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Audi TT

Audi's cute-as-a-puppy TT coupe is the car that will "crystallize the Audi brand," in the words of Walter Hanek, marketing director, and set the direction for the company's future. Len Hunt, vice president in charge of Audi, reinforces that notion by calling it an "icon" that is important because it "heralds the next era of the brand," not because it adds a few thousand units to overall sales.

In other words, the TT is to Audi what the Viper is to Dodge and the New Beetle is to Volkswagen: a halo car whose glow radiates across the whole model line.

The fact that it is stunning to look at and a blast to drive is confounded by its price: $30,500 base, and $33,925 loaded. There's only one drawback: Audi plans to have only 4,000 or so available in the U.S. this year and 10,000 next year (out of a worldwide production of 50,000). It is produced in Audi's new plant in Gyor, Hungary. Getting your hands on one is likely to require the patience of Job.

The TT gets its name from the Tourist Trophy, motoring's oldest race. A 180-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged, 4-cylinder engine with five valves per cylinder drives the front wheels through a 5-speed manual gearbox. The 2+2 configuration means the tiny back seat is just big enough for your briefcase or knapsack. An all-wheel-drive Quattro version will be offered later this year, followed at some point next year by a 225-horsepower roadster version.

I sampled TT's visual impact and traffic-stopping looks first-hand while driving early production models during a recent media preview. As my co-pilot and I sat at a traffic light, a young woman in a Camaro convertible interrupted her cell phone conversation to shower praise on our car and inquire abouts its origin.

"It looks like a Volkswagen moon something," she quipped. We could have sold her one on the spot.

The fact that she saw a resemblance to the Volkswagen Beetle is no coincidence, because the two cars have much in common. They share the same basic platform and were penned by the same designer, Freeman Thomas, who works in Volkswagen's California design studio. (Audi is an upscale branch of Volkswagen.) Squint your eyes and the TT looks like a Beetle shot through space at warp speed. This pure, elegant shape began life as a concept car at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995. Deviations from the original design are minuscule, something rarely seen because the translation from sketch pad to assembly line usually requires substantial design compromises. The lean and taut body is stretched over wide-spoke alloy wheels like Lycra on a weight-lifter. Circles are everywhere. Geometrical shapes and front/rear symmetry are key elements. New production techniques, such as laser brazing, enabled Audi to retain the sharp edges where the roof joins the body at the trunk.

On the twisty, deserted roads of the Texas hill country, the TT's road holding was superb. The cars we drove were outfitted with the optional 17-inch alloy wheels, and their grip on the road was impressive indeed. The quick-ratio steering is perfectly weighted and enables the TT to knife through turns as precisely as a Beagle hound chasing a rabbit scent. Even though the wheelbase is only 95.4 inches, the ride was firm without being choppy or rough.

The 4-cylinder engine feels bigger on the road than its specifications would indicate, thanks in large measure to the small turbocharger that gives it the low-speed responsiveness of a much larger engine. Dab the throttle and you're greeted with a reassuring surge of power. Lean on it longer and the engine's power continues to build. Acceleration (0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds) is pleasingly quick. High-speed cruising is effortless.

Four-wheel disc brakes, with standard anti-lock, scrub off speed with impressive ease.

Ducking into the low-roofed coupe is a bit of a challenge, but once there the seats are excellent. Side airbags for body and head are built into the seats. As you look around the cockpit your eyes are greeted by a symphony of circles. Aluminum trimsurrounds the gauges, air vents and even the gear shift. Pedals, too, and braces from the dash to the console, are also made from aluminum. Not all this glitter is for show: The rings around the air vents rotate to open and close and have indentions for your fingers.

The trunk is small but will hold a couple of carry-on bags. Folding the back seat nearly doubles the cargo space.

Colors for now are black, silver and blue. Red, yellow, two greens, pearl gray and pearl black will be offered later.

I will reserve final judgment on the TT until I get to spend more time with a standard production model, but from what I have seen so far, I would say TT stands for Top This.

Vehicle Type:

front-engine, front-drive, 2+2 sport coupe

Base Price:

$31,000

Engine Type:

1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder

Power (SAE net):

180-hp

Transmission:

five-speed

Wheelbase:

95.4 inches

Length:

159.1 inches

Curb Weight:

2883 pounds

EPA fuel economy, city driving:

22 city/31 hwy

 

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