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Audi TT Coupe goes like scat, though numbers are tame

By Marc K. Stengel

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  I first spied the Audi TT Coupe in January '95, when it debuted as a design concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The show car, I know now, was not so much a concept as a promise. As a 2000 model virtually identical to the mannequin on the dais, the TT represents Audi's bold intention to dictate, rather than follow, automotive taste.

Actually, I can safely say that I fell in love with the TT Coupe even before it was a figment in its designers' eyes. As a child, I was hypnotized by the streamlined, gleaming race cars produced before World War II by Auto Union in Germany (the alphabetic contributor of both "A" and "U" to present-day Audi). The Type C racer in particular was a remarkable emblem of pride and performance, a flashing, speeding symbol of unalloyed positivism that characterized the naive industrial hubris of our century's early decades.

In a self-conscious homage to the Auto Union racers, the Audi TT Coupe is the expression of an older-yet-wiser, end-of-the-century maturity, yet its panache is still pure. To gaze on this squat, muscular Quasimodo of a sports car is to ponder the incalculable dimensions of beauty and brutishness that comprise human aspiration.

Generally speaking, the best measure of a sports car--for the true enthusiast, that is--is its manner of going. And the TT Coupe goes like scat. Empirically, its numbers are relatively tame: 180 turbocharged horsepower from a 1.8-liter twin-cam four; zero-to-60 in about 7.5 seconds; maximum torque of 173 ft.-lbs., pulling steadily from 1,950 rpm all the way to redline at 7,200 rpm. The coefficient that snaps all of these quanta into place is the TT's dainty curb weight of 2,655 lbs. In the sports coupe/roadster class, only the 140-horsepower Mazda Miata is lighter. So with its 40-horse advantage and featherweight poise, the TT Coupe is ballet on wheels. What it lacks in jet-propulsion compared to BMW's equally stunning M-Coupe, Audi's TT SuperEgg more than compensates with an airplane-like feel for the banks, dives, and swoops of the backroads.

Audi's energetic 1.8-liter turbo is already a favorite in enthusiast circles, appearing first in an A4 sedan variant and now, too, in a hot-rod version of VW's New Beetle. Even those who care little for turbo-flavored horsepower have to bow humbly at this motor's lightning-fast rev to redline and its smooth, even powerband. Small engine displacement effectively banishes turbo-lag, and Audi's optional Quattro IV all-wheel-drive system (for $1,750) tames even further the acceleration jitters that so often spoil the turbo experience. Quattro does a superb job of keeping all power to the road; Audi claims the system can detect and rectify slipping traction within one-eighth of a turn (i.e., 45 degrees rotation) of any wheel. Accordingly, the TT's unique combination of leaping acceleration, balanced road holding, monster brakes, and light, tossable chassis invites barnstorming sorties the way few other vehicles can.

Nor can any other vehicle invite the stares--bewildered and appreciative at the same time--that the TT attracts. What to make of this humpbacked sled, with the puckered fenders, snub nose, and bobbed tail? A private feast for the eyes is reserved for the occupants, only two of whom will realistically fit in this nominal four-seater. Sliding into the firm, wrap-around front bucket seats is like slipping out of the mundane realm and into the dazzling, futuristic world of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Audi's attention to every detail--structural, aesthetic, ergonomic--is remarkable. Gleaming disks, rings, and panels of brushed aluminum punctuate natty swaths of matte-black material. Even the humble shifter boot is a curious, round ziggurat that consummates in a monumental knob of aluminum and leather.

Behind an aluminum trap door in the center of the dash lives the sound system; below that is standard automatic climate control. A pair of odd struts with grab handles flanks the center console: Here is visible if unorthodox proof of Audi's obsession with chassis rigidity. There are backseats too, but they are restricted to children under 4 feet, 11 inches tall. More generous is the storage space of 13.8 cu.-ft. under the rear hatch. This inflates to an impressive 24.2 cubes with the rear seats folded--quite a practical concession in an automotive bonbon so self-consciously precious as this one.

An inscrutable aluminum wire sculpture in the console behind the driver and front passenger is the only sure blemish--it's the cup-holder, and it's useless. Some may complain of a notchy shifter feel that takes time and attention to master before exploiting the invigorating rhythm of the TT's turbo powertrain. And for such a nimble handler, steering feel is curiously inverted. One wishes for a little more power assist at cruise, a little less at sprint.

There are others as well who will say they wish for more power and will therefore wait for the 225-horsepower TT promised for April 2000. They're deluding themselves. This present and reigning version represents that rare accomplishment of near-perfect proportions in performance, looks, and feel. As an enthusiast's car, the TT Coupe is a retro-modern masterpiece not because its capabilities are excessive, but because they are precisely enough.


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