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Story and Photographs by Jack Baruth
Sixty-three years ago, a young woman left Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and headed back to her home town with a single goal in mind: to build homes in the new “Usonian” style for her family and friends. The result was the Rush Creek development in Worthington, Ohio, a tightly knit collection of more than forty-five houses built during the Fifties and Sixties to embody Wright’s principles of modern living.
In this era of massive McMansions with thousand-square-foot “great rooms”, kitchens large enough for a Spinning class, and four-car garages cluttered with the detritus of America’s incandescent prosperity, it’s a shock to cruise through Rush Creek and notice how small everything is. Most of the homes are well under two thousand square feet, and some don’t even reach half that size. They seem to hide in the landscape rather than stand proud of it; many of them have no “curb appeal” at all, as they are deliberately obscure, or invisible, from the street. There isn’t a single garage in the neighborhood, although a few homes have add-on open-air carports which wouldn’t cover a Toyota Highlander from head to toe. A stereotypical “modern family” would find living in Rush Creek to be unbearable, even before they began to find out first-hand how expensive and difficult it is to maintain and repair a half-century-old home built by iconoclastic architects, out of unusual materials, to one-of-a-kind specifications. And yet these still, small residences command quite a premium on the rare occasions when they come up for sale, often changing hands at prices up to twice as high as the transactions on the larger, more convenient, and utterly traditional tract houses which surround Rush Creek on all sides, in the manner of an angry Wehrmacht menacing Stalingrad.
If you can understand why this is the case – why a one-bedroom, leaky-roofed, nine-hundred-square-foot home tucked against the ground to the point of invisibility would cost more than a perfectly decent, brand-new single family “soft contemporary” – then you will have no difficulty understanding the Audi TT.
The vast majority of new-car buyers will find the TT utterly flabbergasting, particularly in the $45,550, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, magnetic ride, S-tronic-equipped specification given to Speed:Sport:Life for this test. That kind of money buys a lot “more car” elsewhere, whether we are talking about a six-thousand-pound Toyota Sequoia or a four-hundred-and-thirty-horsepower Corvette. Even dyed-in-the-wool Audi loyalists might suggest that the same amount of money would purchase a less extravagantly equipped TT 3.2 Quattro, and surely that’s a better car, right? More power, all-wheel-drive, and an honest-to-goodness manual transmission? On paper, this four-cylinder TT is a bit underwhelming, to say the least. The numbers are all against it.
Fortunately for Audi, the real world is not a numbers game. Out here, on a mixed diet of bumpy Ohio backroads and wide-open Kentucky freeways, this TT variant shines. Fresh from our thrash of the 3.2 Quattro model at MSR Houston, we’d expected this four-cylinder S-tronic car to be limp and lazy by comparison, but the reverse proves to be true. The 2.0T engine, well-respected as the foundation of the Mk5 GTI’s excellence, proves to be even more enthusiastic in this close-coupled, aluminum-fortified coupe, thanks to a nearly two-hundred-pound weight difference in the TT’s favor.
Choosing the S-Line package adds aggressive bumpers and 19″ wheels, but the real payoff is in the supportive, relaxing seats.
The DSG twin-clutch transmission, branded “S tronic” by Audi, is the perfect partner for the brawny four, seamlessly selecting the proper gear and keeping the turbo spooled. Under manual control, there’s a delightful Formula-One-in-miniature soundtrack from the combination of light flywheel and instant shift. There’s no real reason to drive the TT in manual mode – the “S” program is perfectly adequate for fast driving – but it’s immensely satisfying. The tachometer’s instant sweep during gearchanges proved to be a source of utter fascination for drivers and passengers alike; more than one person stepped out of the TT’s right seat proclaiming that their next car must have a twin-clutcher. Our combined fuel consumption of 28.6 miles per gallon was the icing on the cake, proving that it’s possible to have a reasonably quick car which doesn’t guzzle fuel.
It’s fairly obvious that the TT isn’t the fastest way down a twisty road, particularly not at this price point. An S2000 or 350Z would quickly put the Audi’s gaping trapezoid grille in their rearview mirrors; a Corvette would probably lap it over the course of a forty-minute racetrack session. There’s no beating the laws of physics, and two hundred horsepower in a nearly three-thousand-pound, front-wheel-drive car does not a canyon terror make. Again, though, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. In a backroad battle, the TT is the driver’s constant ally. The 2.0T’s flat torque curve gobbles up road while the small-displacement naturally aspirated engines found in the S2000, Boxster, and Z4 struggle to build revs. DSG eliminates shifting time up and down the gears, keeping power flowing through the wheels and allowing the driver to brake with the “right” foot – which, as we all know, is really the left foot. On unknown roads or in challenging weather conditions, the TT’s tendency is to deliver small helpings of predictable understeer. It won’t betray you at the limit. Even the traction control is more of an aid than a hindrance, delivering a stutter-step launch out of the deepest corners. All of the MkV GTI’s famed virtues are present and accounted for here, magnified by the weight savings and a shorter wheelbase. It’s not meant to be a single-purpose “driver’s car”, but most drivers will find it a willing accomplice in the occasional hooligan episode.
Eventually, however, we are forced to return to the freeway, and it is here where the TT really casts a spell on its occupants. Is there any other car of this size, anywhere in the world, which is as charming and competent during a long stretch of Interstate travel? We doubt it. Reclined in the outstanding “S-Line” sport seats, gripping the superlative flat-bottomed wheel, surrounded by a top-notch interior which foregoes the first-generation car’s most outrageous designer touches but still provides real metal doorhandles and rotating adjustment rings on the dashboard vents, it’s impossible not to feel completely spoiled. The Bose Premium Sound fills the cozy cabin with punchy sound, and the optional “magnetic ride” suspension makes freeway grooves virtually disappear in comfort mode without exacting much of a transition-response penalty. Audi’s splendid MMI is provided here in slightly attenuated form, but it’s still the best system available despite the controller’s inconvenient mounting position high on the center console. One serious gripe appears during a five-hundred-mile road trip through the Midwest: the iPod integration is simply terrible. It limits the driver to six “virtual CDs” consisting of the first five playlists by alphabetical order and a “playlist” of the first 99 songs stored on the iPod, again in alphabetical order, this time by artist. It’s great news for fans of Aaliyah, ABBA, and Air Supply, torture for those who prefer Yo-Yo Ma or the Wu-Tang Clan. It would be unacceptable in a Japanese or American car, but when one considers the fact that Audi makes the best iPod interface in the business – the absolutely flawless one found in the new A6 – it’s particularly galling. We ended up pitching the iPod and using the twin SD card slots found behind the nav screen instead – a rather unique feature, true, but not nearly as useful as the iPod interface found in other Audis.
With an adapter, it’s easy to move music from one’s Blackberry directly to the SD slots hidden behind the MMI screen.
On the road, the TT still has the capability to turn heads, perhaps due to its rarity and the unusual Sahara Silver of our test car. The 19″ wheels which come with the S-Line package are almost overkill, but it’s amazingly how quickly we come to see them as being “normal size”. It’s debatable as to whether the second-generation TT is as attractive as its predecessor, but it’s still a unique-looking car, still a strong statement of size and shape in a market filled with bloated behemoth “sports cars”, and still recognizably a TT despite not sharing a single panel with the original. There’s also a discernible family resemblance to the R8, particularly from the rear – no bad thing, surely.
By the end of our week with this four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive TT, we’d answered a couple of our initial questions at the cost of raising a few others. Would we purchase this car over the 3.2 Quattro? Probably. This platform simply performs better with the 2.0T’s lower weight and flat torque curve, and neither engine really produces enough power to make Quattro an absolute necessity. The fact that “Quattro” in the TT is really the transverse-engine Haldex package, rather than the traditional longitudinal Torsen arrangement found in larger Audis, simply seals the deal. Would we choose “S tronic” over a manual transmisison? In this application – absolutely. The dual-clutch transmission is ideally suited for the TT, providing a technological frisson with the additional benefits of nearly-transparent operation and spectacular real-world fuel economy. So-called “automatic manuals” may not be the best choice for trackday warriors looking for a full-contact experience on the ragged edge, but the TT isn’t going be on those drivers’ shopping lists anyway.
Not all of our questions are easy to answer, however. Is this TT worth forty-five thousand dollars? To that, we can only offer a feeble “It depends.” The competition offers more – more power, more size, powertrain arrangements that are more in line with conventional sporting thought. An Infiniti G37 Coupe, as an example, has more than half again as much power and a larger cabin. The Honda S2000 offers rear-wheel drive and a faster lap around your local country-club track. Chevrolet’s Corvette… well, it’s a Corvette and it has more than twice the power.
What can the TT offer in return? Against these big hitters, with their spec-sheet virtues and well-known qualities, the TT possesses something that cannot be found in any magazine-test “competitive comparison”, thirty-second television advertisement, or Internet message-board flamefest: namely, subtlety, taste, and satisfaction. It is a car which becomes more desirable over time as a result of the balance of its virtues. Neither weekend racer nor freeway sprinter, the TT shines as a design statement and superbly tactile good, like an IWC Da Vinci or Pelikan M800. It’s not a driveway showoff; it’s simply a car which is comfortable in its own skin.
Martha Wakefield, the young woman who left Taliesin back in 1946 to build Rush Creek, passed away a few years ago. It was not recorded whether she cared for a particular type of car, or even if she had any interest in cars as a general topic. Still, it’s tempting, as we drive our silver TT through the neighborhood her vision created, to think that, were she still alive, she might look out the window of her home, see the spare, sculpted shape, and nod with approval. In a community where less is more, where the discipline of design outweighs the tyranny of square footage, it’s easy to think that the TT has found its home.