Ann Arbor - When the Audi TT concept coupe made its debut at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, we swooned like everyone else, and, like most of you, we spent the late 1990s counting the months until the TT's U.S. debut. We were thrilled that the production car remained so true to Freeman Thomas's original concept, and our design editor, Robert Cumberford, even named the TT our 2000 Design of the Year, a decision with which the rest of the magazine staff wholeheartedly concurred. But after running our eyes over the TT's Bauhausian exterior and our fingertips over the cabin's aluminum accents for the hundredth time, one question remained: Was there any substance, performance, value, and practicality to back up the stunning looks? Only a Four Seasons test could tell.
The TT coupe bowed here in May 1999 as an early 2000 model with front-wheel drive, but we decided to wait for Quattro. We had few regrets about choosing the 180-horsepower version of Volkswagen/Audi's 1.8-liter turbocharged four rather than the hotter 225-horsepower model. Senior editor Joe Lorio found that he "really liked the engine, with its well-integrated turbo," and even preferred it to the 225. We usually don't sneer at an extra 45 horses, but our test car cost $35,675, and the 225-hp engine would have put us at close to forty grand. Part of the TT's charm is its style-to-dollar quotient.
If the TT's turbo four was universally praised, its manual gearshifter was not:
"The shifter feels a little notchy."
"The shifter gate is far too choppy."
"If you don't match the revs just so, the shifter feels notchy."
"It's hard to smooth out the change from first to second."
"The gearshifter sometimes slides into reverse when you're aiming for first gear."
We'll let former gopher and University of Michigan senior Reilly Brennan have the last word. He and his buddy Rob Mitchum drove to California for spring break in search of good driving, good music, and not-so-good girls, and they found the TT the perfect conveyance for such an adventure. Six thousand miles later, they returned from San Francisco with flowers in their hair and this appraisal of the shifter: "We disagree with the complaints about the five-speed. Like most VW/Audis, once you get the hang of it, you can really make this thing go."
Which we did. The logbook was filled with comments about Quattro's ability to put power to the ground, and more than one person pushed the TT to 135 mph, exceeding the 130-mph governed top speed with the aid of a downhill stretch and tailwinds. Guess it's a good thing Audi of America installed the stability-enhancing rear spoiler before giving us the car, even if that recall also included a slight suspension dumbing-down. Several of our TT-owning readers chose not to submit to the voluntary recall, dreading the thought of compromising the car's original design. Unbespoilered models seem to be hot on the used-TT market.
While cruising at 110 mph in the TT, spoiler firmly affixed, along Pennsylvania's I-80, New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman found the car to be "an absolute peach--rock steady, with unexpectedly splendiferous pickup when desired, all while recording close to 30 mpg." Yet, after spending most of last fall with the TT, Kitman concluded: "This is a great car, and I can't say enough about Quattro's inclement weather traction, but it's best experienced stepping out of lesser cars, rather than Porsche Boxsters, which may not have the interior loveliness but have a deliciously exotic engine and more interactive and delightful steering and chassis alertness instead." Another driver, accustomed to the cornering sharpness of his Honda Prelude Type SH, also found fault with the TT's chassis: "The TT rides rather harshly, like something that has amazing cornering prowess, but it doesn't corner particularly well, and it really only feels buttoned down up to 90 mph. Beyond that, it floats like a Camry."
Everyone liked the TT's brakes, though. "The brake pedal has a solidity denied to cars like the A4 and VW Golf that are built on this platform," said executive editor Mark Gillies. Another tester found them "terrific and easily modulated" while traversing the Blue Ridge Parkway.
By about 20,000 miles, the TT was suffering from road noise, which was traced to a bent left rear wheel (no doubt thanks to one of Michigan's potholes) and the seventeen-inch Bridgestone Potenza summer tires (part of the $1000 performance package), which were down to their wear bars. Oops. Just as well that we had to replace them, because, Quattro or no Quattro, they were utterly worthless if there was a single snowflake on the ground. A set of Pirelli Winter 210s took us through the remainder of winter. Even the TT's standard sixteen-inch tires are performance models, somewhat puzzling given that people might choose a TT over its competitors for its supposed all-weather traction. TT owners living in the Snow Belt have to budget an extra $500 to $1000 for winter rubber.
So much for the engine, brakes, and tires; every car has them. But no other car in the world has an interior like the TT's, and no other aspect of the car provoked as much logbook commentary as our gray leather cabin. It's still amazing to consider that this amalgam of style, simplicity, and quality materials is available in a real, live, drive-it-to-work car. And it's not just the leather, aluminum, stainless steel, and richly woven carpets that distinguish the TT's interior; the cabin architecture is itself unique. The high doors create hot-rod-like windows that one driver described as "mail slots." Gopher Tony Quiroga likened the feeling of sitting inside the TT to "wearing a baseball cap real low so the brim is right above your eyes." Senior editor Eddie Alterman was "surprised by the cabin's roominess. It's not airy--the racing-helmet effect of the greenhouse prevents that--but there's ample space." The only consistent complaints about the cabin concerned the outward view, compromised by the thick A-pillars and the sloping roofline, and the CD changer that's mounted behind the driver's seat. "What were they thinking?" asked one solo traveler.
Early on, managing editor Amy Skogstrom unwittingly set off a debate in our logbook with this comment: "I wonder if perhaps they haven't carried the interior design theme--round aluminum pieces with exactly eight indents--a little too far. I count eighteen of them." Another driver agreed and claimed that there were actually twenty-four such circular elements.
"Who cares about the alloy theme?" retorted Gillies. "Just be thankful you can step into a car and feel and look at details again. The TT's interior is far more stylish than an Aston's, Jaguar's, or Porsche's, and the car costs far less." Lorio then weighed in with his usual candor: "I can't believe people are complaining because the interior has a styling theme. Your Lumina is ready." Ouch.
Regardless of how many circles and indents decorate the cabin, there were only two seats that anyone wanted to sit in, and they weren't the little fold-down ones next to the trunk. Instead, we used the rear seats for "shopping bags, CDs, a road atlas, and brown cinnamon Pop-Tarts," in Brennan's words. The seats fold down to create a flat cargo space, with plenty of room not only for college students' gear but also for that of real-world folks who no longer travel light.
The TT was quite reliable, but there were a few glitches, including a whine in the turbo under full boost that was traced to a defective connecting flange in the middle section of the muffler. Eventually, the (excellent when functioning) seat heaters worked only intermittently, so Audi replaced the switches. And, at 30,951 miles, the transmission's computer produced a fault code during a routine diagnostic check. Although there were no discernible problems with transmission performance, the dealer installed a new computer and billed Audi of America $850.
Audi is leading a resurgence of automotive design, but at the end of our year with the TT, it was clear that it's not simply a styling exercise; it's a real car. It's good to drive, practical and economical, and visually appealing, whether you have a front- or all-wheel-drive model, the 180 or 225 engine, a coupe or a roadster. Like most attractive people and things, the TT's not perfect, but it's a privilege to spend time with it.