Road Test: 2008 Audi TT

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May 10, 2007

By: Mike Levine

I didn’t think it was possible, but I finally found something able to keep me on the right path better than my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Porter. I recently drove the new TT, and like my old elementary school instructor it balanced any deviant move with just the right amount of corrective force to keep me in line when I started to get a little squirrelly. But it was way more enjoyable behind the wheel of the TT then at the business end of Mrs. Porter’s paddle.

By now you’ve probably been schooled in the second generation TT’s technical specs, so this lesson focuses on the differences driving the S tronic six-speed automatic versus the six-speed manual gearbox – both paired to Audi’s 250-horsepower 3.2-liter V6. And what better classroom to test these cars than the coastal, hill, and wine country of Northern California?

For the outbound jaunt to Napa, Audi tossed me the keys to a Sahara Silver TT Roadster outfitted with optional orange ‘Baseball Optic’ leather seats and S tronic dual clutch gearbox. quattro all wheel drive comes standard with the 3.2.

I don’t remember what the cabrio looked like with its top in place, because the roof was dropped faster than Paris Hilton’s dress in front of a handycam. But with the canopy down this is no longer your ex-wife’s mobile tanning salon. The soft shapes and curves of the last car have been carved away and its exterior injected with a large dose of testosterone. Audi is clearly expecting that harder lines and a stronger stance will appeal to guys who passed on the old TT in favor of more masculine rides like the Nissan Z.

For the privilege of unimpeded access to UV radiation, the Roadster gives up the Coupe’s two rear seats. Not that you’d be able to comfortably fit any human life in the back of the 2+2, but you do lose the ability to store anything larger than a camera in the cockpit if you’re traveling with a front passenger. Regardless, it’s the ideal configuration to take a day drive from the beach to Napa Valley.

The trip starts in downtown San Francisco, from where we head north into Marin County. Clearly the TT benefits from its new motor. The moment we escape San Francisco’s brutal rush hour traffic and head up Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge, a push on the right pedal provides instant, gratuitous acceleration that’s countered by the baseball glove seats catching and holding our backsides firmly in place. Before we know it we’re exiting the freeway into Mill Valley to head west.

On rare spring days when it’s warm enough to drop the top and clear enough to see the Farallons off the Pacific coast, there’s almost no finer place to challenge the blacktop than the twisting, mountainous roads of western Marin. During the work week these two-lane passes empty of most tourist traffic, giving back the tarmac to the light population of Dubya loathing locals who negotiate the area’s hairpins in biodiesel-powered E300 Benzes five times faster than the Pier 39 sweater-wearing gawkers wedged inside Hertz Mustang ragtops. The terrain and driving conditions change faster than you can say Mount Tamalpais. One moment you’re staring at the hazy blue ocean in the distance, the next you plunge into the dark shadows of dense redwood forest, half-expecting to see Ewoks kicking the crap out of stormtroopers in the foliage.

It’s driver choice, whether to let the automatic pilot control the rev range or to shift manually with the steering wheel mounted paddles or console gear lever. Maybe it’s schoolhouse flashbacks, but I dislike anything called a ‘paddle’ because paddles always seem to stop the fun. I’m an old school, MT6 kind of guy. And as we left Mill Valley’s neighborhoods behind to head into the first set of turns, my bias against paddles came screaming back.

I like to focus on the road, especially when I’m driving a challenging course. With paddles or console shifters you lose the ability to ‘feel’ the gear you’re in with your hand while keeping your eyes where they belong – on the road. Anything that takes your vision off the pavement, even for an instant to look at the IP to confirm what gear you’re in, can mean you’re another 40, 60, or more feet down the road before you get refocused. That said, the S tronic magnificently manages downshifts. It perfectly blips the throttle to match engine revs as its dual clutches swap off to pick and shift gears. Audi claims gear changes as quick as .2 seconds, and I believe it. Still, I choose to go full auto and leave the engine management to the transmission.

Without the assistance of engine braking to slow around the tight radius bends of Mount Tamalpais State Park, it falls back to the driver to rely for help solely from the stopping pedal. But, even in the left-leaning hills of West Marin, foot braking isn’t needed or applied too liberally. The combination of quattro all-wheel drive and new magnetic dampened suspension, set to sport mode, means this is one of the most responsive and precise steering cars I’ve ever driven. It’s well balanced and tackles each curve without oversteer and just a bare hint of understeer, until you push it up against the laws of physics and the tires begin to scrub in the corners. Each piece of technology bolsters and compliments the other components to make for an enjoyable driving experience – even in automatic.

I still haven’t made a verdict about flat-bottomed steering wheels, whether they’re practical or a fad, but this ‘feature’ does help the driver control rapid left and right wheel turns navigating through close knit corners, its flat side indexing for the driver how far the wheel has been rotated.

Only in instances where we pushed beyond the capabilities of the tires or physically lost contact with the road, due to uneven surfaces or the occasional batch of pine needles, did traction control visibly kick in to provide help.

And it’s here that my judgment about the car snaps into place and I recognize the true beauty of what Audi has given to drivers in this TT. Most TT owners aren’t racers. They’re ordinary folks looking to maximize their driving leisure time in a car that’s upscale but sporting. The TT lets you indulge some of the more primal automotive urges, but it knows that you’re not a professional and it watches out for you, unobtrusively ninety five percent of the time. My driving partner said it best when he said, “it takes a good driver and makes them into a very good driver.” That’s it. That’s what the TT does so well.

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