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Short Drive: Audi TT 3.2 Coupe

Austin, TX – Audi’s TT has never been a merely ordinary car. Like the brand that spawned it, the TT is a unique, technology-laden answer to a highly contested market niche. As competitors have evolved, so too has Audi. And, evolve it has with the new TT 3.2 S-line, complete with new Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG).

The Audi TT first burst onto the scene in 1995 as a concept car, taking its name from the Auto Union history book and paying homage to the NSU TT built from 1967-1972. Like its NSU forebear, the Audi TT concept was shortly followed by a hotter, more hardcore concept called the TTS.

The TT came to market with strikingly few differences from the original show car, but Audi has yet to add their S designation to a production version of the car. They have however created a worthy recipient with this newest car, which wears an “S-line” badge, Audi’s new lingo for cars that are slightly hotter than standard and styled in the spirit of “S” but not full-on S models.

Just how does this new TT S-line differ from existing TT offerings? Though some subtle styling differences will tip you off, it’s the car’s uber-trick drivetrain that aims to impress you most.

Starting with the new 3.2-liter narrow-angle V6 motor (VR6 in Volkswagen nomenclature), the new engine traces its roots back to a 2.8-liter unit first offered in the Volkswagen Corrado sports coupe. Its unique 15-degree angle allows it to not only be built with a single head, rare on a V-configuration engine, but also to be fitted transversely into fairly a compact engine bay like that of the TT. Current versions of this engine are available in Volkswagen’s Touareg SUV and Golf R32, and the new base-model Porsche Cayenne SUV.

In the TT, the V6 puts out a healthy 250hp at peak and 236 ft-lbs. of torque; respectable numbers that aren’t far off of the thoroughbred B5 S4 (produced from 2000-02 with 250hp and 258 ft-lbs. or torque).

Fire up the TT and the exhaust note is so much more satisfying than its 4-cylinder siblings. The burble of the exhaust and throaty howl at open throttle leave you with a sense of lust you might have missed with other TTs short on cylinders and displacement. This engine also has a more satisfying torque curve, something Audi engineers have gotten exceedingly good at mimicking with the 1.8T, but never actually duplicating.

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For all of its sexiness and heady power figures, the 3.2 does have its share of weaknesses. At higher elevations, this normally aspirated motor will lose its edge over forced induction cars, and there simply aren’t any plug-and-play modifications you can perform for cheap power gains like you can with turbocharged cars. You’d think the TT 3.2 would be a rung down on fuel mileage also, and though EPA figures weren’t available at the time of writing, Audi claims the TT 3.2 does about as well as the 225-hp TT quattro.

As if the V6 wasn’t enough new equipment for the “S-line”, Audi has also chosen to mate it with their new Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG). This slick new transmission is the first of its kind in a production car, making use of two clutches so that it can pre-select the expected next gear. Not simply an automatic transmission with controlled shift points like Audi’s Tiptronic, this new and essentially sequential 6-speed shifter is lightning fast and can be manually controlled via new paddle shifter buttons on the back of the TT’s thick sport steering wheel.

Unlike competitors such as BMW and Ferrari, this new Audi transmission is also surprisingly smooth in automatic mode. When it’s time to shift, the DSG’s twin multi-plate clutches simultaneously release one gear and engage another, enough to fool even the laziest driver who couldn’t function without a slush box.

From the cockpit, the only outward difference between a DSG gearbox and a Tiptronic transmission is the all-aluminum shifter gate vs. the aluminum-ringed gate of the Tiptronic.

This transmission slips into Sport mode just like on a Tiptronic and operates under a similar guise. The shifter can be moved forward and backward for up and down shifts, though you’ll probably find yourself using the butterfly wing F1-style paddle buttons on the steering wheel, as they’re much more handy. And with DSG, you can now hit the paddles at any point, dropping the car into manual mode for up to 10 seconds of inactivity when the car will return to automatic mode, making it much more usable on the fly.

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If there’s an upside, there has to be a down side, right? Well, kind of. We’re smitten with DSG, but Audi of America’s choice to forego a manual transmission entirely in place of DSG left us scratching our heads. Sure, we love this new technology, but we haven’t met a purist yet who will give up rowing their own gears, even for a solution as slick and satisfying as DSG.

Perhaps that’s really DSG’s only weakness. As much as we love this gearbox, and we really love this gearbox, it’s still missing something. As near as we can tell, it’s simply the action of shifting your own gears. Maybe it’s an ego thing, as we all think we can drive faster if we can control the shift gate and the clutch. Sure, numbers from DSG and Audi’s continuously-variable Multitronic may state otherwise, but they don’t replace the romance or the sense of satisfaction of a manual box. Maybe an even slicker DSG with gated shifter where one could actually follow the gear map might cross that bridge even more, but we suspect it’d still leave the purist wanting just a bit.

Out on the road, the TT does quite well. The heavier 3.2, bestowing the car with a 58:42 front-to-rear weight bias, means understeer will be a factor, though Audi does quite well at trying to keep it neutral. Stock 17-inch and optional 18-inch alloys help add to the sporting ride, though even with 18s, it’s fairly comfortable around town.

Lesser TTs already have highly competent brakes, but performance Audis are known for their tooth-pulling stopping ability. With the higher weight and performance levels of the new “S-line”, Audi developed a new brake system that utilizes components from the European RS4.

Outwardly, the car has been upgraded in an understated fashion that is typically Audi. More aggressive front and rear bumper spoilers have been added and a larger trunk spoiler replaces the standard one. At the front, the TT’s blackout-look headlights have been swapped for units made with Titanium-hued innards. Subtle satin silver “S-line” badges are the final hint of what’s inside, positioned low on the rear quarter panels, just aft the doors.

Inside, the TT’s benchmark interior is much the same as before. Aside from the new aluminum shift gate, the only other notable difference over previous TTs was the park brake handle, in this case fashioned of cheaper-looking plastic rather than the classy leather-clad piece we have come to expect.

The TT 3.2’s shift mechanism, a bulbous knob sourced from the Tiptronic TT, is somewhat big and thus unsatisfying. Something smaller and more akin to a manual knob, like that of a Porsche Tiptronic, would have fit the bill a little better.

This top-of-the-line TT weighs in at $39,900 in coupe form and $42,900 for the roadster, plus a $690 destination charge. Those figures place the TT near Boxster territory in price, but perhaps that’s deserved as the new 3.2 certainly moves into Boxster territory in performance.

Just as there are those who buy a car simply to drive, we know there are also those who cannot help but “improve” upon the vehicle, no matter how good. The TT has been around for several years now, so there’s no shortage of styling and ergonomic additions for the car.

Engine upgrades are still somewhat pending. Chips will net very conservative additional power for those accustomed to turbocharged cars, and you’ll find similar results from less-restrictive air filters, though the more aggressive sound at wide open throttle may make it worthwhile just for the sexy audible note.

There are turbo systems for this engine, though they’re expensive and it remains to be seen just how much torque DSG will take.

Cruising around in the TT, we’re enthralled by the power and the overall package of the car, though to be honest we just can’t get over the lack of a manual transmission. If that makes us sound negative, think again. Executives from Auburn Hills have suggested DSG will find its way into more Audi product, hopefully replacing Tiptronic and not manual cars. This automotive purist thinks he could easily find space in his garage for a DSG car, just not at the cost of a car with manual transmission parked right next to it.

COUNTERPOINT – Joe Lucchio

When the rumors first started coming in that Audi was finally going to place a VR6 engine in the TT, it really caught my attention. As both a former VR6 owner and TT 180 quattro owner, as well as having heard of the development of the 3.2L VR6, the thought of a high powered, silky smooth VR6 in place of the somewhat characterless, but highly tuneable 1.8T was very appealing. Then the news came that it would only offered with a new DSG transmission. Although somewhat disappointed that there would be no manual transmission option, most of the information on the new DSG box was very promising. Reports of the new VR6 equipped TT with DSG started to trickle in from abroad, with numerous people singing the praises of this new engine and transmission combination.

So with some new found optimism, it was off to my local Audi dealer to experience this latest iteration of the TT firsthand. The brilliant black TT with onyx black interior was definitely an eye catcher, and so was the $44,000 sticker price. There was something different about this TT. It wasn’t the new front and rear valances, nor was it the new style 18” wheels, all very subtle changes and not very noticable. There seemed to be more wheel gap than the other TT’s on the lot. We recently confirmed that the car was infact slightly higher, as all US bound TT’s have been raised 10mm due to the low sump height of the 3.2 VR6 engine.

After carefully negotiating the tight driveways on the dealer lot and getting use to the fact that there was no third pedal, I proceeded to put the TT through it’s paces in a variety of real world situations. The suspension was firm, yet compliant and did a decent job on the uneven pavement surfaces and freeway expansion joints. It felt right at home on long, sweeping on and off ramps but felt like it was out of it’s element on tighter turns, with body roll being noticeably present. In reality, the suspension changes did a decent job of masking the extra weight of the VR6 in front, as the car didn’t feel considerably different from 1.8T versions that I’ve driven, but still left a lot to be desired. It’s unfortunate that while the US TT wears S-line badges, it doesn’t wear the European S-Line suspension which is actually 20mm lower than stock, along with stiffer shocks and springs. That would certainly cure both the aesthetic and performance issues related to the US suspension choice.

The DSG transmission did it’s job, albeit a bit noisily. Although not a major distraction, you could definitely hear it working inside the cabin. The DSG in standard mode acted just like a regular automatic transmission for the most part, shifting smoothly and selecting the right gear when needed. It was “sport” mode that proved to be the most entertaining. However, this proved to be a bit problematic in around town traffic. I was cruising along in second gear and slowed down to pull into a parking lot, the car abruptly shifted into first gear when it dropped below 4000 rpms, which was a bit unnerving. So if you are driving in a lot of traffic, you will find yourself either shifting with the paddles or leaving it in standard automatic mode. The paddles do exhibit quick shifts, but there was a bit more lag between when I hit the paddle and the car actually shifted. These shortcomings aside, I have to admit, DSG would be the only “automatic” transmission I would own. It is perfectly mated to the 3.2L engine, which is simply a gem. The engine pulls effortlessly all the way to redline with a smooth linear feel. The exhaust note is by far the nicest I’ve heard on a stock Audi and takes full advantage of the DSG’s throttle blip upon downshifts.

So at the end of the day, did the car meet my expectations? I’d have to say it met them, but barely. At this price I simply expected much more. While the 3.2L engine was a definite highlight, the lack of the true S-line “sports” suspension setup and higher US ride height as well as the lack of any readily apparent differences between this and other TT’s was a letdown. While I was impressed by the DSG transmission overall, in the end, it was still an automatic transmission, albeit and very sophisticated one. Also, what appeared to be one of the coolest features of the transmission, “Launch Control,” was eliminated from US market TT’s due to liability concerns with people leaving ESP off. You must turn off ESP to activate launch control. How much is that 6 speed R32?



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