November 18, 2000

Audi 180 TT Roadster
Text and photos by Paul Grimes

As far as automotive spectacle is concerned many auto enthusiasts that have been around awhile have become jaded by the crop of great cars that emerged during the 1980's and '90's. Cars that were considered to be commonplace designs as created by the careful melding of man's creativity and computer technology didn't seem to have the impact of say a Dusenberg from the 1920's, a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible or perhaps a 1964 Mustang Convertible. Many automotive purists doubted that there would ever be a timeless shape that could be created from the cold bowels of a computer. Perfect examples to support this theory emerged such as the Buick Reatta, the Chrysler/Maserati TC, and who could ever forget such "dramatic" styling exercises as the Chevrolet Beretta/Corsica/Lumina APV? European brands offered many shapes that one could consider utilitarian and also somewhat boring. Japanese manufacturers took advantage of this move towards blandness by producing many uninspiring yet reliable cars that set a "transportation by appliance" trend that is only now being broken by the likes of Nissan and Honda. Many consumers found these shapes to be tolerable but not exactly heart pounding. Only now are the aforementioned manufacturers starting to offer designs and underpinnings that can cause the average enthusiast to take a second look.

During that same time Audi was working on a couple of designs to bring their company back from the brink of the disaster caused by the unwarranted attacks on their products during the late 80's. Along came a young man named Freeman Thomas to set the automotive design world on edge. In the Winter of 1996 all of the major automotive magazines featured a striking two seater convertible that many viewers thought looked the same coming or going. Critics and enthusiasts applauded the artistic effort put forth by Mr. Thomas but doubted that the concept would really ever come to fruition, especially without diluting the original design. After all, how many design studies such as the TT concept of 1996 have ever made it from the design table to the showroom floor even remotely resembling the original? We can only thank the foresight of Audi product planning to have delivered a car that was an improvement on the original.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1999. One of the best weekends in my recent memory took place last summer following the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca when Audi held the press release of the long-awaited S4, A6 2.7T, A6 4.2 and the TT Quattro. Normally these press events highlight one car alone and most of us found our time divided between all of the great choices we had to make; for myself, the vast majority of the afternoon was spent driving the TT quattro through the twisty canyon roads that border the racetrack that were ideally suited for testing the capabilities of the new car. When I finally returned the black test car I had been assigned to the Laguna Seca checkout point, my notebook told me that more horsepower and marginally better rebound control would make it a hard car to be improved upon. Perhaps the only thing that could make this car significantly better would have been a convertible top. Please, Audi?

Despite the fact that the Audi TT 180 FWD Roadster turned up a year late it has deviated very little from the original sketches of Freeman Thomas. Taking nothing away from the impact of the coupe when it was originally released, there is something even more dramatic and futuristic about the TT roadster which causes traffic to stop even in fashion-conscious Washington DC. While spending my few precious sun-soaked days with the TT roadster I received more compliments and questions than even the New Beetle elicited from pedestrians during its early days of production.

Viewing the TT Roadster for the first time in person is a great feast for the eyes for anyone that loved the original shape and texture of the TT Coupe. With the top lowered you will first notice the most prominent interior feature; the two rollover safety hoops that are positioned directly behind the driver and passenger seats. Interestingly enough, Audi chose to position these hoops right out in the open vs. its direct competitors. These bars are not only for roll-over protection but also add a layer of structural stability to the topless car. In addition, Audi has chosen to beef up the structure with the use of reinforcements in the A pillar area, heavier strut tower braces front and rear, as well as the addition of a support beam below the dashboard cover that runs side-to-side. The result is a convertible that, despite its 17" wheel and tire package, remains remarkably composed over railroad tracks and potholes. Driving this car back-to-back with a 1999 Boxster I found it to have a slightly less rigid a structure than the Porsche but certainly better the now-aging BMW Z3 2.8 and certainly in line with its obvious competition found in the Honda S2000. The second thing that stands out with the top stowed is the closeness of the cabin thanks to the removal of rear seats in an effort to accommodate the top mechanism. Behind the front seats are now several stacked compartments that can accommodate such things as extra CD changer cartridges, sunglasses cases, radar detectors, etc. as well as a hidden compartment behind the driver's seat that provides access to the 6-disc CD changer. The width of the interior certainly does make up for this interior shaping and does a good job of accommodating drivers up to 6'2". The seats are adjustable in the same fore and aft manner as the coupe but do physically meet the rear interior wall when in the most rearward position. Nappa leather seat trim is just like the one found in the TT coupes and is quite supportive and grippy. The 7.8 cubic feet trunk on the TT roadster is fairly deep and wide, better than both the Z3 and the S2000, though you'll still want to pack very carefully.

The top mechanism on the 180 FWD roadster is a simple manual mechanism that can be opened and closed without having to leave your seat; just simply twist a central lever and throw it back into its compartment. A glass window with defroster is standard and contributes to the quiet surround of the cockpit when you choose reluctantly to put the top up. A solid plastic boot that folds into three pieces fits in the trunk when not in place and takes about a minute to hide the guts of the soft top as a measure of protection. A power top is optional on this model and quite frankly unnecessary. One feature that surpasses all of its competitors is a built in wind blocking mechanism that silently raises into place with the touch of a button, placed behind the rollover hoops to keep ones hair in place. It functions well below 65 mph but then becomes useless at speeds above that unless the windows are up.

So how does the TT roadster perform on the road? The 180 horsepower car is about identical in terms of performance with the last 180 Quattro Coupe that we tested, the slight tradeoff in weight for the Quattro system versus the extra structural support of the roadster makes it just about even. The turbocharged 1.8-liter iron-block, aluminum-head four-cylinder 20 valve engine revs smoothly and gives adequate acceleration. We recorded a 0-60 time of 7.0 seconds and a standing quarter mile time of 15.5 seconds at 91 mph on our 3,100 mile test car. The G-force unit that we used showed us a 0.86 on the informal skidpad, certainly decent for the stock Bridgestone tires. Despite the short wheelbase and firm suspension the car maintains its dignity and composure rather well over wavy pavement, and the shock and spring combination seems to be well suited to an ideal compromise between aggressive street driving and cruising comfort. Perhaps the only real downside is that the safety allowances that Audi has just recently built into this car might be a bit overboard; even at high speeds the TT roadster is reluctant to slide, let alone be set up for a drift. The 180 Roadster could be considered an ideal situation with the addition of a chip, a bit of suspension experimentation like a stiffer rear swaybar and perhaps more aggressive tires.

All in all, this very entertaining and endearing roadster could also possibly be the most striking design out on the road today with an as-tested price of $36,375.

Perhaps the only question left is, "Where does the line form?"

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