|February 12, 2001
Divergent Duo: Audi TT 225 Roadster vs. Honda S2000
These are totally different cars for totally different buyers. How's that for leading with a conclusion? Most of you already knew this or at least suspected it, but I am willing to wager that you cannot even come close to imagining how different these cars are until you have driven them both back to back for many hours.
Approaching these vehicles from the outside there are cues to suggest their divergent design objectives. The Honda looks like a land-locked missile: it is small, tight, and athletic. It resembles a snake from the front, an arrow from the side and a compact bullet-hole from the rear. The wheels are relatively small by modern sports car standards and there is just enough alloy for the spokes to support the car, nothing more. Despite being an attention getter it is almost like the designers let a bed sheet fall on the mechanicals and there you have it. The Audi, on the other hand, is one of the greatest styling statements to ever roll off an assembly line. A timeless design, it is also small, compact and tight in a different way than the Honda. It looks heavy and substantial with a cocky stance planted by its massive tires and glinting 17" polished alloys.
So these cars look different, but they also "go" different. The Audi relies on forced induction of its 1.8 litres to make 225 hp at a leisurely 5900 rpm and 207 lb-ft at a relatively low 2200 rpm. The 5-valve four in the Audi is a lazy engine that never really needs to be stressed to go quickly. When you do wind it out it is smooth, fast revving and pretty quiet. Honda goes another route with its 2.0 litre four that produces an astounding 240 hp at an even more astounding 8300 rpm and 153 lb-ft at 7500. You see, if you aren't willing to use forced induction or increase engine displacement, the only way to make more power is to raise the rev ceiling. So Honda raised it to nine grand and left the rest of the automotive world to wonder how they were going to offer Honda reliability at the same time. Despite all the whining about a lack of torque, the Honda engine is powerful enough at low revs to blow away most traffic and the torque curve is flat from about 2000- 8000 rpm making it remarkably flexible despite its motorcycle redline.
A little bit more about the cars' respective gear before we get to the good stuff about driving them. The Audi's 6-speed manual is paired to an AWD system that is essentially FWD until front-wheel slippage occurs. Said 6-speed shifts smoothly and easily between gears resulting in highway cruising that is relaxed in sixth. Honda's power goes to the rear wheels exclusively and its transmission shifter is the best feeling on the market, period. No matter how much you spend you cannot find a more direct, solid, shorter-throw shifter than this one. It is literally a pleasure to use and the gearing is so tight that you can snick your way up through the first four gears without even touching the clutch. ABS is standard on both cars and their brakes, despite their simple designs, are equally reassuring though the Honda has more fade resistance. Both will easily pin the driver and occupants against his or her belts under hard deceleration.
So say you come at these two cars with an open mind, which incidentally car enthusiasts never do, but pretend you find a way to put aside whatever biases you might have. Start with the Audi. You open its heavy, wide door and plop down, deep down, into its finely crafted buckets. You are overwhelmed by the brushed aluminum and the overall splendor of the design. Form and function abound in the air vent bezels, the radio cover, the handbrake, the pedals, the handles and the roll hoops. Push a button, turn a handle and flip a switch and the unlined top (with its large heated glass rear window) stows itself neatly out of sight making the toneau quite unnecessary. There is a glass power operated wind-blocker that lowers and rises, slowly, behind the roll bars but it doesn't seem to do much regardless of its position.
Once comfortably ensconced in the deep interior of the Audi turn the key and in a clutter much like that of a VW diesel the tiny engine springs to life and settles into a burbly idle. The exhaust on the 225 hp version has been loosened up quite a bit and burbles and backpops welcome downshifts and on the overrun. It is a deep baritone and quite melodious for a four cylinder. An enticing turbo whine is also a welcome auditory companion in alfresco driving.
As is always the case with high-powered, manual transmissioned, AWD, turbo cars a quick launch takes some practice. Too few revs and the car bogs, too many and you fry the clutch or something really expensive. The best recourse is to give it about 2500, let the clutch out gradually and punch it. Done properly the TT scoots off the line and on to sixty in about 6.5 seconds, but it lacks the punch of its lighter coupe version that can dip into the fives. There is ample power to easily pass most traffic, although sometimes you just have to wait a second for the boost to build.
The coupe also felt quite a bit more neutral than the heavier roadster version. The roadster exhibits pronounced understeer at the limit and even has the fun-killing ESP (Electronic Stability Program), that can be disabled, not that you could get it sideways anyhow. The steering feels the same as the coupe - that is to say pretty decent though not as sharp and light as the best systems. At least the steering wheel is gorgeous.
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