Audi invited us out to a California track a little more than a year ago for some hot laps in its new TT RS. Fresh out of development, the enthusiast-tuned variant of its ever-stylish coupe was fitted with a turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder sending 340 horsepower to every corner through Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Quick, nimble and offered only with a six-speed manual, the gussied-up two-seater was not only the ultimate expression of the chassis' capabilities, it was a gift to those with a passion for driving.
Last September, after a successful Facebook petition, Audi decided to bring the TT RS to the States. As word of the announcement spread, we're guessing that more than a few Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK owners felt chills go up their spines.
Fourteen months after blasting around Willow Springs Raceway in the talented TT RS, we found a TT 2.0T Quattro sitting in our driveway. For those unfamiliar with Audi's lineup, the 2.0T is relegated to the bottom of the pole as the least expensive and least powerful model in the franchise.
So... just how would we swallow the entry-level coupe with the taste of the wondrous TT RS still fresh in our mouths? As it happened, we were pleasantly surprised.
Audi has been doing some consolidating recently. Just a couple years ago, its TT was offered in two bodystyles (coupe and convertible) with two engines (2.0-liter inline-four and a 3.2-liter V6) two drivelines (front- or all-wheel drive) and two transmissions (six-speed manual or dual-clutch). Today's Audi TT is still available in both fixed and drophead forms, but all (with the exception of the yet-to-be-introduced TT RS) share variants of the same four-cylinder engine, dual-clutch gearbox and Quattro all-wheel drive powertrain.
Along with the simplifications came improvement. With the platform was entering its fifth year (it was introduced in 2007), Audi took the opportunity to freshen the 2011 TT lineup with a new front bumper design, reworked grille accents, a dab of chrome trim and standard LED daytime running lamps. New colors were introduced, new options appeared on the order sheet and most importantly, a new engine greatly improved fuel economy and power.
In this case, our test car wears a verbose name: The 2011 Audi TT 2.0 TFSI Quattro S-Tronic Coupe. Its base price is pegged at $38,300, but the Oolong Gray metallic paint adds $475 (the black leather is no charge) and there are a few other upgrades. These include navigation with Audi Music Interface ($2,070), Audi Magnetic Ride with sport button ($1,900) and heated front seats ($475). Destination ($875) brings the bottom line to a very reasonable $44,070 - the TTS starts at $47,875, while the TT RS will likely run nearly $60,000 when U.S. pricing is finally announced.
For comparison's sake, a standard Porsche Cayman starts at $51,900 while the all-new Mercedes-Benz SLK starts at $54,800 – both are exclusively rear-wheel drive. Depending on the buyer, the TT may also find itself cross-shopped against the rear-wheel drive BMW Z4 convertible (base price $47,450) or even the upcoming front-wheel drive Mini Cooper Coupe (estimated to start below $25,000).
Last year's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, Volkswagen Group's TSI variant, was rated at 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. For 2011, it's been replaced by the TFSI variant which dropped under the hood of its sibling A4 in 2009. Thanks to the newest version of Audi Valvelift System (AVS), the turbocharged engine generates 211 horsepower and an impressive 258 pound-feet of torque – the latter equaling the torque provided by the 3.5-liter V6 under the hood of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Sedan. To keep the power on the ground, the automaker's full-time Quattro all-wheel drive system is standard. Sadly, a six-speed manual is no longer, offered so rowing of gears is done exclusively by Audi's six-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox.
While the TFSI engine is truly an award-winning jewel, it's the TT's chassis that has admirably withstood the test of time. Constructed with Audi Space Frame (ASF) technology that mixes lightweight steel and aluminum in the build process, the engineers have built a very rigid platform for the independent suspension – MacPherson struts up front with a four-link rear design. Our test car, fitted with Audi Magnetic Ride, also featured dampers filled with magnetically charged fluid which could change viscosity in just a fraction of a second. With disc brakes at all four corners and five-spoke 19-inch alloys wearing summer compound Pirelli P-Zero Rosso tires (245/40ZR19), our TT was optimally configured for performance duty.
Boasting added torque, low mass (the curb weight is just 3,153 pounds) and slick bodywork (drag coefficient of .30), Audi says that the TT Coupe will sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. We have no reason to doubt them, as it feels quick. The top speed is electronically limited to just 130 mph.
The little black two-plus-two spent a week with us, and we'll readily admit we had a blast.
From the outside, the TT hides its interior space well. The coupe's cabin is configured as a two-plus-two (the convertible loses the rear area for roof storage), but the rear seats are best left for luggage as legroom is non-existent. Further compounding the problem, there are no head restraints and the sloping roof drops precariously low limiting headroom. Increasing usefulness for items other than humans, the rear seats fold nearly flat to reveal a surprisingly cavernous space easily accessible from the hatchback. Even without folding the seats forward, the cargo area will swallow a couple of roll-on bags, a camera bag and a carry-on.
The cabin is typical "Audi-riffic" in both design and execution, even if it is a bit old and bland compared to the automaker's newer, more opulent offerings. The two front seats are comfortably firm and upholstered with grippy Alcantara centers and leather bolsters. There is plenty of headroom and legroom (even for your six-foot, two-inch author), but the small padded center armrest piggybacking on the parking brake is uselessly goofy. The instrumentation is concise and easy to decipher, with a multi-function trip computer display between the big dials.
Our tester arrived optioned with navigation. Its gloss-black frame stands out as the only real oddity in the cabin, looking a bit out of place (almost aftermarket, as some suggested). Newer Audi interiors suffer no such indignities, and we're guessing the next TT will have a better-integrated solution. Regardless, the flat-bottom steering wheel is a very nice touch that serves as a constant reminder that the TT is engineered for driving pleasure.
Ten inches shorter overall than a Porsche 911, but with a wheelbase stretching five inches longer, the TT provides an impressive balance of agility and ride comfort – especially when optioned with Audi Magnetic Ride. Unlike most electronically controlled suspensions which offer subtle adjustments between modes, Audi's system delivers a genuinely Jekyll and Hyde performance. Activated via a small "S" button just below the shifter, the difference between Normal and Sport mode was so dramatic (and harsh) that we found ourselves only using Sport only when driving aggressively.
When not left in Sport, the TT 2.0T was perfectly hospitable as a daily driver. The engine and transmission interacted like best buddies, delivering decent frugality for the amount of power extracted (we averaged about 23 miles per gallon in the city and saw an indicated 30 mpg on the highway). Don't expect a buttery-smooth luxury car ride or low levels of road noise, however, as that's not what the TT is about. Do expect a fun two-plus-two that is a pleasure to shoot around town, enjoyable on a commute and perfectly amiable on an extended highway tour.
What impressed us most, however, was how well the standard TT handled in the California mountains – it became a slot car. With its Magnetic Ride switched to Sport (the system also adjusts steering boost and exhaust note) and the S Tronic gearbox dropped into the same mode, the tenacious little coupe stuck amazingly well in the corners. The turbocharged four was both strong and responsive, and the rear-biased Quattro driveline ensured the torque was spread evenly to each of the wheels without slip (the only downside to the 2.0-liter engine is that downshifting for compression braking is a moot point). The standard brakes are likely the car's Achilles heel if pushed to the limit, but they never faltered during our stints.
We are not going to attempt to pull the wool over your eyes: compared to the standard TT, the heavily refined Porsche Cayman is a better sports car and the all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK will undoubtedly be a more luxurious cruiser – those facts are practically indisputable. Taking it one step further, the TT is no TT RS. Audi's standard mode lacks the muscle that turns a gifted high school athlete into an Olympian (in this case, the deficit is 129 horsepower, 74 pound-feet of torque, oversized brakes and sportier suspension tuning).
But our week with the 2.0T suggests that none of those deficiencies really matter on public streets. The TT may not be as quick as the TT RS on Mulholland, but the grin on your face will be nearly identical and your wallet will be $20,000 thicker. Trust us; you will be smiling.
The 2011 Audi TT 2.0T reminds us of cars like the standard Porsche 911 Carrera, the base Mazda MX-5 Miata and the entry-level Nissan 370Z. None of these cars share the glitzy spotlight with their more heavily optioned siblings, but each is a very talented yet underestimated player that just happens to sit at the bottom end of the price scale. Sometimes cars like this aren't just the cheapest, they're the best picks of the draft.