THE EXPERIENCE was disconcerting, even a bit scary at first. I was cruising at highway speed on New Jersey's Interstate 78, about 10 miles west of New York, when a car pulled alongside and its beefy male occupants started waving with frantic urgency.
Were they carjackers? Terrorists? "Hillary for Senate" staffers trying to find New York? None of the above, it turned out. They were fans! Not of me, mind you, but of the car I was driving: the Audi TT.
The TT is the newest of the cute little foreign roadsters designed to make middle-aged baby boomers, such as me, feel like kids again. This market niche was invented (actually reinvented) in the late 1980s by Mazda with the Miata, which remains perhaps the best value among all these toys for grownups. You can land a loaded Miata for around $25,000, which is 20% to 80% less than the price of such illustrious competitors as the BMW Z3, the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the Porsche Boxster, the new Honda S2000 (which will be reviewed in a future article) and the BMW M coupe, which is another newcomer that I drove recently to compare with the TT.
But none of these cars comes even close to the TT in the "wow" factor. Minutes after the Interstate 78 incident described above, I pulled into a parking space outside my doctor's office. A guy in a big Mercedes stopped right behind me, hopped out of his car with the engine still running and ran over to ask about the TT. Only some irate horn-honking by the cars lined up behind him cut the conversation mercifully short. Similar episodes, often at equally awkward moments, occurred time and again. If you want to be noticed, the TT is your car.
The TT's wow factor stems from its sexy, curvaceous styling, which can best be described as a Volkswagen Beetle on steroids. The Volkswagen heritage is no accident: Both the Beetle and the TT were designed by the same stylist, American-born Freeman Thomas.
But the TT is more than just a pretty shape -- its interior is equally eye-catching. The inside is a bit cramped, as is common for cars in this class, and my first impression was that the small windows limited the driver's view. A couple hours of driving, though, dispelled that notion.
The TT's dashboard displays are appropriately minimalist, but hardly bereft of flair. The circular, dimpled stainless-steel bezels that surround the individual air vents give the interior a retro, industrial-chic ambiance that evokes nostalgia but doesn't shout about it. (On the car's exterior, a similar but larger bezel decorates the gasoline cap.) The textured stainless steel of the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals adds to the interior motif. The instrument panel's red lighting, a departure from the standard white, gives the TT a cozy, snug feeling when you're driving at night.
But what I really like about the TT, and what makes it unique among its competitors, is that the car can be downright practical. That can be a damning description for a hot rod, but not to worry: The TT isn't anywhere near practical enough to replace the family minivan. Yet the bulging humps of the TT's exterior conceal the fact that the car really is a hatchback in drag (pun intended). The hatchback body style remains popular in Europe for its flexible convenience, but it is totally out of fashion in America.
Flipping down the TT's token rear seat creates a cargo bay that's cavernous for a car in this class. It can easily hold two sets of golf clubs and, in a pinch, could accommodate two more. This capability presents quite a contrast to both the Mazda Miata and the BMW M coupe. BMW states that the M coupe "will carry two fully loaded golf bags." Sure, but only if you don't mind your putter bumping up around your neck.
The difference in storage capacity isn't the only contrast between the TT and the M coupe. The other notable newcomer in this class, the M coupe was introduced last year as the latest in BMW's M line, following the M3 coupe, the M3 convertible and the M "roadster," also a convertible. (Another M entry, the M5, debuts this fall.) If the Audi TT is Tom Cruise, the M coupe is Sylvester Stallone -- with nothing at all subtle about it.
The M coupe's optional keyless entry system makes a noise much like a phaser set on stun. To some people the car's styling, which is easily the most daring of the M series, looks like it was inspired by a shoe. To me, though, the car is more reminiscent of an old AMC Gremlin (remember that one?) that has spent a lot of time working out at the gym.
The M is supposed to stand for "motorsports." But I think "muscle" is equally appropriate, because that's the root of this car's appeal. The M coupe's 240-hp, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder engine surges from a standing start to 60 miles an hour in a breath-depriving 5.1 seconds.
Driving the M coupe on suburban streets is like reining in a thoroughbred. The car doesn't hit its stride until it hits the highway, where it's so strong that going 80 mph feels like you're doing only 40. With power like this, it's comforting to know that side-impact airbags are standard (as they are on the Audi TT) -- though the M coupe's suspension and handling are so solid that the car never feels out of control.
The M coupe easily outmuscles the TT, at least for now. The TT is powered by a 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with five valves per cylinder, which makes it good enough for 180 horsepower and a zero-to-60 time of 7.4 seconds.
But more is coming. Next spring Audi is introducing a 225-hp version of the same engine, thanks to a larger turbocharger and other refinements. This should narrow the performance gap with the M coupe considerably. How important is that? Well, "faster means better" is a good rule of thumb, especially with cars of this ilk. But the TT isn't exactly a performance slouch, even if, unlike the M coupe, it doesn't rattle your skeleton. Simply put, I found the TT more fun to drive.
A bigger engine isn't the only enhancement in the TT's future. This fall Audi will supplement the base-engine TT with an all-wheel-drive Quattro version, which also will be available with the more powerful engine next spring. The regular TT coupe is a front-wheel-drive car, in contrast to the M coupe's rear-wheel-drive configuration, a BMW tradition. Both cars are available only with five-speed manual transmissions. The big-engine TT will sport a standard six-speed manual by next spring. An automatic transmission -- an unfortunate feature, in my view, on a car of this sort -- could come later, though only on the small-engine car. And as Audi continues to fill out the TT lineup, TT roadsters (i.e., convertibles) should become available next spring.
All this fun doesn't exactly come cheap. The TT's base price is $30,500, plus a destination charge of $525. But when you add such popular options as heated front seats, a premium audio package with a six-disk CD player and the performance package with special wheels and tires, the TT's sticker can top $33,000.
And with the car being so new and so popular, don't plan to pay less than sticker. As of mid-July, Bellavia Audi in West New York, N.J., had sold 12 TTs, all for $1,000 to $4,000 more than the sticker price. The dealership has a three-month waiting list for the car.
The M coupe is costlier still, with a base price of $41,800 and a $570 destination charge. The only two options are a sunroof ($300) and CD player ($200). But dealers are more likely to bargain on the M coupe than on the TT.
And when Audi narrows the performance gap with the M coupe, the price gap will be sure to shrink as well. The betting here is that when the TT Quattro with the 225-horsepower engine debuts next year, the base price will be closer to $40,000 than to $30,000.
The bottom line, though, is that the Audi TT is a great little car and clearly the class of this category. The name TT stands for "Tourist Trophy," an auto and motorcycle race held on Britain's Isle of Man since the early years of this century. The reasoning behind the nomenclature sounds a wee bit obscure to me, so here's a better idea. Audi should just admit it: TT stands for Totally Terrific.
-- By Paul Ingrassia