Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Romancing the Road

Part 2

By Marc K. Stengel

JUNE 5, 2000:  In this second of three parts devoted to evaluations of the Audi TT Roadster, Porsche Boxster S, and Honda S2000, it's the marvel of their mechanicals that snares our attention. As suggested earlier, each of these roadsters evinces a very different personality The Audi is a jovial good sport who knows his limits; the Porsche is a clever magician who casts unsuspected spells of speed; and the Honda is a beguiling siren who seduces with intimations of invincibility. Each car's unique mix of mechanical layouts provides its special character.

22001 Audi TT Roadster

Alone among these three nouveau roadsters, Audi's TT is a front-driver--with its 180-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbo, that is. A 225-horsepower big brother, whose same five-valve turbo is "massaged" to deliver an impressive 125 horsepower-per-liter, sports Audi's proprietary Quattro IV all-wheel-drive powertrain. Even if its lunar-lander appearance weren't so out-of-this-world exotic, these engine-axle options right away establish the TT as an iconoclast in the realm of runabouts. My front-drive tester, in particular, accelerated with that characteristic front-to-rear weight transfer that reduces traction at the driving wheels. Audi's clever traction-control system works just below the conscious level to counteract a tendency for wheelspin, so there's no great acceleration disadvantage in this regard. What front- and four-wheel-drive do effectively eliminate, however, is any hope of inducing rear-wheel power slides with judicious strokes of throttle while cornering hard--throttle steering, in other words, which is the yippee-yie-yo of unregenerate bahnstormers everywhere.

No matter. The TT is its own kind of fun to drive. It's a gentle giant, let's say; and its trademark is the pure, clear whistle of the turbocharger as the motor gets to work. Perhaps in acknowledgment of its refined rather than "pure sport" pretensions, the TT Roadster's handling is compliant and gentle rather than razor-precise and harsh. Shifter feel, too, is buttery smooth, not whip-crack sharp. (The 180-horsepower engine gets a five-speed; the 225-HP gets a six, with no auto in sight.) Zero-to-60 times in front-wheel-drive are in the mid-seven-second range.

What makes the TT so fun to drive is all bound up in the gutsy, torquey engine performance that propels such an unusual-looking transpod through space. You're in the TT to make a scene, no doubt about it; and this turbo-whistling, tire-chirping powertrain just loves going about its work.

22000 Porsche Boxster S

Stand back...Boxster's coming through. Actually, at issue is the new-for-2000 Boxster S, whose 250-horsepower 3.2-liter opposed-six delivers almost 25 percent more power than the original Boxster's 201 HP (although this figure, too, is newly revised to 217 HP).

The Porsche mystique is safe with this newest Boxster S, even though early complaints about it predecessor's acceleration anemia were a bit too strident perhaps. With its delicious 225 ft.-lbs. of ever-ready torque, S-boy charges through high-five-second zero-to-60s like a mad bull flinging divots off the hooves. A deep, throaty exhaust note serenades every sortie, but compared to the Audi's spirited whistle or the Honda's trumpet fanfare, the Boxster S is a stealth warrior. Before you know it, you've crossed the threshold into triple-digit civil disobedience with hardly a hint you're in flagrante delicto.

Massive braking power is a Porsche hallmark, and those fire-engine-red monobloc calipers visible between the 17-inch wheel spokes showcase this aspect of Boxster's pedigree. The roadster's suspension is independent all-'round, of course, employing less-than-exotic MacPherson struts. Just the same, handling is feline-quick and precise. The Boxster S is eminently tossable in the twisties and hunkers into an apex with reassuring aplomb. It's far less twitchy and nervy than Honda's S2000, far more roustabout than Audi's TT.

An interesting trait is the smooth but not-so-swift six-speed shifter in the Boxster. Its relatively long throw and gentle feel resembles the TT's more than it does the Honda's solid-billet "click" shifter. But the Boxster's shifts are there when you need 'em, with never a misstep--which the Honda, sometimes, can only hope for: Further evidence, if any were needed, of Boxster's curious characteristic of coyness at the limit.

22000 Honda S2000

Step One: Purchase Honda S2000. Step Two: Attend high-performance driving academy. Step Three: Insure thyself.

If you are not now you soon will be an irredeemable motorsports wannabe after you purchase a Honda S2000 starship. I will boldly defy any genuine aficionado--particularly one with roadracing experience--not to fall head-over-heels in forbidden, Lolita-lust love with this champing, snorting filly of a classic roadster.

Honda has crafted a worshipful package of purpose-built chassis-and-suspension in which resides a jewel of a true-sport motor: the four-cylinder, 120-HP-per-liter twin-cammer that erupts into 240 horsepower like Vesuvius when revs reach 6,100. Sure the 225-HP version of Audi's TT ekes out a bit more specific (i.e., per-liter) power, but it takes a turbo to do it and four-wheel-drive to digest it. Meanwhile, Honda's normally aspirated 2.0-liter uses variable valve timing and lift, or VTEC, to achieve genuine race car potential with a traditional rear-drive layout.

But it's not just a motor message here. The S2000 is the only one of the present trio to eschew a suspension of MacPherson struts in favor of formula-car-style double-wishbones fore and aft--enhanced even further by nesting these tricky bits "in-wheel," à la Grand Prix. The result is a nostril-flaring berserker of a sports car that says, "The heck with tossing me about. Thrash me!" It sprints between lights; stripes the road on take-off; powerslides at will, four wheels a-drifting. But that 8,900 RPM redline is a man-eater. Don't go there unless you know what's waiting for you. And even so, how many mere mortal men ever matched wits with Circe the Enchantress and walked away clean?

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