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First Drive

Audi TT Quattro a Trip Back to Glory Days of Sports Cars

May 03, 2000|LARRY SAAVEDRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not since the 1960s--when badges such as MG, Austin Healy and Triumph were heralded as an expression of youth--have sports cars enjoyed as much notoriety as they do today.

The trend--fed by a seemingly insatiable appetite among baby boomers (and other folks of means) for anything that says "retro" or "nostalgia"--has generated a seemingly unending stream of sleek new roadsters.

Indeed, if you are one of those drivers who just have to scream, "I feel 18 again!" you won't lack for choices in today's crowded convertible marketplace.

Just count 'em: the parade-leading Mazda Miata, a decade down the highway; the late-'90s Teutonic trinity of BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster; and two fresh-for-2000 entrants from Japan, the Honda S2000 and Toyota MR2 Spyder.

Now append to that list the highly anticipated soft-top versions of Audi's TT, a smash hit as a coupe that will see its audience expand with the arrival of the front-drive 2001 TT roadster and TT roadster with Quattro IV all-wheel drive.

Both versions continue the impressive legacy of the Concept One, the retro design that evolved into Volkswagen's New Beetle and the original TT coupe. But differences under their shells make for two distinct rides, as evidenced by our recent test drive on the majestic red-rock roads of Arizona north of Phoenix.

Our jaunt took in the sights and smells of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the Sierra Ancha range through small towns miles from the clamor of city life. The only way to truly appreciate a spring day in this kind of paradise is with the top down and your Oakleys in place, and the two new TTs generally proved up to the task.

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First up: the $38,900 TT Quattro and its turbocharged 1.8-liter engine, a combination designed to devour everything in its path. That includes the unlucky rodent that decided to test its fate one day during our test drive.

This refined convertible goes from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, pumps out 225 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque, and comes standard with six gears. From its aluminum-laden, Nappa leather interior to its single turbocharger with twin inline intercoolers assuring a steady stream of cold air for the fuel mix, this car screams luxury and performance.

For performance nuts, there is almost no lag (hesitation) in the turbocharger. It comes on strong in the low end of the rpm band and keeps making horsepower until redline. It's not neck-snapping turbo power, but you hear and feel every bit of its whine.

But what sets this car apart from other open-topped two-seaters is all-wheel drive, which keeps it clinging tenaciously to the road. Unlike with traditional rear- and front-drive sports cars that often oversteer or understeer when tossed around corners, nothing we threw at the TT Quattro in the twisties made it flinch. Balanced to perfection, the car is so sure-footed at speed that it makes even an average driver feel like a maestro.

The roadster comes with the rear spoiler and mechanical suspension improvements that Audi started adding in October after several stability-related high-speed accidents in Germany. Audi USA is also developing a program for retrofitting TTs with electronic stability control as an owner-requested option, and will provide the system as standard equipment on all TTs and other Audi performance vehicles sold after June.

What about air turbulence? Hey, Audi figured that one out, too. At the flick of a switch, a retractable glass windbreak, shaped to match its twin aluminum head hoops, cuts cockpit turbulence dramatically. Just don't forget to roll up the windows.

You'll find the form-fitting soft top just as driver-friendly as the handling. It opens in a single-stage process and stows out of sight behind the seats. A tonneau cover comes standard and can be easily attached without the traditional fussy buttons or zippers.

Looks and feel are not the only areas in which the TT Quattro roadster shines. It also boasts a well-engineered 120-watt Bose audio system that delivers enough concert-quality sound to make Eddie Van Halen blush. The key to audio performance in a convertible is being able to hear the highs, lows and mid-range notes with the engine running at full throttle. The seven-speaker system proved unflappable even with the top down in freeway traffic.

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To be sure, the TT Quattro is not as perfect as its sleek profile might otherwise suggest. Weighing in at 3,473 pounds, it is big-boned for a sports car.

But to be fair to Audi, some of that plumpness is due to the exemplary safety features, including high-strength side-intrusion protection bars in the doors, the use of thicker metal in the sill areas and sturdier transitions at the joints between the A- and B-pillars and the floor assembly. That's why, when asked about rollover safety, Audi representatives could state confidently that the roadster is as strong on its roof as is the new 2001 TT coupe.

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