AUSTIN, Texas — With the design and mechanical verve so evident in the stunning new Audi TT, can true blue-eyed-soul for Germany’s perennial number three be far behind?
For all its turbocharged powerplants, sophisticated quattro four-wheel-drive systems, and athletic designs, Audi hasn’t made a car that has truly captured all of its brand essence since the Quattro Coupe stormed into existence in the early 1980s. Packed with technology and imbued with great four-wheel-drive handling, the Quattro Coupe was a universal symbol of what Audi wanted to be known for: the art of technology. Since then, Audi’s vehicles, from the lowliest 80 sedan to the sharpest A8, have shown flashes of brilliance – but none have sparkled from stem to stern.
With the TT, Audi has rediscovered the elusive formula of technology and passion that can shoot a brand’s profile into the stratosphere, even without selling hundreds of thousands of cars. Other four-ring fans may argue, but in our minds the TT’s mechanically pure lines and harmonious performance make it the best Audi offered yet in the U.S. – the first Audi with the soul of a world-beater.
Style and substance
The chief element it its success, regardless of its hot 180-hp turbo four, is the TT’s styling. Melding elements of the VW Beetle, Porsche 911, and Audi’s own quattro coupes, the TT has made a graceful transition into reality from its conceptual birth at the 1995 Frankfurt auto show. Elemental lines – stylized parallelograms surrounding circular headlamps, side cutlines that delineate the engine bay (especially in our tester’s silver paint), and graphically grabbing wheel styles – tautly define the TT’s road stance.
2000 Audi TT interior
2000 Audi TT interior
2000 Audi TT
Behind the wheel, the forms and fashion of past Audis melts away. Where supple leather and warm wood make the A4 and A6 feel library-comfy, the TT’s iconographic switches and gauges and aluminum trim impart a metropolitan atmosphere – swanky, but subdued. There’s thought behind every surface and action as well. The intuitive seat-heater controls require a simple push to activate, then a counter- or clockwise twist to reduce or increase the temperature.
Twisting the ignition key completes the TT’s portrait. A faint whistle from the turbocharger strapped to the 1.8-liter, 20-valve four-cylinder engine alerts you to the potential beneath the billeted hood. Push the aluminum-levered five-speed transmission into gear, release the clutch through a somewhat lengthy travel, and you can feel the effect of 180 hp and 173 lb-ft through the front-driver’s wheels. Faint whiffs of torque steer and wheelspin aside (when the standard traction control is disabled), the TT rockets ahead to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, according to Audi. We’re inclined to believe it could be less, unless the rolling roads outside Austin were leading us on.
Driving the TT
Piloting the TT is a pleasure under almost all circumstances. The transmission has the best shifter feel of any Audi in recent memory, without a trace of the springy cable slop still found on the mechanically similar A4 1.8T.
Acceleration is sharp and seamless. It’s difficult to catch the turbocharger asleep. Just step into the gas, lightly or heavily, and the TT responds with gusto.
The most serious criticism that could be offered against the TT is its steering, which on a day with 40-mph winds felt slightly nervous. Its center has virtually no play, which is desirable, but the TT also steers quite quickly off-center, which makes driving over some freeway textures tiresome. It rides smoothly, with more composure than you might expect from a car with such a short (95.4-inch) wheelbase and a relatively unsophisticated semi-trailing arm rear suspension.
2000 Audi TT
As for comfort, the TT’s seats are functionally firm, though the rears wouldn’t hold a Texas-sized watermelon. Visibility is a distinct compromise to the coupe’s deco-ish roofline. And the vehicle’s short 53.0-inch height means not-so-easy ingress and egress (and also that the armrests in the doors are unusable by normally built humans). Those concessions are rewarded with maybe the world’s most stylish cupholders, formed aluminum loops that sit a little too distant at the back of the center console to be admired – or used easily.
At $30,500, the Audi TT comes very well equipped, with leather seats, air conditioning, power everything. Options are limited to three packages: CD changer and Bose stereo, 17-inch wheels and Xenon headlamps, and heated seats and trip computer. A special cloth/leather upholstery and a mobile telephone are the only stand-along options. With every option, the front-drive, 180-hp TT won’t push much above $35,000.
Don’t fret, you’ll be able to spend more soon. A convertible TT is coming soon, in addition to a 180-hp quattro model. And by the summer of 2000, expect to see the ultimate TT, the version that may replace the Quattro Coupe forever in Audi loyalista memory: the 225-horsepower, quattro-driven TTS. With those levels of performance, we’re convinced that this passion play for Audi will pay off handsomely.