It is said of Frank Lloyd Wright that he was an unbelievably annoying and offensive man; worse than that, every home he ever built ended up with a leaky roof. More than eight years ago, the first major gathering of North American TT owners took place, not at a racetrack or in the banal confines of a convention-center parking lot, but in the shadow of Wright’s residential masterpiece, Fallingwater. It was an apt choice for an automobile which has chosen form over function since its introduction. Among the quartet of small German sportsters — Audi TT, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z, and Mercedes SLK — only the TT is a transverse-engined front-driver, only the TT is currently supplied in North America with a four-cylinder engine, and only the TT features rear seats, improbable as they may be. Those of us who remember the Sesame Street song “One of These Things Is Not Like The Other” will have no trouble picking out the Audi as the one which, indeed, is not like the others.
It is your author’s humble opinion that the TT, like most design-centric products, is most satisfying taken in basic form. The standard front-wheel-drive, DSG-shifted two-liter turbo TT costs approximately $39,000. It is usefully lighter and more nimble than the Volkswagen GTI with which it shares a powertrain, and it is absent any of the hypermacho German posturing which would ill-suit a tidy little sporting hatchback of this type. Naturally, not everyone will agree, and for those people Audi supplies this fifty-two-thousand-dollar, Haldex-driven TT-S model, complete with an extra sixty-five horsepower from a strengthened variant of the base engine.
This would be a TT to take to a track rather than to Fallingwater, so we packed it up in company with my 2009 Audi S5 and a borrowed 2009 Audi R8 “R.tronic” and went to the iconic but diminutive Waterford Hills Road Course near metro Detroit. Of the three cars, only the TT-S truly felt at home; the S5 was plagued by understeer around Waterford’s many sharp turns and the R8 was obviously too big and fast for such a small track. Which is not to say the TT-S was the fastest; both of the V8 Audis handily pulled out of sight within a lap or two. But it was the happiest and most pleasant to drive.
VW/Audi’s DSG gearbox is very probably the best mass-market self-shifter available. Around town, it’s cheerful and relaxed, slurring shifts and offering the proper gear rather more often than any torque-converter automatic. At the track, it’s a revelation. The rather peaky turbo four stays on the boil thanks to instantaneous, rev-matched swaps up and down. Adding a CG-Lock seatbelt clincher to the TT-S makes it possible to left-foot brake all the way around the racetrack, which is always an aid to going quickly. The instant change in revs every time the twin clutches trade places has to be heard to be believed and it’s very, very Formula Unnnn.
Although the TT-S carries a “quattro” badge, it’s not the traditional longitudinal engine and Torsen center differential found in other Audis. Instead, there’s a more Rube Goldbergesque arrangement that transfers power just a beat or two behind the moment when it’s needed. As a consequence, there are no tail-out antics to be had in a TT. In fact, antics of any kind are in short supply. To get the most out of a TT-S, simply floor the throttle on the straight, brake at the ABS threshold to the turn-in point using your left foot while squeezing the left paddle five or six times (it will not select too low of a gear) and then floor the throttle again as you pass the apex. The drivetrain will sort it all out and you will fire out the other side of the corner with a rather satisfying “blat” as the ignition cuts out between shifts. The brakes are not spectacular but they are sufficient, which is more than can be said for the stoppers on my S5.
After about twenty laps in the little coupe, I parked it in favor of its mid-engined big brother, which can be hooned around a racetrack in tail-out fashion and which offers an even more satisfying engine note. It wasn’t until the evening that I drove the TT-S again, this time down the freeway to Ohio.
Here the Audi truly satisfies. It’s rapid enough on the street, the sound system is outstanding, the seats are good, the steering wheel is very sporting and serious. It’s a handsome car, even if it’s missing some of the original TT’s purity, and it’s built exceptionally well. Of course, all of this is also true of the considerably more affordable base model.
Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly once asked a tall guest to leave one of his houses because the man’s height was “ruining the architecture”. The base TT is a splendid little car, but the boy-racer bodykit, extra power, Haldex lag, and staggering markup associated with the TT-S goes a long way towards spoiling the architecture. It would take more than 265 horsepower to make this car keep up with a base Cayman around a road course, and the TT-S is actually priced head-to-head with the outrageously stickered Porsche coupe. When it comes to Audi’s little architectural coupe, simpler is better.