Despite its Bauhaus-inspired looks, the first-generation Audi TT fell short performance wise against its fellow German competitors.
To be fair to the Audi TT, it has come a long way, and the TT RS is definitely a sports car. But the first generation model was never mentioned in the same breath as the Porsche Boxster. This sort of thing happens sometimes; a good car will have a previous generation or bare-bones trim level that its maker has a very difficult time distancing the better versions from, such is the TT. Starting in the early Nineties, several different German brands set to work building small and reasonably inexpensive sports cars.
These included the SLK and the Z3, and when Audi brought out the TT concept in 1995, it seemed that it would more or less follow the same formula. But the Audi would prove to be quite different in several different ways. For starters, although there was a two-seat roadster version of the car, a 2+2 hardtop style was also available. The TT was also front-wheel-drive, albeit with optional on-demand all-wheel-drive. This touch was different, not just from the competition, but also from the rest of Audi's lineup. Other Audi models obviously offer Quattro AWD, but on other models, power is sent to all four wheels even under normal operating conditions.
The system in the TT basically operates as a FWD system unless conditions demand more traction, and only then is power sent to the rear wheels. If the power going to the front wheels doesn't sound to you like something you'd find in a sports car, that's because the TT was and is still built on the same platform as the VW Golf. More recent versions of the TT have been better differentiated from the very modest VW roots, but the original car had quite a lot of VW parts under its skin. This included the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, available in two different states of tune.
The first used all the same parts as the 170-horsepower applications, but was tuned to put out 180 hp instead, and this was the only car in which it produced the extra ten horses. There was also a version with a bigger turbocharger and a second intercooler which produced 225 hp. These 225 TTs were available only in hardtop, only with Quattro and only with a manual transmission, which was VW's excellent 6-speed unit instead of the regular 5-speed manual found in 180 TTs. Externally, you can tell 225 TTs by their dual exhaust, and these were as close to a real sports car as the first-gen TT got, save a very limited run of TT Sport models at the end of the generation.
To the TT's credit, it is very difficult to tell that there is any VW in it just from looking at it, inside or out. The Bauhaus-inspired looks were fairly revolutionary for their time, and really caused quite a stir. This is good because as has been mentioned, the TT seriously lacked the sporting credentials of its competitors. A VR6 model was introduced at roughly the same time that the same 3.2-liter VR6 was offered for the contemporary Golf. This was more powerful, but also considerably heavier, and turned out not to be such a great alternative to the four-cylinder turbo option.
This was also an era when nearly all of Audi's cars suffered from pretty noticeable understeer, and the added weight in the front of the TT ended up making for even less sporty handling. The second generation of the TT was a big improvement, with even the VR6 version becoming more civilized. There is now also a dual-clutch transmission and the aforementioned fire-breathing TT RS model. The base model, especially when equipped with a diesel, is still somewhat difficult to see as a sports car, but like the new SLK, it is no longer a car which will automatically get you laughed at.