PHOENIX, Ariz. — The white-haired gentleman in the courtyard of the Royal Arms Hotel was mightily impressed when he saw the Audi TT roadster, in gunmetal gray with the brown "catcher's mitt" interior.
"What is that?" he inquired. "It's gorgeous!"
Then the valet brought his car up – a Lincoln Town Car with a faux convertible vinyl roof.
It takes all kinds – Phoenix is the capital of the faux convertible vinyl roof universe – but this scenario indicates that the Audi TT Roadster appeals to all kinds.
Given that few cars look better than the Audi TT Coupe, and few coupes look worse with their roofs cut off, this should not come as a great surprise.
However, the Roadster is not simply a coupe that has been, um, coupe'ed. The two body styles were developed simultaneously, although the open version was shown as a concept car a bit after the coupe.
There's actually a fair amount of difference between the cars. The Roadster makes no pretense of being anything but a two-seater (not that real human beings could sit in the back of the coupe anyway). There isn't even space behind the front seats of the roadster to store anything – the room is all taken up with the well which holds the folded roof. Three cubby bins in the rear firewall, two of them lockable, provide some storage space. One is taken up by the CD changer, when fitted.
The Roadster also isn't a hatchback – the smallish trunk lid reveals a cozy storage area which, while it might not take Tiger Woods-sized golf clubs, did by actual experience of a fellow journalist, handle the soft-sided luggage needed for a weekend getaway.
The road to convertible-ization
The appeal of convertibles is obvious – wind-in-the hair motoring is the way to go.
But many people have justified concerns with open cars. Audi has specifically attacked many of these, starting with rollover protection.
With its permanent chromed rollover hoops behind the front seats, Audi says the Roadster has the same level of rollover intrusion as the coupe. Head and chest side air bags are standard, and mounted in the seats. Dual-stage second-generation frontal airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, belt force limiters, and robust side impact beams complete the passive safety feature list.
Then there’s the car’s structure: The husky doorsill cross sections on both models are 30 percent thicker than the average passenger car; material thickness is 15 percent thicker in the Roadster, to add even more rigidity. Audi says the TT Roadster is best-in-class for torsional and bending rigidity; after driving the car, I couldn't argue – this is a solid-feeling machine, with zero cowl or mirror shake, even on rough roads.
Security for your possessions has also been addressed, by a new-to-the-car-industry pulsed radar security system. It floods the car with beams; if, say, a wayward hand interrupts them, it triggers the alarm. You can lock your car with the roof down for a quick trip into the grocery store and return with some assurance that your cell phone will still be in the glove box.
Mussed-up hair is also standard in any open car. The mesh-type wind blockers used by many convertibles would have spoiled the lines of the car, they reason – they're also hard to see through, reducing rearward visibility when deployed. So Audi has gone with a tempered glass power roll-up window, shaped to mimic the curvature of the roll hoops. Works, too. This is one of the calmest converts I've ever driven.
The styling of a convertible with the top up is also a concern for many aesthetes. The TT Roadster lid has four internal braces instead of the more usual three, to maintain the curvaceous shape at any road speed, as well as to reduce drumming and flapping. The drag coefficient of the Roadster is almost identical to that of the coupe. The rear window is heated glass, always a nice idea.
Base models have a manual top – flick a handle, toss it back. Not quite as easy as a Miata, but close. Optional on base and standard on top-of-the-line versions is power operation, although you still have to flick the handle manually. The tonneau cover, which gives a neater, more finished look to the folded top, is considerably easier to fit than most.
Inside and out, a tour de force
As I've said many times, Audi interiors are the best in world. The Roadster carries over the ultra-cool design of the coupe, with all its styling delights and functional challenges. The flying buttress bars connecting the bottom of the dash to the console didn't bother my right leg as much in this car as in the coupe — not sure why, since the two cars are the same; maybe I found a different driving position. The cup holders are still too far back to be of much use, the HVAC and radio systems are hard to fathom, (although the multi-speaker Bose system itself does a good job, even with the roof down) and there still is limited interior storage space.
2001 Audi TT Roadster interior
You also sit low in this car, if you want to see the instruments and reach the wheel – both pretty good ideas. Unless you have a really tall torso, you won't be dangling your elbow out over the windowsill in classic sports car cruisin' fashion.
Romulus Rost was in Audi's Simi Valley California design center when he was working on the interior design of this car. Prior to attending an Oakland A’s game, the German had never seen a Major League baseball game (if the Anaheim Angels were involved, Herr Rost may still have never seen a Major League baseball game...). He was not only impressed with the game, but also with the athletic appearance and functionality of the gloves the players wore.
This led to the catcher's mitt interior he developed for the concept car, which has been carried over into production. The "amber red" upholstery with fat yellow-lace stitching is called "baseball optic leather," and costs an extra $1000. For a hand-stitched leather interior? Not bad.
Regular leather is standard; Audi's clever "nubbed" cloth seat, with leather side bolsters and rubberized bullets in the cloth for added grip, is a no-cost option.
A 225-hp boost
Mechanically, the Roadster is the same as the coupe. All new TTs have the modifications, which the company introduced after a handful of high-speed crashes in Europe. The package consists of new stabilizer bars, re-valved dampers and a rear deck spoiler. ESP (Electronic Stability Program), Audi's directional stability control system which automatically applies individual wheel brakes to drag the car back on