Audi enthusiasts know that “S” is a powerful letter in the automaker’s lineup, and it’s just as significant in the new TTS. An offshoot of the TT coupe and roadster, the TTS has a host of performance enhancements, like a great turbocharged engine and a special suspension setup, but U.S.-bound versions are missing the one feature they need most: a true manual transmission.
Audi’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s found in the TT is one of my favorite engines because it offers a lot of power in a small package. It’s also incredibly smooth-revving, encouraging you to run it all the way up to its redline. The TTS’ turbo four-cylinder has the same displacement, but it features numerous changes that affect the engine block, cylinder head, pistons and turbocharger, among other components.
The result is stronger output — 265 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 pounds-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm — without any loss of the smoothness that makes the TT’s base turbo engine so appealing. The TTS’ engine still feels strong at highway speeds, where it’s able to propel the coupe forward with a degree of assertiveness that you might not expect from a four-cylinder, even a turbocharged one (Audi cites a zero-to-60-mph acceleration time of 4.9 seconds for the coupe). Despite its quickness and power, the TTS achieves impressive gas mileage for a sports car, with an EPA-estimated 21/29 mpg city/highway.
The TTS is offered only with Audi’s S tronic six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission in the U.S. (a six-speed manual is available in other markets). There’s no question it’s a technically advanced transmission, and it does have some appealing qualities, but there are times when you want the simplicity of a plain-old manual gearbox, and this is one of them.
First, let’s hit what’s good about the dual-clutch automatic. Put it in Drive and it’ll knock off quick upshifts on hard acceleration, and it also makes quick downshifts when you use the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, or the console gear selector’s manual mode. Oddly, driver-initiated upshifts feel much slower than when the car makes them for you.
If your daily drive involves a lot of stop-and-go tedium, I could see this transmission being preferable to a stick. Audi, however, makes the choice for you by not offering a manual in the States, which is something some enthusiasts won’t accept. You’re left to dream about what might have been.
Now for the automatic’s low points: The first one is that when it’s left in Drive the transmission tends to rob the engine of power by upshifting through the gears to keep the four-cylinder’s rpm as low as possible. The transmission’s Sport mode does a better job of keeping the engine in its power band by letting it rev, but this setting includes an aggressive downshifting program when slowing that keeps engine rpm high. That might get old in everyday driving.
The TTS comes standard with Audi’s magnetic ride adaptive suspension that includes normal and Sport modes (yes, there’s a Sport setting for the suspension as well as the transmission). The normal setting is fairly firm, but not overly harsh by sports car standards. The shocks, however, can be notably stiffened by selecting Sport mode. The change in the TTS’ dynamics is instantaneous when you press the button to select Sport; the suspension takes on a harder edge as it transmits more road imperfections to the cabin.
The ride can get a bit bumpy on heavily rutted pavement even when using the suspension’s normal mode, so that’s something to consider if you live somewhere with pavement that isn’t universally smooth. Even if your roads are pothole-free, I found that some concrete sections of highway made the TTS bounce up and down repeatedly, accompanied by what sounded like a bass drum solo courtesy of the low-profile summer tires, mounted on optional 19-inch alloy wheels. Activating Sport mode increased the severity of the coupe’s oscillations. At 97.2 inches, the TTS’ wheelbase is short. That likely didn’t help matters on these concrete-slab roads.
The TTS’ steering feel is classic Audi at lower speeds — it takes little effort to turn the wheel, and it turns with a smoothness befitting a high-end luxury car — but when you get above parking-lot speeds it firms up a little, which better aligns with the TTS’ mission. The steering wheel feels nowhere near as weighty as the ones in BMW and Infiniti luxury coupes, but if that’s not your thing, then the TTS’ setup might suit you better. It’s reasonably responsive, too.
In addition to testing the TTS on public roads, I had the opportunity to take it for a lap at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. This four-mile track combines long straightaways, tight turns and elevation changes to make for a technical road course. With the suspension’s Sport setting activated, there’s still moderate body roll when cornering.
The TTS has standard Quattro all-wheel drive, but unlike some of Audi’s all-wheel-drive applications, which have rear-biased torque distribution, the TTS’ system has an even 50-50 split, front-to-rear. Though the TTS exhibits decent balance when cornering, it doesn’t have the feel of a rear-wheel-drive sports car, which is what a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system can simulate.
The TTS coupe looks small from the outside, but the cabin — at least the front bucket seats — are relatively accommodating. There’s room for taller drivers to get comfortable, and the seats have fairly firm cushioning that provides good support — including thigh support — for longer drives. Leather and Alcantara seats are standard, but my test car was fitted with what Audi calls “baseball optic” leather seating. As its name implies, those seats have thick leather strands woven together along the sides that wouldn’t be out of place on a baseball glove. This was one of the elements that distinguished the first-generation TT, which debuted for the 2000 model year, and it’s still unique in 2009.
Something else you might think would be compromised in a small coupe like the TTS is visibility, but it’s not bad. Forward and over-right-shoulder views are good, though there’s a bit of a blind spot near the driver’s head restraint when reversing.
There is a two-person backseat in the TTS coupe (the roadster is a two-seater). Like the backseat of a Porsche 911, however, if you asked someone to sit there they’d ask if you were joking. Why? The backrest is set at an almost perfectly vertical angle, and legroom is nonexistent. I’m not sure it would even be practical for children.
Despite a backseat that only a contortionist could love, in characteristic Audi fashion the TTS coupe offers quite a bit of versatility. Its cargo area measures 13.1 cubic feet, and the 50/50-split backseat folds flat with the cargo floor. With the backseat folded, the space is large enough to easily fit two golf bags.
There’s a lot to like about the TTS. Its turbocharged four-cylinder is remarkably powerful and smooth, its interior is classy and unique, and its standard all-wheel-drive system distinguishes it from other sports cars in its class.
The TTS faces stiff competition from the likes of Porsche, with its Cayman, as well as BMW, which redesigned its Z4 for 2009. I haven’t driven the new Z4 yet, so I can’t comment on how it drives, but as of right now, if I had $50,000-$60,000 to spend on a small sports car — the as-tested price of the TTS I drove was $54,600 — I’d try to find a way to get the more expensive Cayman. It offers one of the most engaging and entertaining driving experiences around, and it comes with a manual transmission.