INGOLSTADT, GERMANY—All the cultural signposts are there to suggest these are troubling times if you’re in the business of making sports cars.
The economy’s still recovering from one of the worst downturns of this generation, politicians want us to be driving antiseptic electric pods, plus the burden of having to lug around snowboards, bicycles, canoes or the kids’ soccer buddies means no one drives just a car anymore, let alone one with sporty pretensions.
Yet Audi’s compact TT may be the proper sports car for our times.
Relatively inexpensive, fuel efficient and — in 2+2 hatchback guise, at least — practical, the German automaker says it sold more TTs worldwide last year than its two main Teutonic rivals — BMW Z4 and Mercedes-Benz SLK — combined.
To keep those numbers up, Audi is employing a mid-cycle upgrade to the base model TT 2.0 TFSI Quattro 2+2 Coupe and two-seat convertible Roadster for the first time since the second-generation TT was launched in 2006, with new styling on the outside, trim updates on the inside and a more powerful and efficient motor under its hood.
Audi Canada won’t have final 2011 TT pricing until the new models go on sale in late summer. Despite the upgrades (plus the standard S Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive), in a competitive market, pricing shouldn’t stray too far from the $49,350 starting point for the 2010 Coupe and $3,000 more expensive Roadster.
Admittedly, the majority of the new TT 2.0 TFSI’s styling touches and subtle interior trim revisions will only be noticed by dedicated TT fanatics.
More interesting is Audi’s continuing drivetrain refinements. Specifically, an updated TFSI four-cylinder gas engine that offers more performance and better fuel efficiency.
In Audispeak, TFSI stands for forced induction (the T) and direct injection (the FSI.) It’s an engine downsizing concept the automaker introduced six years ago and one that other automakers (i.e. Ford and its EcoBoost engines) are also adopting to deal with the one-two punch of governments demanding better fuel economy and customers not wanting any performance losses.
Without any increases in displacement, the 2011 TT’s new 2.0-litre TFSI delivers 11 more horsepower (now 211) and a whopping 51 more lb.-ft. of torque (up to 258), compared to last year’s similarly sized four.
The result? Taking only 5.6 seconds to get from zero to 100 km/h, the four-pot TT 2.0 TFSI Quattro Coupe isn’t as quick as a $41,998 Nissan 370Z Touring Coupe A7 with an automatic gearbox. But it is swifter than six-cylinder/autobox rivals costing thousands of dollars more, like the $54,300 BMW Z4 sDrive30i, $59,000 Mercedes SLK 300 or $69,960 Porsche Cayman.
If you want a quicker TT still, the 272 hp S model is 0.4 of a second faster to 100 km/h, and still a relative bargain at $61,900. And the as-yet-priced top-line 2011 TT-RS—with its 340 hp turbo 2.5-litre inline-five and seven-speed S Tronic — will get you to Ontario’s provincial speed limit in just 4.4 seconds
Improvements in the revised 2.0 TFSI’s fuel efficiencies also keep the Audi ahead of its more gluttonous rivals at the pumps.
Although we weren’t provided data for the Canadian Quattro-only models, Audi says a front-drive TT 2.0 TFSI gets a combined 6.6 L/100 km (43 mpg) on the EU cycle; much better than all the above-mentioned rivals.
And just in case gas prices spiral up again, already in Europe Audi has a 1.8-litre TFSI that gets 5.4 L/100 km (52 mpg), and a diesel TT that sips a hybrid-like 5.3 L/100 km.
Audi also attributes much of the new TT 2.0 TFSI’s overall efficiency gains to the sports car’s already light, partly aluminum chassis and subtle tweaks to what it calls Audi Valvelift System.
AVS adjusts the lift of the exhaust valves in two stages as a function of load and engine speed. For the driver, this means optimal initial throttle response with the early availability of all that newfound torque.
While the stringback-glove and tweed-cap club will whine there’s no manual transmission or only four cylinders available, the marriage of the TT’s torquey turbo-four, quick reacting dual clutch transmission and sophisticated Quattro all-wheel-drive deliver a refined and swift sports car driving experience.
The six-speed S Tronic gearbox adds to the sense of overall efficiency. Up- and downshifts are clipped off like a round at the firing range, with no revs wasted.
Switching the Magnetic Ride shock system into its stiffer Sport setting really adds to the car’s composure at speed, yet leaves the option of a smoother ride when not wanted.
Shared with Audi’s other transverse-mounted engine compact, the A3, the TT’s standard AWD system is front-drive biased.
All-wheel traction only occurs when deemed necessary by the TT’s internal brains. Yet it mitigates the torque-steer and understeer found in the Euro front-drive TT models I also drove here, in and around Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany.
Ultimately, a Nissan or Porsche sports car offer more visceral thrills from the driver’s seat. The Audi’s steering is accurate and quick, but lacks feedback. But the more efficient, quieter and refined TT is an underrated back road burner, blending one corner to the next like a Mixmaster.
There are rumours that Audi is working on a junior R8, a compact mid-engine sports car supposedly dubbed the R4.
Until that day comes, though, the refined, fuel-efficient and fun-to-drive 2011 Audi TT 2.0 TFSI Quattro delivers real sports car thrills. Troubling times, or not.
2011 Audi TT 2.0 TFSI Quattro Coupe & Roadster
PRICES: est. $49,350/$52,350
ENGINE: 2.0 L turbo I4
POWER/TORQUE: 211 hp/258 lb-ft
FUEL ECONOMY: 6.8 L/100 km est. (43 mpg)
COMPETITION: BMW Z4, Nissan 370Z, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Porsche Boxster/Cayman
WHAT’S GOOD: Excellent fuel economy; great performance value; standard AWD.
WHAT WORST: No manual gearbox option; some rivals offer more feedback.
WHAT’S INTERSTESTING: Globally, the TT outsells its two main German rivals, the BMW Z4 and Merc SLK, combined.