The Good: Sweet-shifting transmission, stellar handling, looks like a roadster should.
The Bad: Turbo lag kind of a bummer, flatulent exhaust can be grating.
The Verdict: Convertible fun in a balanced package.
While automotive journalists and racing drivers alike often extol the virtues of closed-roof sports cars, there is simply no substitute for the experience of a convertible. Sure, chopping the roof may give up some structural integrity and motorized tops may add weight, but no amount of lightness or strength can replace the feeling of racing along with the wind in your hair, nothing between you and the sky. For most of us, driving a convertible is as close as we’ll ever come to flying.
That said, the Audi TT-S Roadster is a wonderful substitute for a jetpack.
Thankfully, little of the TT coupe’s clean, elegant styling is lost in the transformation from hardtop to softtop. The styling modifications baked in with the high-performance S package thankfully avoid the gaudiness all too often associated with “sportier” models; if anything, the front lip spoiler and raised wheel arches draw a strong link to Audi’s outstanding R8 supercar. And while “Brilliant Red” might not be the best choice for every car, it sat on the TT-S’s hull like the car was born to wear it. Put it this way – pull up in this car at a party, and you won’t have any trouble snaring some ass. And I don’t mean farm animals. (Unless that’s how you roll.)
The car’s expensive looks and feel are all the more impressive, given that under the skin, the TT-S is little more than a Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), sharing its chassis (hence the car’s rather diminutive size) and engines – in the case of the TT-S, an uprated version of the GTI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four cranking out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.
All this juice is routed to all four wheels through the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearbox, formerly known as DSG but currently called S tronic. Whatever you call it, the dual-clutch box operates almost seamlessly. As with the dual clutch tranny of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, the TT-S’s gearbox offers multiple ways of choosing your next gear.
Leave it in automatic, and it’ll shift itself without a second thought. Slap the shift lever sideways into Sport mode, and the car assumes you’re trying to recreate Ronin, holding gears close to the redline to keep the engine on the boil. And if you prefer manual override, you can pick your own gears using either the lever or the small metal paddles affixed to the back of the wheel, which feel great but can be hard to find during turns. In automatic mode or under hard acceleration, it snaps off shifts like rifle fire; driving sedately in manual mode, there can be a pause between toggling the shift paddle and the desired effect, but the gap is short enough to effectively be a non-issue.
Slightly more annoying than the transmission’s quirks is the tendency of the quite exhaust pipes to burp quite loudly on every upshift. While it certainly adds a welcomed sense of fuck yeah! during hard-charging acceleration, it can grow a little tiresome while tooling around town. A system that restricts the belching to hard-core acceleration would certainly be appreciated.
Still, there’s little to complain about in regards to the car’s performance. Acceleration runs towards the back of the sport roadster class – not surprising, as the TT-S is quite a bit less powerful than competitors like the Porsche Boxster S, the awkwardly named BMW Z4 sDrive35i, or even the Chevrolet Corvette convertible. However, unless you’ve got the car’s competitors at hand for direct comparison, you’ll only be disappointed with the TT-S’s acceleration if you’re trading down from a Ferrari.
To access that power, though, you’ll have to punch through some turbo lag early on. Below 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder feels a touch anemic; once past that point, though, things stay interesting all the way up to the redline. Still, driving around New York City, I often found myself dropping a gear in order to keep up with traffic. (Then again, if all you need to deal with traffic in New York is a downshift, consider yourself lucky. I usually need something in a 12-gauge Remington.)
Plus, when the roads start winding, the Audi grabs hold like an angry cat on carpet. Compact car or not, the Rabbit/Golf’s capable handling has often been celebrated, and the lowered ride height and AWD of the Audi only add to it. Should you desire, you can turn cloverleafs into G-force simulators with relative ease (but make sure your soda lid is screwed on tight).
Unfortunately, all that performance makes for quite a bit of temptation, and even if you’re lucky enough to avoid speeding tickets (good luck with that), playing with this Audi can cost you at the pump. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 city/29 highway; however, achieving the higher figure likely requires driving with the top up at 55 miles per hour, and if you’re driving your TT-S like that, you should just pull over and give the car to the nearest teenager. My tester’s low fuel light popped on after just 330 miles.
Inside, the TT-S boasts the same sort of quality seen all along the Audi line. You sit low in the car, with the high doors creating a mild case of “bathtub effect.” In keeping with the nature of the car, sporty touches abound, from the snug seats to the metallic finish on the shift lever and paddles and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel similar to the one in the Lamborghini Gallardo. (Lamborghini, like Audi, is owned by the Volkswagen Group – along with Bentley, Bugatti, and a host of European carmakers American audiences have probably never heard of.)
Of course, no matter how committed you are to soaking up the sun – or in the case of Irish people like myself, risking melanoma – eventually some sort of event will occur (thunderstorm, hole in the ozone layer, Mothman attack) that will cause you to raise the top. Thankfully, the TT-S makes it easy; press and hold one button, and the top will rise or fall as you desire, even while driving at low speeds. While power hard tops have come into vogue in the last several years, the TT-S doesn’t suffer for choosing canvas over metal; the top boasts a glass rear window, feels nearly as strong as a hard one, and was just as effective at keeping warmth in and noise out.
The Bottom Line: From its humble roots in the Volkswagen family, the TT-S has grown into a genuine sports car. While it may lack the mid-mounted engines or hefty V-8s of other roadsters, the little Audi still kicks ass and takes names while making you feel like an action hero. Sure, it’s not the perfect convertible for everyone – there are faster roadsters, more convenient roadsters, flashier roadsters and cheaper roadsters – but the TT-S strikes a nice balance between value, size and style. Lay your eyes on one, and it’s hard to look away; drop the top, crank up your favorite Foo Fighters song and floor it through a couple of gears, and you’ll be hooked.
All figures are for 2010 models; the car is effectively unchanged from 2009.
Base Price/Price As Tested: $54,950/$54,950
0-60: 5.1 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)
EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city/29 highway
Key Competitors: BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Chevrolet Corvette.