Over twenty years and three generations.
The list of modern roadsters with a 20-year production history doesn't have many entries. What we do have is a Holy Trinity still in production. Mazda's MX-5 is the trio's affordable delight, while the priciest is Porsche's ever-present Boxster. Treading the middle ground is the effervescent Audi TT. Like the other two, it has brimmed with style and delighted with driving dynamics. Unlike the other two, however, it has also been available through its three generations as both a 2+2 (four-seat) coupe and convertible.
The Audi TT started life at the Volkswagen Group Design Center in California in 1994. The exterior design on the concept car that debuted in Frankfurt in 1995 is credited to the American designers J Mays and Freeman Thomas. Previously, J Mays worked for BMW. At Audi he was involved with designing the Audi 100 C4, Volkswagen Golf Mk3, and the Volkswagen Polo. Thomas came to Audi from Porsche, and the two collaborated together later on the modern interpretation of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Audi had a sports car-shaped hole in its lineup at the time, but the design brief didn't end there. Audi wanted to create a true sports car that would both excite people and draw curiosity. When Audi showed the design in Frankfurt, not only did it do that, it dropped jaws as well. At the time, car design was was at the mercy of early computer design and becoming bland. The Audi TT came out of the left-field with its smooth lines and energetic looks, influenced by the prewar racing cars and postwar sedans of Auto Union.
The Audi TT design team pulled its influences from all over, including music, architecture, and fashion. However, the interior drew more from the sport of baseball than anywhere else. The interior design team consisted of Romulus Rost, Martin Smith, Hartmut Warkuss and Peter Schreyer. Rost liked the idea of the way a ball is contained and held firmly in place by a baseball glove and used it as a concept for the TT's seats. He wanted people inside the Audi TT to become one with the car, and that's why the seats are shaped like baseball gloves. On top of the comfortable seats, the interior was driver-focused and ingeniously laid out. It also shunned the automakers of the 1990s habit of overloading cabins with switches and showy technology in favor of minimalism.
As a result, the interior won awards, and its template has carried on through the concurrent generations and is a large part of the TT's success.
A concept car making it to production with few changes is still a rarity, but the TT managed to do just that. But it took another three years after its Frankfurt reveal to go into production. New manufacturing techniques like laser welding were used to create seamless design features, but the process created setbacks and delays. The TT finally came to market in September of 1998 as a coupe; the roadster version followed in August of 1999.
During development, the Audi TT was designated as Type 8N but needed a real name for production. The sports car took its name from the annual British Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) motorbike race, which seems odd until you consider Audi's history. One of the original companies that was part of the formation of Audi as we know it was NSU. That company made cars and motorbikes, and started competing at the Isle of Man TT in 1911. It carried on with success well into the 1960s before being bought by Volkswagen in 1969 and then later merged with Auto Union to form modern Audi.
It would be easy to get lost in the mists of nostalgia, but the TT had more teething problems than its new manufacturing technology. A series of high-speed crashes made headlines and put a spotlight on the car's stability at speeds over 110 mph. The problems came during abrupt lane changes or sharp turns and first prompted the TT's recall, then modifications for production models. Those included a rear spoiler and Audi's Electronic Stability Program.
With the issues fixed, the Audi TT started claiming glowing reviews and awards, including making Car and Driver magazine's Ten Best lists in 2000 and 2001.
Under the hood, the Audi TT landed with a turbocharged four-cylinder 1.8-liter engine as a base, the same mill with a larger turbo, or a naturally aspirated six-cylinder Volkswagen VR6. That gave the Audi TT either 178 horsepower, 222 hp, or 247 hp with the V6. A manual transmission was initially available, and a quattro-branded Haldex all-wheel-drive system was optional. The V6 came with a quattro system as standard, and in 2006 a six-speed dual-clutch transmission was introduced along with stiffer suspension. The Audi TT was also the first car to feature Volkswagen Group's Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engines.
In 2005, the TT got its first limited edition. The Audi TT quattro Sport (Audi TT Club Sport in Europe) used the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine with an upgrade to 237 hp and a weight reduction of 165 lbs. Weight was dropped by removing the spare wheel, harmonic damper, and rear seats. Lighter Recaro front seats were fitted as well. The battery was moved to maintain balance, and it came with a two-tone paint scheme, exclusive 15-spoke, 18-inch wheels, and the body kit from the V6 model.
The second-generation Audi TT was announced in 2004 and created a stir when Audi said it would be made of aluminum. It arrived in 2006 with an extra five inches in length and three inches in width over the first generation. The bodywork wasn't all-aluminum, but Audi used a mix of aluminum and steel panels to get an almost exact 50-50 weight distribution between front and rear. It also came with an active rear spoiler so as not to permanently ruin the TT's clean lines. The base engine was a new turbocharged 1.8-liter four. A new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine became available too. The VR6 engine carried over from the first generation, and Europe got a diesel option.
For 2008, an even sportier TTS model was introduced with a modified version of the 2.0-liter engine making 268 hp along with various chassis upgrades that included Audi Magnetic Ride suspension and a two-stage electronic stability control system. The TTS is often forgotten about, though, because Audi debuted the hotter TT RS in 2009.
The TT RS was the first compact sports car to get an RS variant, and it was a peach. It came with a new 2.5-liter inline-five turbocharged engine making just over 330 hp. It also had 332 lb-ft of torque, generated low in the rev-range, and a new short-shift close-ratio six-speed manual transmission. The quattro system was upgraded to deal with the extra power, and the TT RS got a lower ride height with Audi Magnetic Ride as an option. The coupe hit 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds; the roadster did it in 4.7 seconds. In 2010, a seven-speed DSG automatic transmission was offered, and, best of all, it was offered for sale in the US following a petition containing 11,000 signatures from Audi enthusiasts.
In 2012, the TT RS Plus was launched with a power upgrade to 355 hp. It also lowered the 0-62 mph time to 4.3 seconds for the manual version, while the DSG, now renamed S-tronic, version clocked in a time of 4.1 seconds.
The third-generation Audi TT will be the last - at least until a future generation marketing team decides to bring it back as an electric or hydrogen vehicle. It landed in 2014 as a logical evolution of the now-legendary sports car. It's lower, wider, and comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque in the US, while Europe has a TTS version making just over 300 hp, as well as a diesel option. Along with the chassis and drivetrain, the interior is a strong evolution and features the HVAC controls in the center of the air vents.
The Audi TT in its standard guise doesn't pretend to be a hardcore sports car. For that, you need to go to the RS version, and for the third generation, it comes with a 394-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. When opened up, the engine sounds like a classic Group B monster, and when matched with the all-wheel-drive system, will embarrass more expensive cars with its 3.6-second sprint time. The standard adaptive magnetic dampers and quick steering make it a sharp and exhilarating backroad destroyer. The all-wheel-drive system favors the rear when the TT RS is pushed, and the eight-piston calipers in the front make sure you can slow down from any speed.
"Much like a rock band that never achieved global fame but influenced the bands that did, the Audi TT has been quietly going about its business of being an incredibly well-balanced and beautiful car for 20 years now," is how we described the TT recently. If that's the case, then the Final Edition is the greatest hits compilation. It has subtle embellishments on the outside as well as a glorious set of 19-inch forged Gloss Metal Gray wheels. The inside is just as memorable, including Napa leather seats with contrasting baseball stitching heavily referencing the first generation's seat concept. It's a fantastic sendoff to a car that has been with us for almost a quarter-century.
Note: Certain pictures used with express permission from Corporate Archives of Audi AG. These are not for republishing.