There's been a bit of buzz among journalists lately that the second-generation Audi TT might finally be a true sports car. So when Audi offered to let us drive the TT on some of Northern California's mind-blowing twisty roads, we went along to see if the rumors were true.
They're not. There, I said it. The second-generation TT is not a sports car.
But that's not a bad thing. The TT is a fantastic car. It's just not a sports car. Let me explain by defining the term:
The Driver's Car - It's hard to explain unless you've driven one, but there are cars in this world that are just as fun to drive at 15 mph through a school zone as they are to blast down back roads. They are cars like the first-generation Mazda Miata, the original VW GTI, and the BMW E30 M3. They are cars that read the road surface to your fingertips with all the subtlety of a megaphone, that demand all of your attention all of the time. They don't necessarily need to be that capable (and by modern standards, those that I've mentioned aren't); they just need to be communicative and involving.
The Atari Car - Cars to which I refer as "Atari Cars" are a modern phenomenon. They are cars that feel like a video game. Atari Cars are immensely capable - they can often out-perform supercars without even breaking a sweat. And that lack of sweat defines them - they shrug off insane speeds and laugh at corners. Nothing unsettles their suspension. They're so good that the driver has no idea how fast he's actually driving. These are cars like Audi's very own RS4, a Mercedes E63 AMG, Bentley Continental GT, and, to a lesser extent, cars like the Subaru WRX STi.
The Sports Car - A sports car (in the World According to Me) is that rare car that combines the communication of a Driver's Car with the capability of an Atari Car. The quintessential sports car that comes to mind is the Porsche 911. It, like other sports cars (the Ferrari F430 and Lotus Elise come to mind), is among the world's most capable machines, and yet remains so communicative and interactive that its owners take the long way to the grocery store.
So where does the TT fit in? It's an Atari Car. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since the TT's main rivals don't share that category. The BMW Z4 is a driver's car, and the Porsche Boxster/Cayman achieves magical sports car status.
The TT is an immensely capable machine whose abilities become more profound the harder you push it. It has the best suspension and body control I have ever experienced in a small car. Neither mid-corner bumps nor frost-heaves, camber changes, potholes, jumps, or a sapling laying across the road can ruffle its suspension's feathers. (And this with the standard suspension - the optional magneto-rheological suspension has two distinct modes: normal, which felt slightly softer than the standard suspension, and sport, which is quite punishing. Paying extra for two modes is unnecessary in my opinion - the conventional suspension is the Goldilocks "Just Right" setting, anyway.)
The faster you drive, the better the TT gets. Push to ten-tenths, and terms like "snap oversteer" seem more and more like they came from a bad horror flick. Mild understeer is the only handling mode, and come hell, high water, or Freddie Krueger, the TT won't stray from that. (Okay, a lift from the accelerator mid-corner at max-lat will occasionally help rotate the rear on Quattro cars - but in a slow, controlled manner.)
I sampled every variety of the TT while in California, which means both body styles (roadster and coupe), both engines (200-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four and 250-hp 3.2-liter VR6), both drivelines (front- and all-wheel drive), and both six-speed transmissions (manual and twin-clutch DSG).
The turbocharged TT is available exclusively with front-wheel drive and the DSG transmission. Six-cylinder models all have Quattro four-wheel drive, and a choice of either a DSG or a manual transmission.
The engines - and that fabulous suspension - are bolted to a supremely rigid body structure that consists of sixty-nine percent aluminum in the coupe, fifty-eight in the roadster. The second-generation TT Roadster is 120 percent torsionally stiffer than the previous roadster. It's actually stiffer than the previous-generation coupe, and it certainly seemed it: I saw almost no cowl shake, and the roadster's structure wouldn't have felt more robust if it were made from solid lead.
The Roadster's top is well insulated, and lowers in only twelve seconds at speeds of up to 25 mph at the push of a button. It's so good that losing the coupe's (miniscule) rear-seats and having a smaller trunk is a small price to pay for going topless.
The bigger debate is: which drivetrain is best? I spent most of my time (more than 1400 miles) in a 3.2 Quattro with the DSG transmission. The 3.2-liter is torquey throughout its rev range, but lacks the acoustic magic of previous VR6 engines - the exhaust sounds blatty and coarse, especially with the top down. The 3.2-liter is also a thirsty engine - I never saw over 21 mpg on the highway, and back-road blasts returned only 13 mpg.
The DSG transmission doesn't work as well with the six-cylinder as it does with the 2.0T (this is due, in part, to the fact that the turbo's more sophisticated direct injection system allows more flexibility). Clutch engagement off the line can feel awkward, and the quick shifts can be felt by passengers, whereas they are virtually imperceptible on the 2.0T.
The manual gearbox offers fantastic shift quality and precise clutch feel. It brings the TT much closer to a sports-car level of driver involvement, but any progress on that front is thwarted by the TT's steering. The electrically assisted rack is commendably accurate and well-weighted but numb: neither torque steer nor road conditions make it to the ultracool flat-bottomed steering wheel rim.
The Haldex four-wheel drive system can send all of the engine's power to either axle, but the driver is only aware of the fact that there is always more traction than engine grunt.
Without question, the 2.0T is the better engine in the TT. It may make 50 less horsepower on paper, but without the added complexity and weight of all-wheel drive, it feels every bit as quick as the 3.2-liter. It uses far less fuel, sounds great, and suffers from only minor turbo lag.
When pushed hard, the front-wheel drive TT spins lots of tire - but that didn't seem to slow it down much. It blasted up and down NorCal's mountain roads at a pace that would have embarrassed most sports cars. Its brakes (which are smaller than the 3.2's) started to smoke a little on hard downhill runs but never faded. And the 2.0T is almost $8000 cheaper to boot.
If Audi made a 6-speed manual version of the 2.0 T with all-wheel drive, it would unquestionably be my favorite. In the absence of that choice, the TT 2.0T with front-wheel drive and DSG offers the most value and fun - and is the TT I'd buy.
Audi claims its resale values are now among the highest in the industry (higher even than Lexus) and that their warranty claims are down a shocking sixty-four percent in the last four model years. In addition, it sold more four-ringed cars in 2006 than in any previous year. So it's quite obvious that the boys and girls in Ingolstadt have been doing their homework. A is for Atari, and the TT definitely earns an A.