In 1998, Audi launched the Bauhaus-inspired TT, marking the German carmaker’s ascension as the car industry’s design leader. That same year Apple launched the iMac, which sold on the strength of its translucent candy-colored all-in-one design.
What’s the connection between Audi and Apple? Both companies have achieved popular success and critical acclaim in the last decade as the result of a dedication to smart, sophisticated design that makes customers pine for their products. They also have price tags that can be off-putting for those who may not appreciate such details.
Whether with retro-futuristic cars or cleverly styled computers, both Audi and Apple have also set the standard for design in their respective industries. But while the short product cycles of the computer industry have seen the iMac evolve dramatically through several new generations of design, Audi’s landmark TT remained in production for a decade until it was finally replaced this year with a freshly styled model.
The challenge, in such cases, is to maintain the momentum of the original design, without clinging to it so completely that the new design stagnates. Apple has aggressively pressed forward with futuristic new designs that completely discarded the original design in favor of something even more avant garde.
TT fans may debate whether its new design advances or retreats from the bold statement made by the original, but the verdict is in from the experts on the World Car of the Year jury, which last April named the new TT the winner of its World Car Design of the Year award.
While the old TT was a softly organic design, with plenty of curved surfaces and symmetrical shapes, the new car looks pumped up, as if by a gym membership. It’s stretched and widened by a growth spurt, and given fearsome angular looks by a dose of ill intent.
This aggressive new look demands respect, particularly of those who dismissed the old car for looking too feminine, and those male buyers who couldn’t quite see themselves driving the previous model should be won over by its looks. There’s also a significant, if invisible, change under the muscular and aggressively creased new skin of the 2008 TT — a new aluminum frame that makes the bigger new model stronger without adding weight.
For all of its groundbreaking style, the original TT was never a driver’s car, not even in the top-of-the-line quattro all-wheel-drive configuration. It was based on the same low-rent platform as the pedestrian Volkswagen Golf, and it showed in the TT’s indifferent handling. But with its new aluminum frame, the 2008 TT has become an authentic enthusiasts’ car, especially in its V-6-powered, quattro-propelled form.
The real test of the TT as a sport coupe is a drive on twisty roads, and here the new TT delivers in ways the old car never could. The all-wheel-drive quattro TT grips the road like a Velcro stuck on your most expensive and delicate new tie. While this denies the driver the fun of tossing the car around in the manner of a Mazda MX-5 Miata, it does inspire immense confidence, as the car goes exactly where it is pointed, and very quickly.
Unlike powerful front-drive cars, the quattro TT suffers no torque steer (when the engine tugs the steering wheel in one direction or the other). There is, however, at times a touch of understeer.
The new 250 horsepower V-6 engine propels the 3,200-lb TT with vigor, and leaves a great sound in its wake while doing so. But inescapably, such commotion requires fuel and the TT uses lots of it for such a small car.
The EPA’s estimate is 17 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway. Combined everyday mileage in the upper teens is probably a realistic bet. That’s not very high for a car of this size, but the narrow-angle VW/Audi V-6 engine has never been a model of efficiency, even with Audi’s advanced direct fuel injection technology.
Thrifty-minded drivers can choose a less-expensive and more-efficient 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo version, but its engine is only available in front-wheel-drive form, a layout that compromises the TT’s sporting qualities.
Inside the cockpit the TT has made an unfortunate step toward convention.
While the cabin is indisputably handsome and comfortable (for those in the front seat), even with rings of brightwork encircling the instruments and vents, the new TT’s interior has an austerity that was pleasantly absent from the iconoclastic baseball glove interior of the original car. The solid black interior of the car I tested was an extreme example, although there are optional colors available for the door panels and seat inserts that provide a reprieve from the black hole effect of the all-black cabin.
One welcome change inside the car is welcome is a back seat that’s at least suitable for ferrying children to day care (the old car’s back seat was only really big enough to carry their backpacks).
Under the hood, Audi’s Steve Jobs-like attention to detail extends to the styling of the engine and its related components.
Open the TT’s hood and you’ll find something that actually looks like the power plant for a premium automobile. Too often, premium brands simply hide their hardware with a giant plastic sound shield. But under the TT’s hood you’ll find bits of plastic, rubber and metal convincingly arrayed in a configuration that speaks of taste and power.