Audi TT 2008

Road Test: 2008 Audi TT
By: Mike Levine AudiWorld

I didn’t think it was possible, but I finally found something able to keep me on the right path better than my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Porter. I recently drove the new TT, and like my old elementary school instructor it balanced any deviant move with just the right amount of corrective force to keep me in line when I started to get a little squirrelly. But it was way more enjoyable behind the wheel of the TT then at the business end of Mrs. Porter’s paddle.

By now you’ve probably been schooled in the second generation TT’s technical specs, so this lesson focuses on the differences driving the S tronic six-speed automatic versus the six-speed manual gearbox – both paired to Audi’s 250-horsepower 3.2-liter V6. And what better classroom to test these cars than the coastal, hill, and wine country of Northern California?

Audi TT 2008

For the outbound jaunt to Napa, Audi tossed me the keys to a Sahara Silver TT Roadster outfitted with optional orange ‘Baseball Optic’ leather seats and S tronic dual clutch gearbox. quattro all wheel drive comes standard with the 3.2.

I don’t remember what the cabrio looked like with its top in place, because the roof was dropped faster than Paris Hilton’s dress in front of a handycam. But with the canopy down this is no longer your ex-wife’s mobile tanning salon. The soft shapes and curves of the last car have been carved away and its exterior injected with a large dose of testosterone. Audi is clearly expecting that harder lines and a stronger stance will appeal to guys who passed on the old TT in favor of more masculine rides like the Nissan Z.

For the privilege of unimpeded access to UV radiation, the Roadster gives up the Coupe’s two rear seats. Not that you’d be able to comfortably fit any human life in the back of the 2+2, but you do lose the ability to store anything larger than a camera in the cockpit if you’re traveling with a front passenger. Regardless, it’s the ideal configuration to take a day drive from the beach to Napa Valley.

The trip starts in downtown San Francisco, from where we head north into Marin County. Clearly the TT benefits from its new motor. The moment we escape San Francisco’s brutal rush hour traffic and head up Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge, a push on the right pedal provides instant, gratuitous acceleration that’s countered by the baseball glove seats catching and holding our backsides firmly in place. Before we know it we’re exiting the freeway into Mill Valley to head west.

Audi TT 2008


Audi TT 2008

On rare spring days when it’s warm enough to drop the top and clear enough to see the Farallons off the Pacific coast, there’s almost no finer place to challenge the blacktop than the twisting, mountainous roads of western Marin. During the work week these two-lane passes empty of most tourist traffic, giving back the tarmac to the light population of Dubya loathing locals who negotiate the area’s hairpins in biodiesel-powered E300 Benzes five times faster than the Pier 39 sweater-wearing gawkers wedged inside Hertz Mustang ragtops. The terrain and driving conditions change faster than you can say Mount Tamalpais. One moment you’re staring at the hazy blue ocean in the distance, the next you plunge into the dark shadows of dense redwood forest, half-expecting to see Ewoks kicking the crap out of stormtroopers in the foliage.

It’s driver choice, whether to let the automatic pilot control the rev range or to shift manually with the steering wheel mounted paddles or console gear lever. Maybe it’s schoolhouse flashbacks, but I dislike anything called a ‘paddle’ because paddles always seem to stop the fun. I’m an old school, MT6 kind of guy. And as we left Mill Valley’s neighborhoods behind to head into the first set of turns, my bias against paddles came screaming back.

I like to focus on the road, especially when I’m driving a challenging course. With paddles or console shifters you lose the ability to ‘feel’ the gear you’re in with your hand while keeping your eyes where they belong - on the road. Anything that takes your vision off the pavement, even for an instant to look at the IP to confirm what gear you’re in, can mean you’re another 40, 60, or more feet down the road before you get refocused. That said, the S tronic magnificently manages downshifts. It perfectly blips the throttle to match engine revs as its dual clutches swap off to pick and shift gears. Audi claims gear changes as quick as .2 seconds, and I believe it. Still, I choose to go full auto and leave the engine management to the transmission.

Audi TT 2008

Without the assistance of engine braking to slow around the tight radius bends of Mount Tamalpais State Park, it falls back to the driver to rely for help solely from the stopping pedal. But, even in the left-leaning hills of West Marin, foot braking isn’t needed or applied too liberally. The combination of quattro all-wheel drive and new magnetic dampened suspension, set to sport mode, means this is one of the most responsive and precise steering cars I’ve ever driven. It’s well balanced and tackles each curve without oversteer and just a bare hint of understeer, until you push it up against the laws of physics and the tires begin to scrub in the corners. Each piece of technology bolsters and compliments the other components to make for an enjoyable driving experience – even in automatic.

I still haven’t made a verdict about flat-bottomed steering wheels, whether they’re practical or a fad, but this ‘feature’ does help the driver control rapid left and right wheel turns navigating through close knit corners, its flat side indexing for the driver how far the wheel has been rotated.

Only in instances where we pushed beyond the capabilities of the tires or physically lost contact with the road, due to uneven surfaces or the occasional batch of pine needles, did traction control visibly kick in to provide help.

And it’s here that my judgment about the car snaps into place and I recognize the true beauty of what Audi has given to drivers in this TT. Most TT owners aren’t racers. They’re ordinary folks looking to maximize their driving leisure time in a car that’s upscale but sporting. The TT lets you indulge some of the more primal automotive urges, but it knows that you’re not a professional and it watches out for you, unobtrusively ninety five percent of the time. My driving partner said it best when he said, “it takes a good driver and makes them into a very good driver.” That’s it. That’s what the TT does so well.

Coming out of the hills, we pass through the summer beach town of Stinson Beach and follow Highway 1 north, around the gentle turns of Bolinas Bay and past the sight of resting sea lions in the shallow waters of the lagoon getting a brief respite from great whites. Now the touring side of the TT emerges to take over from the sports car. The drive continues up past the oyster farms of Tomales Bay and soon begins to turn east towards Wine Country.

Driving inland into Sebastopol and descending into Wine Country from the hills above Napa, outside temperatures rise as quickly as the income levels and caliber of cars. No more eighties-vintage soot belching oil burners. Pretty soon the TT finds itself in the company of new Bimmer, Lexus, and Mercedes convertibles. It holds its own extremely well. Sharp eyed shoppers in St. Helena pause to take note as a small convoy of red, black, and silver Mk2 TT’s leisurely moves through the town.

We eat lunch at Far Niente Winery in Oakville. It’s a chance to relax on its well manicured grounds and to admire founder Gil Nickel’s amazing car collection. Gil passed away in 2003 but his classic fleet remains. We walk around an R8 that Audi has mounted in the middle of the carriage house that’s home to rare and vintage American, Italian, German, and British metal. But soon it’s time to swap cars and get back on the road.

Audi TT 2008

The six speed manual is what I’m talking about. With short throws and a real clutch, your mind and all your limbs are engaged in the driving experience. And you pay less for the extra fun. The sticker reads $41,500 for a base 3.2 quattro MT6 versus $45,900 if you opt for S tronic assistance.

Exiting Far Niente we climb some hills to exit Napa Valley and once again head towards the coast until we’re well inside Marin County again. Here there are long stretches of grazing land and straight roads. I find that anything less than 75-mph and you’ll never need the overdrive ratio that 6th gear provides. The first five gears are perfect for touring the countryside.

We continue west but instead of reaching the ocean we make a right and turn south along Marin’s spine until we hit the laid back suburb of Fairfax. Stay too long here and I’m not sure what’ll get you higher – the biodiesel fumes or the breath from a Dead Head topping off their E300. But there’s one thing that will make you dizzier than a gas pump conversation with a local and that’s Fairfax Bolinas Road.

Fairfax Bolinas Road is the most challenging two-lane automotive path in Marin. Viewed on Google Maps you see twists and turns that only belong in an MRI of your digestive tract. But even this is deceiving because it’s only in two dimensions. Fairfax Bolinas hugs the topography surrounding Mount Tamalpais so tightly that often you’ll exit a hairpin turn 20 or 30 feet higher or lower in elevation than when you entered the parabola – contending as much with up and down forces as with lateral g’s.
Audi TT 2008

It’s in these hilly roads that the driver and TT unite and work together as a single entity. Third gear is the sweet spot. From twenty to forty miles an hour plus, the engine never lugs or overrevs. 3,700 to 4,100 rpm is where the 3.2 finds the most confidence. It engine brakes the TT before a tight turn and gives way quickly as the accelerator is pushed. Third is the perfect foil to gear hunting and the smell of burnt brakes, as barely any foot braking is required. Again, the technologies of quattro and Magnetic Ride, quietly assist the driver right up to the car’s frictional boundaries. Yee Haw! No paddles here to correct deficiencies!

Before I know it the car is past Alpine Lake and on Ridgecrest Road for an aerial view of San Francisco miles off in the distance. It’s a nice sight to cap the day’s driving. A few final turns and my driving partner and I descend back towards Mill Valley, to the 101, and then leisurely cruise back into SF to finish the day.

The rest of the ride back, I can’t help but think how well this car helps drivers perform better than they might have done in any other car at this price level. But I also think back to Mrs. Porter and the lesson she taught me with a more explicit use of force to correct my behavior. If only my grade school antics could have been corrected so subtly while having so much fun.


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