2016 Audi TT Roadster: 'Sexy Baby' No More

No longer just a stylish accessory, Audi's new mighty mite is out for blood. And the looks still kill.

On this New York weekend, the Audi TT Roadster has already engaged in a near parody of its spoiled-couples lifestyle: daytripping from Manhattan to Storm King Art Center, the pastoral sculpture park in the Hudson River Valley, and popping into the quaint burgh of Tappan for a late Sunday Italian dinner. The only things missing are some antiquing and a winery tour.

After plates of pappardelle, we wobble toward the TT in a cemetery lot, where a familiar face emerges from the gloom: It’s an Audi R8, the TT’s supercar cousin, whose owner has quite purposefully lined his $125,000 wedge of exotica alongside our $54,700 TT Roadster 2.0T Quattro.

Where you might expect the Roadster to shrink in the R8’s mid-engine presence, the mighty mite instead puffs out its chest, or specifically its inflatable-size single-frame grille. This third-generation TT flaunts its family resemblance like a freshman legacy at Harvard.  

The R8’s thirtysomething owner arrives, and we compliment each other’s cars. But I notice that the TT’s interior—which informs key features of the second-gen, 2017 R8 that goes on sale next year—reads more luxurious than its stablemate’s.

Reality may bite, but that pain can be instructive: Optioned to $54,700 from a base price of $47,325, this TT convertible is not inexpensive. But in the looks you’ll draw, the luxury you’ll bask in and the fun you’ll have, the TT is a shining bargain in the fleeting, fantasy shadow of any exotic.

The R8, of course, has been among the world’s most livable and relatively practical supercars since 2007. The TT is that same philosophy writ small, including in price. Starting from $43,825, the 220-horsepower TT Coupe clips 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, three-tenths quicker than the heavier Roadster. For $52,825, a 292-horsepower TTS Coupe slices that 0-60 run to a sparkling 4.6 seconds, adds Audi’s Magnetic Ride Suspension and boosts the limited top speed from 130 mph to 155.

Like the brilliant new Volkswagen GTI—and the entire Golf family, for that matter—and Audi A3 sedan, the TT hovers within reach of Euro-loving young professionals, built from the sturdy German Lego blocks called M.Q.B. These modular, plug-and-play components will form the ultra-rigid bones of dozens of small VW and Audi models whose engines all point sideways.

Where Audi has been known to extend some designs past their sell-by date, this TT charts a handsome new course. It’s a tart German lozenge, whose interplay between planes, ruled lines and convex curves is endlessly beguiling.

As with the new 2017 A4 coming next year, the TT’s hood reflects Audi engineers’ O.C.D. tendencies. The hood drapes atop fenders like a pot lid, creating the illusion of no cutlines or seams in the metal. Kneel to peer along the lithe aluminum body, and a shoulder line runs as straight and true as a gunsight. Taillamps flash a hot red pattern that recalls a devil’s pitchfork, just below a speed-activated decklid spoiler. Optional 19-inch, star-pattern wheels stuff the Audi’s arches like rims etched with the letters “AMG.”

The Roadster’s motorized roof is a quick-draw specialist, opening or closing in about nine seconds. The Coupe offers the sleeker hardtop roofline, along with about 60 percent more trunk space. Yet the Roadster, despite its smallish, casserole-dish trunk, comically managed to swallow my girlfriend’s slalom water ski via a folding pass-through.

The Junior R8 theme is even more unmistakable inside: An austere-yet-rich lair of leather and gleaming metal, seemingly designed by a Berlin dominatrix with killer taste. It may also be the most technically advanced cabin in any sub-$60,000 car, a future vision with no trace of self-conscious geekery. And unlike some luxury rivals that aim for minimalism, the Audi’s barely-there controls actually work, with only a modest learning curve. A clean dashboard curls like a flying saucer rim, studded with gleaming porthole vents. Traditional climate controls are largely jettisoned, replaced by glassy digital dials at the vents’ center, a stroke of space-saving genius.

A flat-bottomed, three-spoke steering wheel and aluminum shift lever are functional sculptures that beg for a caress. Optional, quilted Nappa leather seats nod to the R8, and the Virtual Cockpit straight-up imitates it: The bravura digital instrument cluster eliminates the need for a central screen and reams of buttons to support it. Every Virtual Cockpit function—speedometer and gauges, navigation, phone, audio—falls directly in the driver’s line of sight on a 12.3-inch TFT screen, managed via Audi’s newly enlarged MMI console dial or steering-wheel controls. Robust 3D graphics are powered by an industry-first Nvidia Tegra 30 processor, flashing animated glory at 60 frames per second and 8 billion computations per minute. In one of many artistically rendered perspectives, the car’s speedometer and tachometer can discreetly shrink to bookend a full-width Google Earth maps display.

For a well-spent $925, a Bang & Olufsen audiophile system is simply the finest I’ve experienced in a convertible, where you’re usually lucky to hear the odd power chord over the roar of wind and tires. Cranked even halfway, this palpitating unit—all 680 watts, 12 speakers and 14 amplified channels of it—delivered clear, assertive and remarkably well-staged sound.

Fortunately, the Roadster drives as well as it looks, with a few caveats. Audi’s 2-liter, direct-injected turbo is the Rumpelstiltskin of four-cylinders, spinning out pure golden torque, accompanied by an impish growl from the dual exhausts. That engine finds its wingman in a dual clutch, paddle-shifted S-Tronic automatic transmission. No, you can’t get a stick, nor a diesel, at least in the U.S.  

A Mustang GT owner might be troubled by the buttery, drama-free power delivery, and the TT doesn’t like being caught in the loafing range of its forward gears. But the car’s combination of serenity and urgency feels right for its mission.

And yet, if pure pavement connection is the goal, the Audi may not be your first choice. This TT is the most balanced, road-gripping version yet, uncannily good at hiding its dark front-drive roots. Quattro AWD can now divert up to 100 percent of power to front wheels, reading and reacting to the road 150 times every 10 milliseconds. Electric steering is smartly weighted, especially in the Dynamic mode of its Drive Select system.

That said, climbing and descending Route 9W north of West Point—with its “Cliffs of Insanity” views over the Hudson River—the Audi swoops like a diving Cessna but transmits precious little feel of the ground beneath its wings. You can sense the Audi’s systems working overtime, blipping brakes or divvying torque to keep the party going near its lofty traction limits. Yet at a certain point the Audi says “Nein.” Honey, can we detour to that antiques barn now?

In its defense, if the TT is still no Porsche Boxster or Cayman in life-altering handling (then again, what is?), its Quattro AWD remains an integral, underrated component of its four-seasons appeal. When it’s raining in Seattle or sleeting in Syracuse, the TT will attack a road at speeds that would leave a Cayman or Corvette in a ditch. For northerners especially, that’s a cool thing.

As is this TT. Like the similarly priced Mercedes-Benz SLK and BMW Z4 roadsters, the Audi had begun to fall out of the sports-car conversation—perceived, a bit unfairly, as a style accessory, a rolling handbag to fill with Jimmy Choos or Japanese denim.

The new TT does pin the needle on style, but there’s real substance as well, whether you’re a design maven, tech geek, hot shoe or all three. It’s the rare two-seater that asks little from owners, and offers much in return. Don’t hate it because it’s beautiful.

2016 AUDI TT ROADSTER
PRICE (AS-TESTED): 
$54,700
POWERTAIN: 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 220 hp, 258 lb-ft torque; AWD; 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
WEIGHT: 3,384 lbs
0-60 MPH: 5.6 sec
TOP SPEED: 130 mph (limited)
MPG: 23 city / 30 highway
ON SALE: Now