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IF you want to see a car designed for designers, you need only turn your oversized Philip Johnson-style spectacles toward the Audi TT.
From the moment the first concept car appeared at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1995, it was clear the TT meant to engage automotive aesthetics in big, arty, self-conscious ways. There was, for instance, the machined minimalism of the body, a smooth river stone of steel. Designed by Freeman Thomas and J Mays (both now with Ford), the TT invoked a kind of patent geometry to the exterior styling, a clarity in which a wheel well, for instance, was scribed by a perfect-circle fender flare. You may call it "architectonic form vocabulary," but only if you've had a byline in I.D. magazine. Inside, the car's exposed aluminum details and catcher's mitt stitching celebrated the rawness of these materials in ways that drew attention to the process of car building. As buzzwords go, they don't come much bigger than "process."
Designers, of course, loved it. Indeed, since the TT, Audi has made the MacBook-using, Prague-summering, black turtleneck-wearing creative class something of a captive audience. The company has pushed Audis in the hands of star-chitects such as Frank Gehry and Richard Meier. The print-ad buying has zeroed in on graphic, fashion and industrial designers, and those who patronize them (note the full- pagers in Dwell magazine). Even the brand's Truth in Engineering tag line sounds like something out of John Ruskin.
With the second-generation and redesigned TT (out since late 2006), the matter has become more complex. We know the car is supremely hip. But are you, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, hip enough? Take this test:
* Have you ever referred to a sidewalk as "contested space"?
* Do your eyeglasses have cantilevers?
* Do you use the word "ascendancy" when you mean "up"?
* Do you have framed lithographs of the work of Étienne-Louis Boullée on your office wall?
* Do you consider any room above ground floor a loft?
* Are two or more of your children named Dieter?
Four or more "yes" answers means you're ready to buy.
Personally, I would have argued to leave the TT in its original and instantly iconic shape -- as Volkswagen has done with the New Beetle, now a decade old -- but I understand the need to freshen the product line. I also understand that the rap against the old TT was that it was a chick car -- the soft, smooth volumes read as cute and feminine, much the way that ladybugs are "ladies" no matter what sex they are.
The new car is slightly bigger, slightly bolder and marginally more butch, though I still wouldn't drive one to a NASCAR race. It retains the overall proportions of the original, which is a good thing. The biggest difference is the front grille -- the signature Audi trapezoid -- and the crisp and wedgy accent lines on the fuselage. Above the rising lower accent line, the designers created a little "negative draft," which is how they describe the car's sucked-in cheeks.
Whatever cavils one might offer, there is no disputing that this is one great-looking car: elegant, sophisticated, this-minute modern with a capital M. The car looks carved from a billet of post-graduate education and affluence. And it sort of is. The big structural change for the TT is that the current car uses Audi's lightweight aluminum space frame construction, whereas the previous car had a steel monocoque. The aluminum-bodied TT is vastly stiffer and more tensile, quieter and more substantial than the old car.
For the roadster, Audi wisely retained the brushed alloy roll hoops behind the seats, which are just as cool as they ever were. Purists might argue that the original TT made a clearer statement, and that the new car is more conventional. Maybe. But there is still no other car on the road that puts so much design savvy over four wheels.
My only advice is that if you buy the TT, you better absolutely swoon at the sight of it, every day; you better love the way it makes you look, because what you're buying is a 3,262-pound calling card announcing your refined sensibilities. It's no hard-core sports car. On just about any road course, a Mazda MX-5 would cut the TT into Bauhaus confetti, and for thousands less. If performance is what you're after and you must have the four-ring imprimatur, may I suggest the Audi S5, which -- at $62,000 -- is a steal.
Let me break it down for you: The TT comes in two varieties, coupe and roadster. In Southern California, this is no decision at all, especially since the power top mechanism on the TT is so fluid and snug fitting. Simply touch a button and the canvas top folds smartly and seamlessly into the back deck. If things get windy, the car has a mesh wind deflector that deploys from behind the roll hoops. The TT roadster is available with two engines: a 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower turbocharged four cylinder and a naturally aspirated 3.2-liter V6 putting out 250 hp. If you want the top-shelf hardware from Audi -- including the Quattro all-wheel drive system and the DSG automatic-manual gearbox -- you have to step up to the 3.2-liter TT, starting at $45,900, which puts it inconveniently close to the all-but-irresistible Porsche Boxster and even the Chevrolet Corvette, price-wise.
Our test car -- a TT Roadster 3.2 with a conventional six-speed gearbox -- was $53,050, including the new magnetic ride control; 18-inch, 40-series tires slathered around bi-color alloy rims; navigation system; and the ultra cool baseball stitching on the seats.
I've seen other reviewers write that they think the TT is now a proper sports car. These people are confusing the pleasures of being seen in the car with the pleasures of driving the car. It's capable, no doubt. The engine is silken and tractable, the six-speed slips from gear to gear with a greasy lightness to match the effortless clutch.
Off-the-line performance is respectable -- 0-60 in 6 seconds, I judge -- and once the propellers are up to speed, the thing sails along at 80 mph in sixth gear, inhaling glorious gouts of California sunshine. The big ventilated disc brakes scrub speed beautifully. And, for sure, a Victorian four-post bed would handle well if you put these wonderful Continental tires on it.
But sports car? Uh, no. The car is nose heavy, and on top of the weight distribution, the suspension and Quattro drive line conspire to make it push like a road grader. The electrical steering is nicely weighted but is about as communicative as a sullen teenager forced to visit Disney World.
Drive within the car's limits and it's a beautiful thing. It's got good bite, nice transitional manners and a supple ride. Exceed those limits and the car gets clumsy -- quick.
So, the short of it is, the big-engined TT is more touring car than sports car, more for summer semesters at the Sorbonne than weekends at Willow Springs. Limned in modernism and self-satisfaction, the TT makes an exquisite design statement, but it makes it best from the right lane.
2008 Audi TT Roadster 3.2 Base Price: $45,900
Price, as tested: $53,050
Powertrain: 3.2-liter DOHC, 24-valve direct-injection V6 with variable-valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; full-time all wheel drive
Horsepower: 250 at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 236 pound-feet at 2,500 to 3,000 rpm
Curb weight: 3,262 pounds
0-60 mph: 6 seconds
Wheelbase: 97.16 inches
Overall length: 164.48
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Cool enough for Rem Koolhaas