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PAUL DEAN

You'll Want to Tweak the Cheeks of This Audi

April 15, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

If navel oranges, Shirley Temple and Titleist golf balls found fame in dimples, imagine the future for the Audi 2000 TT sports car.

It has 112 dints and indents, implying naked rivets in bare aluminum and suggesting harsh racing in rowdier times. There are dimples surrounding alloy air vents in the dashboard, dimples atop the gearshift and dimples around the steering wheel boss where horn buttons used to be. Then dimples decorating the instrument needles and running more rings around control buttons for the emergency flasher and seat heaters. Also, three dozen very obvious, quite unashamed drillings for naked Allen bolts circling the aluminum gas cap, wheel hubs and gearshift boot.

Sounds rather outlandish: a transportation toy defined by an excess of nonfunctional trim. Maybe an indigestible dollop of retrospection as Audi grovels before the primal build of its Auto-Union racers of the '30s. Or an over-styled reach far into the new millennium when aluminum cars running on fuel cells, hypersonic air travel and a chamomile tea that teaches French while you sleep will be givens.

On the other hand, all this Lego pimpling and dimpling is a perfect complement to the lustrous glow of brushed aluminum from the TT's center console grab handles, door latches and instrument rims and a dashboard panel hiding the radio controls. No burled walnut here. No faux carbon fiber. Just Tomorrowland.

Clearly, Audi's device has been to craft distinction from something clean, simple and circular, even playing off the four interlocking rings of the Audi logo. Designers and engineers certainly did it in an easy hurry, evolving a production motorcar from a styling exercise--penned at the Volkswagen-Audi design studio in Simi Valley, where the New Beetle was also birthed--in only four years. And a production car barely changing a whit from its former life as a fiberglass concept.

And know that beneath the double-bubble silhouette and visual novelty of the 2000 TT coupe is a vital sports car, a real entrant in this roadster rage first stirred by Mazda and brought to the boil last year by James Bond's BMW Z3, James Dean's Porsche Boxster and Beverly Hills' Mercedes-Benz SLK.

Compared with those jolly Teutons--but with Toyota and Honda ready to toss roadsters into the ring next year--the $30,500 turbocharged, 180-horsepower TT has more guts than the base Z3, accelerates faster than the SLK and is $11,000 lighter than the Boxster.

Don't worry that the TT is only front-wheel drive, and a four-banger to boot. An all-wheel-drive Quattro version will be shipped here later this year, followed next spring by a turbocharged, 225-horsepower TT with a six-speed manual to handle the additional power and pace. Then, thank God, a real ragtop roadster.

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When the base model goes on sale next month, will the TT attract by its stunning good looks--deep creases accentuating wheel flares, buxom rounds free of spoilers and air dams and superfluous styling curves and a cuteness (probably from the codependency of its Simi Valley design teams) close to that of the New Beetle?

Or will the TT draw by the quality and charm of its interior--high windowsills to cuddle your shoulders like a Deuce Coupe, a dashboard of circular geometry in aluminum motion and some remarkable innovations? Windows operated by tabs behind the driver's door pull. A sliding panel on the console covering fuel and trunk remotes. Seats for tiny people and small occasions, with backs that fold flat and convert the TT into a roomy and practical hatchback pickup.

Or will the lure be performance that really is better than anyone would expect? If you're not bothered by a blah exhaust note in desperate need of new acoustics, the TT will deliver zero-to-60-mph times of 7.5 seconds. Mid-range acceleration--the ability to execute a turbocharged sweep away from madding traffic, to nip ahead and tuck in without scaring anyone--is a joy. There's a whisper of under-steer if the TT is driven with such verve, but easy and quick recovery thanks to dead-certain steering and a Velcro tire grip so typically Audi.

We suspect the TT will do very nicely on all three fronts, thank you, until long after its novelty has worn thin and parts of its unique design have been pilfered by others.

Here's another well-engineered roadster that does, a whimsical machine of much visual mischief ready to introduce new populations to the intimate fun of naughty driving.

It will certainly make you smile.

Might even break out your dimples.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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