Greg N. Brown, Contributor
It has been asserted that the world's best cars are built within a day's drive of the European Alps. The all-new 2008 Audi TT Coupe, manufactured in the shadow of Bavaria's rugged mountains, certainly lives up to this maxim. After several days of driving two new versions of the TT through Germany and Austria, we discovered them to be fully mature sports cars distinguished by lightweight aluminum space frame construction, exquisitely balanced handling and torque-rich powertrains.
Both the front-drive TT Coupe, powered by Audi's acclaimed 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with direct injection, and the all-wheel-drive TT Coupe quattro, with a 3.2-liter V6 under the hood, will reach U.S. shores early in 2007. Our test-drive showed both cars to be perfectly suited to the steep climbs and sharp turns of the most demanding mountain roads, yet their stylish, comfortable and practical 2+2 cockpits also made them feel equally at home during in-town crawls and at high speeds on the open highway.
Two TTs, two terrific engines With 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque spread across a broad band from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm, the 2.0T offers a delicious combination of responsive power delivery and economical operation. Initially it will be offered in tandem with a six-speed manual transmission, noteworthy for quick and precise gearchanges, that sends power to the front wheels. Audi is studying the marketability of a 2.0-liter S tronic model, and a turbo TT with quattro also may be in the model's future if demand supports the extra cost.
The V6 is a holdover from the current TT and delivers 250 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque through its standard six-speed manual to all four wheels. However, the 3.2 can also be mated to a newly refined version of Audi's superb S tronic twin-clutch automanual six-speed transmission.
Capable of changing gears in 0.2 second, S tronic offers a manual setting that allows the driver to use paddles that revolve with the steering wheel or the console shift lever, a Normal automatic detent for commuter crawls, and a Sport setting that holds a gear longer before upshifts and provides earlier downshifts and shorter shifting times for optimum acceleration. In both automatic modes, the transmission blips the throttle to match engine revs to the selected lower gear.
Larger, lighter and stiffer The new TT is longer by almost 5 inches, wider by about half an inch and 0.2 inch taller, and both the wheelbase and front/rear track dimensions have grown by about 2 inches. Yet, because of the extensive aluminum in the TT's structure (69 percent by weight), the new 2.0-liter weighs about 200 pounds less and the 3.2-liter about 300 pounds less than their respective outgoing versions.
For the first time since Audi's ASF (aluminum space frame) technology was introduced in the first-generation A8, it also incorporates steel, which is used at the rear of the floor panel, for the doors and rear hatch, to help improve the TT's overall weight balance and thus its handling behavior. Static structural rigidity was also improved over the outgoing model by around 50 percent.
A more dynamic chassis Audi says the new TT, compared to the current model, knocked a full 15 seconds off lap times on the classic Nordschliefe circuit of the Nürburgring, an astounding improvement that almost defies belief. However, after driving the '08 model through just a few corners of Austria's dramatically difficult Grossglockner Pass, we saw no reason to doubt Audi's claims. Credit the massive improvement to the new car's lower center of gravity, multilink rear suspension, longer wheelbase and wider track, larger wheels and tires (17s and 18s, with 19s to come), much bigger brakes (16-inch rotors on 2.0s and 17-inch rotors on quattros) and new electromechanical steering rack with speed-sensitive assistance.
The basic suspension, with its twin-tube gas shocks, is exceptional, but those wanting more control, for both front-drive and quattro models, can opt for Audi's new magnetic ride shocks, similar to the system used by Cadillac. A button on the center console gives the driver a choice between Normal and Sport damping characteristics, and the difference is very noticeable, particularly at high speeds, when body movements are kept under much tighter control in Sport mode.
More beautiful body; more comfortable cockpit The first-generation Audi TT, introduced in 1998, was rightfully called an icon of automotive design, and freshening its essential styling themes was a formidable task. However, Walter d'Silva's team succeeded brilliantly. The familiar low and wide greenhouse, supported by slim, graceful pillars, echoes the original TT's swoopy profile, but it's now accented by Audi's signature single-frame grille, broader, more masculine shoulders and inventive curvatures, all reflecting the car's enhanced dynamics.
Despite its larger size and frontal area, the new car's exterior tweaks lowered the coefficient of drag from 0.34 to 0.30, while aerodynamic lift was reduced by revisions to the undertray and downforce increased by the new electrically operated rear spoiler.
Cockpit space also benefits from the car's larger dimensions, including more front and rear shoulder room and rear knee room, though only height-challenged adults or children will fit in the aft seats without severe physical consequences. With its rear hatch configuration, the luggage area is both accessible and ample, increasing by about two-and-a-half times when the rear seats are folded flat.
The dynamic architecture of the new body design is reflected in the interior. New elements include three circular center dash vents instead of two; a new shift knob and smaller-diameter steering wheel, which has a flat bottom like the wheel in the RS 4; more supportive front seats, which are mounted slightly lower for improved headroom and feature fully electric adjustment on the driver side for the first time; and more easily operated climate controls in the center console, which is now angled slightly toward the driver. Also new is a digital speedometer readout in the standard driver information system that resides between the two large dials for speedometer and tachometer data.
Noteworthy standard items will include front kneebags as part of the passive safety system, A/C and cruise control, and the TT will be offered with a long list of options, including xenon active headlights and a full leather interior.
A driving delight The challenges of alpine roads quickly expose an automobile's true character, but the Audi TT responded by delivering a rewarding driving experience, earning it, in our estimation, the right to be called a genuine sports car, especially in the 3.2 quattro model. The front-driver doesn't have quite the crisp turn-in and stability through a corner's exit as the all-wheel-drive TT, but it still is vastly improved over the previous version, which was hampered by a high degree of understeer when it was pushed hard.
High-speed stability and rock-solid behavior over rough roads, attributes that were missing in the previous TT, are now part and parcel of an exceptional package that has no direct competition in the market. Though not inexpensive (current 3.2 quattros are just over $40,000 and front-drive models approach $35,000), the TT has grown into a car that fully justifies the cost of ownership.
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