Little Deutsche Coupe
The TT mixes it up with American hot rods
By Robert S. Schultz
Audi has kindly dropped off a new 2016 Audi TT , and we’re headed out for a “driftless” weekend. Driftless does not mean we’ve had to foreswear recklessly hanging out the tail of our TT as a condition of use. Rather, it’s our destination—the so-called Driftless Area of Wisconsin, a lush delta in the south central part of the state spared from the advancing glaciers centuries ago (free of the deposits, or “drift” from the glaciers). Wind and water, not ice, sculpted the rolling hills and valleys of the region, which is vintage picture postcard Wisconsin.
The area’s beauty has been a powerful draw for creative types. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a Wisconsin native, built his workshop and home in Spring Green, one of the area’s lovely towns. The American Players Theatre, possibly America’s finest classical theater company, sprung up there as well more than 30 years ago. And, of special relevance to our story, Spring Green hosts an impressive car show every summer, which coincidentally happens to be scheduled for the very Saturday that we’re visiting.
Speaking of Wright, the lines of this latest 2016 Audi TT have a decidedly architectural bent that pays homage to the first generation more so than the second. Audi’s designers have tightened, folded and straightened the lava lamp contours of the 2008-15 TT into a more disciplined shape. You notice this immediately at the C-pillar, where the sharp crease between roof and rear deck that was a signature element of the Mk. 1 TT makes a return appearance. The angle of the clipped rear windows subtly refers to the original TT concept, which did not have rear windows at all but a sail panel there instead. Also, the curvaceous front and rear ends of the Mk. 2 have been toned and chiseled taut. The center LED brake light tucked under the spoiler and spanning the hatch—little more than a pinstripe of a light—forms an especially delicate detail.
The Mk. 3 TT will not convert anyone who believes Audi should have colored outside the lines in reimagining it. But, as is usually the case with Audi designs, the details add up and appreciation grows over time. This is not merely an evolutionary update. Every panel and surface are new, and if the approach is careful rather than carefree, it’s at least more venturesome than the new A4.
Give Audi credit for keeping the dimensions of the new TT as tidy as those of its predecessor. Much of the TT’s visual appeal lies in concentrating its forceful lines in such a compact form. TT’s have always looked more imposing than their size would suggest, and the new model is no exception. In fact, one of the best gauges of car styling is how it fares on the street, not just in the showroom. Parked nonchalantly in front of Schubert’s Café in Mt. Horeb, our Tango Red metallic TT looked sharp. Everywhere we went it drew attention, and it wasn’t just because of the red paint factor.
The optional 19” 5-arm star design alloy wheels contributed measurably to our TT’s panache. They’re simply gorgeous wheels, with bright machined outer surfaces playing off the inner titanium painted spokes and rim, and well worth the $1000 cost. Surprisingly, they’re only available on the base TT, and not the TTS.
A Virtual Makeover
The interior makeover of the new 2016 Audi TT is more sweeping. The TT’s cabin is arguably the most modern in the entire Audi lineup, to the point of being almost austere. Audi’s virtual cockpit is the centerpiece, and it is a remarkable bit of electronics and automotive engineering. The brilliant high resolution graphics and nearly unlimited functionality would be impressive enough, but the fact that it works so well without any glitches is a testament to the development effort Audi put into it. The virtual cockpit is a far cry from Audi’s first venture into electronic instrumentation—the orange, fluoroscopic digital display in the Coupe GT of the mid-80s, which, even so, was ahead of its time.
There’s a downside to all of that digital prowess, and it’s complexity. We did not feel we had mastered the virtual cockpit even after a week with the TT. Most of the functions can be accessed on the steering wheel, which is now starting to look a little Formula 1-ish with its proliferation of buttons. But the MMI controls on the center console enable a deeper dive into the menus and also enter the navigation settings, and the learning curve is a bit steep.
The temptation is to find a screen configuration that works best and simply leave it at that. But then you’re depriving yourself of the rich data that’s available in many different forms. Equally tempting is to train too much attention on the screen instead of the road. Kudos to Audi for delivering such a breakthrough technology, which is now rapidly advancing through the entire lineup. We wouldn’t mind having a secondary screen for the passenger, however. It would make your co-pilot feel more involved in the experience, and it’s often handy to have a second set of eyes on the nav screen (or entering the data on the fly, which is clearly inadvisable now).
No doubt Audi’s interior designers wrestled with that option and discarded it for the sake of maintaining a minimalistic cockpit. The HVAC controls, cleverly contained within the vents, also do their part in keeping the dash uncluttered. Again, ingenious and nearly flawless execution. But there’s also something to be said for grouping all the HVAC functions together on a convenient, central panel.
The MQB underpinnings of this new TT position the drivetrain (and the firewall) about 1” further back in the chassis. Great for handling, but it seems to have pushed the leading edge of the dash and the windshield forward. The result is a larger expanse of black plastic than in the two previous generations. On the base model it’s all the same texture, even stretching onto the overly deep tops of the door panels. TTS models at least feature different textures on the dash top and face, for a little visual and tactile relief.
With each successive TT, Audi moves further away from the watermark set by the very first interior, which managed to be boldly original and evocative of sports car and aviation tradition at the same time. Another example: carpeting in the new TT now comes from the corporate mill, like every other Audi. Gone is the distinctive looped pile so reminiscent of early Porsches that was exclusive to the TT.
None of this negates the overall quality and craftsmanship of the new cabin. The seats, upholstered in optional and luxurious quilted leather, are as comfortable as TT seats have always been. There’s still real aluminum to be found on the console. The subtle ambient lighting on the door panels and console sides belatedly brings the TT onboard with a feature that has become standard on much lesser cars, and the TT finally gets footwell lights. And the optional B&O sound system is a significant upgrade over the Bose audio in previous generations. Where the first TT interior was Bauhaus inspired, this new rendition is mid-century George Nelson.
Among all of the high technology, one comparatively low-tech feature deserves a call-out: the capless gas filler. Beneath the flip-up aluminum filler lid (ringed with Allen-head screws in a nod to the first-gen TT), a spring-loaded valve at the top of the filler tube replaces the gas cap that you never quite knew what to do with. It’s one of those small inventions that will make an out-size difference every time you go to the gas station.
The first few turns around the block in the new 2016 Audi TT yield some initial impressions. In the comparatively lightweight chassis of the TT, the 220-hp engine feels strong, almost as quick as the previous generation TTS (and without the balky turbo lag). The steering is fast, and the TT tracks and turns with precision. The six-speed S tronic and the engine just seem better connected than previous setups, and we don’t detect any of the pauses or awkward shifting clunks that have often typified the dual-clutch tranny in combination with four-cylinders.
The suspension is firm overall, tending toward harsh over sharp pavement creases or gaps, and this is with 19” wheels and tires. The base TT is not equipped with mag ride, so we presume the suspension is set somewhere between normal and sport. It’s a little surprising that this MQB chassis doesn’t deliver a more compliant, sophisticated ride, at least the way Audi has it configured on the TT. Plus, there’s considerable road noise (our tester had 10,000 miles on it, so tire wear from the Bridgestones may have been a factor here).
Let’s hit the road, and see how these first-blush impressions hold up. The Driftless Area is about 100 miles west of our home, and the first segment of the trip to Madison is all interstate. Extended time at highway speed only reinforces the initial observation about road noise. In addition to the tire roar there’s a low-level drone in the cabin that interferes some with conversation. It’s tolerable on a 2-3 hour drive, but we wonder about acoustic fatigue setting in during a longer haul.
Anyone who is familiar with driving a TT can slip into this new iteration with ease, like pulling on a favorite pair of jeans. The steering wheel is more of a deep dish design, the driving position is a little lower, but otherwise it’s vintage TT. The TT is pure sports coupe in execution, not a coupe derivative of a sedan. Cars like the Audi A5, BMW 4 Series, Mercedes C-Class Coupe, Infiniti Q60 and Lexus RC, which are larger and more luxurious, really belong to the GT class. We prefer the tailored feeling of the TT, and only the Porsche Cayman offers a similar intimate, focused driving experience. It is perhaps best enjoyed on more scenic roads, which lie ahead.
Roller Coaster Ride
Just west of Madison, leaving Mt. Horeb, we pick up the web of two-lane county highways that will take us to Spring Green. Here in the Midwest, they’re as close as we come to the infamous test roads of southern California. The elevation changes aren’t nearly so ear-popping, but the dips and corkscrews do offer up their share of roller-coaster thrills.
Under these more demanding conditions, a handling mixed metaphor comes readily to mind: the TT turns and changes direction with the precision of a compass, and it grips the road like a gecko. The quick, sharp steering and rotational agility distinguish this third generation TT from its predecessor (which wasn’t deficient in those areas, by any means). So maybe that MQB chassis is showing its stuff after all. A drivetrain located further aft no doubt helps minimize understeer. And the quattro and torque vectoring systems contribute to the improved handling as well. We’re more than willing to trade the occasional harshness of the suspension on city streets with the locked-down feeling on rural roads at the limit. It seems that around town, the TT was just biding its time until it could be cut loose.
With Drive Select fitted to the TT for the first time, the new model offers more adjustability to fine-tune steering, throttle and shift points. We preferred to leave it in Auto and let the electronics sort it all out. That’s not a lazy capitulation to our digital overlords, but simply a recognition that Audi has done a commendable job of integrating systems that respond to real-time inputs.
The same can be said for slotting the S tronic transmission into Drive or Sport. Paddle shifting this TT just did not take it to a higher level of driving involvement. There was an odd 2-3 upshift lag, and acceleration in manual mode seemed hesitant at times. On twisty roads that required frequent braking and accelerating, more driving pleasure could be had by choosing the aggressive shift program of Sport mode. It truly comes into its own out in the country, shifting and up and down intuitively and allowing the driver to concentrate on tossing around the TT with abandon. Add in the phenomenal grip and it’s easy to become over-confident, something to guard against on these narrow roads that are favored by serious byclists, too.
Making a Scene
Though the day turned gray with intermittent showers, we arrived in Spring Green well before dark and worries about skittish deer crossing our path. Our favorite abode is the Usonian Inn, a motel built in the manner of Wright’s Usonian style, a design approach to mass market, affordable construction. That night at Freddy Valentine’s in downtown Spring Green, a lively restaurant in a century-old bank building, the TT proved to be a conversation starter. To say that it’s a niche vehicle understates its rarity, especially in these parts, and we hope that it continues to have a future given the cutting, slashing, and purging by corporate parent VW in the wake of dieselgate. So we’re enjoying every moment with our “exotic” machine.
There’s a regular circuit of weekend car shows across Wisconsin in the summer, some dealer events and others small town festivals. We literally stumbled upon the Spring Green show a few years ago, and it is one of the best, showcasing muscle cars, hot rods, rat rods, and the occasional antique. It usually draws around 400 entries, and last year was judged by Dave Kindig of the Velocity show “Bitchin’ Rides.” The Ringbrothers, nationally known in the custom world for their billet parts and total builds, hail from Spring Green and make a splash at the show as well.
Dark, threatening skies and a noon-time shower kept many cars safely in their garages at home, and participation was about half of the usual. You don’t want to risk your ten-coat custom lacquer paint job when there’s even a possibility of water spots, or, worse, hail. Still, 200 or so brave drivers were more casual about the weather and considerably improved their odds of winning a trophy by showing up.
The show’s organizers were gracious about letting us drive the TT onto the street to pose among the hot rods for a photo op. Once again it drew attention, including that of the local police who were reassured to know that this foreign car was mingling with American iron by permission. By late afternoon the skies cleared, and the hot rods rumbled through the streets of Spring Green on their way home, many carrying trophies large enough to fill the small cabins of their little deuce coupes.
Our time with the TT would be over soon, as well. For a sports coupe with thoroughbred credentials, it was a very tractable daily driver. The TT goes with the flow, whether taking a casual run to Home Depot (long as you’re not expecting to haul two-by-fours) or hot rodding the twisties. To a greater or lesser degree, this dual personality is baked into the DNA of just about every Audi, which is one of the things we appreciate about the brand. On a weekend trip for two, the TT’s hatch offered more than adequate capacity for luggage and sundries (, this new TT carries a spare tire beneath the hatch floor). On one measured gas fill-up—as opposed to relying on trip computer calculations—we recorded 28 mpg for a mix of mostly highway and city driving; EPA numbers are 23/30.
Before it departed, we had the chance to engage in a little back-to-back comparison with a previous generation TTS. It wasn’t exactly a fair comparison, which would have pitted TTS against TTS, but instructive nevertheless. The cars felt remarkable similar, the ’17 responding faster and the ’15 lagging some due to its larger turbo and older engine management system. On the high end, the TTS had the advantage power-wise, but the improved chassis dynamics of the MQB platform showed their superiority as speeds rose.
Class of One
All of which begs the question: will this new TT peg the needle of diehard first or second generation owners ready for an upgrade, or bring new TT owners into the fold? It might be a tough sell for a late model Mk. 2 owner, despite the new chassis, virtual cockpit and latest MMI. Regardless of opinions about styling, the second generation TT represented quite a leap over the original, and the third generation’s progress beyond this benchmark is incremental.
Bringing new TT owners into the fraternity is going to be equally challenging, largely because its niche has become narrower than a door gap. Manufacturers are struggling to sell passenger sedans (U.S. sales of midsize cars were down 20% in October alone), so you can imagine how minute the market is for a car like the TT. From a pricing standpoint, the new TT at the high end encroaches on the new Porsche 718 Cayman at the low end, adding to the sales challenge (our test car had an MSRP of $50,600, including destination). It might help the TT’s cause if it had bespoke engines, rather than the standard issue powerplants it presently shares with other Audis and VWs. A TT equipped exclusively with the alloy five cylinder from the forthcoming RS, perhaps offered in two states of tune, would certainly make a statement.
Yet in the class of sub compact all-wheel-drive sport coupes, the TT occupies a category of one. We wonder if potential TT owners are getting the message: that the TT is a stylish sports coupe combining high performance with genuine all-weather, year-round usability. In the fall when Porsche owners engage in their winter storage rituals, TT owners need do little more than top off their washer fluid (or mount a set of snow tires for even more winter capability).
Sporty, two-door coupes used to be mainstays in the lineups of virtually every manufacturer. No longer. The term “coupe” has been diluted to mean any vehicle with a fastback roofline, regardless of the number of doors. And momentum has shifted to crossovers and sport utilities, the only categories where variety and choices are growing. In an era when mass appeal is more important than ever and the exaggerated styling of crossovers sets the trend, we’re fortunate to have this finely-crafted, thoroughly modernized TT gracing our roads. A little deutsche coupe, you might say.
Audi supplied the car, a tank of gas, and insurance. The 2017 Spring Green car show will be August 19.