A Grin Machine

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2008

Over years of testing hundreds of new cars, I’ve found only a few that could put a smile on my face every morning as I approached them for the commute to work. I’m here to tell you about one such car today.

I just spent a week in the redesigned-for-2008 Audi TT Roadster. It made me smile every day I drove it. Someone should do a gpm (grins per mile) rating. This one would be at or near the top.

The Audi TT appeals first to the eye. Looking at the fire-engine red exterior, there’s a hint of a mid-1950s Porsche Speedster, the one that resembled an upside-down bathtub. The TT looks something like that, but this year its previously soft lines have been hardened a bit, its grille made larger and more menacing. Cartoonists know how to create character lines that say “cute” or “frightening.” The TT designers have created 2008 lines that exclaim, “I’m cute but I can slap you silly.”

This is a two-seater, as many “fun” cars are. These smaller vehicles provide unmatched visibility, a lighter weight for better horsepower-to-weight ratios, and a feeling of oneness with the machine and road.

Our tester had a six-speed manual transmission that proved a joy to use. Unlike the heavy-duty units in many performance cars, this one coupled a light clutch with a short-throw shifter.

The TT, like all Audis, has all-wheel drive. There is no safer setup, and this Audi was as at home on wet roads as dry ones, dirt as well as paved. Fuel mileage is not compromised with this setup, and the TT returns 17 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.

The six-cylinder engine pumps out 250 horsepower. This roadster is a scooter.

The exterior view exposed the wide summer high-performance tires and 18-inch alloy wheels on the TT and, coupled with a special suspension system that stiffens or relaxes with driving conditions, this car can handle any curve at a speed of your choice.

Bucket seats embrace both driver and passenger, much as those in racing cars do. Behind each seat is a roll bar. Between the roll bars, a windscreen can be raised to keep air off sensitive necks when the top is down.

This ragtop requires no special handling to be lowered or raised. And it’s powered. I dropped it every morning, raised it every evening. It’s quick up or down, too.

Among the things that made our tester a grin machine were a plethora of options that jacked the base price of $44,500 to a final $51,225. But I’d be hard-pressed to eliminate these without a sacrifice in overall enjoyment.

The magnetic suspension added $1,400, but it’s unique to this Audi, and a buyer with sufficient funds will want it.

The gorgeous Napa leather interior package added $1,250. A special audio package was $1,000 but provided satellite radio service. Those oversize 18-inch wheels are $800 and might be dumped to save a few coins. But don’t even think of not buying the exceptional Bi-Xenon headlights at $800. They produce stunning clarity for night driving.

Our tester had Bluetooth phone readiness for $450 and an iPod interface for $250; I’d personally skip both.

Audi goes all-out with safety features for the TT. This company, part of the large Volkswagen group, has always done well in crash tests, and safety is particularly important for any open-top car. There are air bags to the front of driver and passenger, to the side at thorax level and for the knees.

There are those roll bars in case of rollover. And there’s what Audi calls “side intrusion protection.” I almost needed it when a big, black Lincoln Town Car nearly turned into me one morning.

I reacted in a way that only an Audi TT or another sports model could successfully maneuver. I jerked the steering wheel sharply right and the TT almost jumped into the adjacent lane. It happened instantly, without me braking or accelerating or blowing the horn. The other car never slowed or honked or gave any indication that a collision was a fraction of a second away.

Shaken, I replayed the moment, over and over, changing the timing ever so slightly, so that the Lincoln’s towering front struck the driver’s door of the low-slung TT roadster instead of missing it a tenth of a second later. I imagined my head jerking toward the impact, as it would have, meeting hood-grille of the Town Car.

I avoided dying there only because everything went right. My reaction and the car’s capabilities saved the day. This was the only grin-removing moment of the week.

Unlike many other cars today, the TT does not—cannot—have head air bags. There’s no solid roof. In the end, if you cherish ragtop freedom, you’ll take the risk.

The next morning, the sun was shining for the commute to work. The air carried a multitude of smells to the Audi. I could tell which house had bacon frying, for instance. Birds sang to me from atop electric wires. It was good to have the top down, to feel and smell and hear the world I moved through.

I glanced to the right as I passed yesterday’s near-miss intersection. The big black Lincoln was parked at a house.

I grinned.

Robert C. Bowden producese The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

Filed under
Show Comments