It still feels like a sporting version of a mainstream car and not a bespoke alternative honed by people who dedicate their every waking moment to the minutiae of control feel. If you want a TT to rival a Porsche, you might have to wait for the yet-to-be-confirmed TTRS.
The 2009 Audi TTS will be cheaper than the Cayman, though, when it goes on sale in the U.S. in late November. It's around 10 percent more expensive than the V6 TT in Europe and we'd expect it to follow suit here. At this price, the TTS is a tempting proposition. It looks good, has a beautifully resolved interior and will be a nice thing to own.
At long last, Audi has given the TT an injection of much needed testosterone. The poser's poodle has got some bite.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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