COAL: 2001 Audi TT Quattro Coupe – Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Have You Reached a Verdict?

1 - Audi TT

In the fall of 2013 I began to think about expanding the family fleet. My younger son Peter was in college. Like his older brother he had initially been indifferent to driving and was late to get his license, but it was just a matter of time before he would want to take a car to school with him. At least that was my rationale. The truth was our automotive corral had been stagnant for five years and I was getting the itch.

The car would be primarily for my wife, Debbie. Working through the problem logically I thought it might be nice to have another Subaru wagon. Our WRX had proved to be dependable, had adequate room and benefited from the versatility of all wheel drive. As I always appreciate something a little obscure I began looking at the Saab 9-2x – the Saabaru if you will. It was a modified Impreza that Saab sold briefly in 2004 and 2005. The exterior was modified slightly to give it the Saab Aero look and the interior was slightly “Saabified” as well. Debbie and I test drove a couple and they were promising but I didn’t love them. My hope had been that it would be a Subaru with an upgraded interior more on par with a Saab. In reality the interior was still very ordinary. The ones we had seen were not in prime condition so I continued the search. I remember arriving home from a business trip on a Friday night and scouring on-line classifieds to see if any new prospects had been listed with the plan that Debbie and I could look at them Saturday morning after breakfast at our weekly Cars and Coffee.

By 11 am Saturday morning Debbie was driving home in her 2001 desert green Audi TT quattro coupe. I followed in our 912. My bank account was $7,000 lighter.

2 - Audi TT

This was not a dealer bait and switch, but instead represented a detour that had taken place in my train of thought Friday night. After not finding any Saab 9-2x candidates in the classifieds I began surfing for other cars of interest. The Audi TT was not a total stranger to me. The Other Michael had purchased a first year coupe back in 1998. I recall he came to visit for the weekend soon after and he and I headed out to the country for a spin. I took the wheel on a twisty road that I knew well and immediately felt at home with the car’s capabilities. Would it work for my wife? Safe – check. All wheel drive – check. Reasonable space – not so much for four, but the kids have their own cars so semi-check. Dependable? As I’ve written previously in this series my earlier long-term Audis – the 1986 Coupe GT and the 1989 200 TQW had been less than stellar in the areas of repair frequency and repair cost. In the end, though, their cost to own had been reasonable when spread over the ten years I had owned each. The TT was over a decade newer. Had Audi improved? Regardless the TT was now ours and the car had a lot of positives.

Of course the best feature of the TT series I – which was produced from 1998 until 2006 – was the design. The TT was originally presented at the 1995 Frankfurt Auto Show as a design exercise.

3 - Audi TT concept design

After an enthusiastic reception the TT was put into production three years later.  Unusually the finished production car was visually not that different than the concept, the biggest alteration being the addition of rear quarter windows.

4 - 2001 Audi TT

I find the exterior of the TT arresting and still contemporary even though the design was penned over twenty years ago.

The interior of the car carried over from concept to production largely unchanged which is both a blessing and a curse. Its dominant feature is the repeated replication of the circular dimpled design used for the unpainted aluminum fuel door.

5 - Audi TT fuel door

I don’t have an exact count of how many times the design is repeated in the interior, but I know just within my line of sight when driving I can see seventeen instances including door handles, air vents, switches, the gear shift knob and the steering wheel hub itself.

6 - Audi TT Interior

The cup holders – never a strong point on any German car – are impractical and poorly located behind the driver and front passenger on the center console. They do include two more instances of the dimpled circle to add to our count.

6.5 - Audi TT rear seats

Being a two-plus-two coupe, the TT’s rear seat is fairly useless for passengers with limited leg room and a roof line so low that Audi warns that those over five feet should not sit there due to the risk of head injury. It’s a different story in the front, however. You sit low to the ground, but leg room is plentiful. The seats are supportive and everything is just where it belongs. Controls are intuitive and the six speed manual shift is so precise you would think it was gated.

Early TT’s had a 1.8 liter four-cylinder turbo-charged that made 180 horsepower but ours is equipped with the 225 horsepower version which incorporates a larger turbocharger, an additional intercooler and twin exhausts. Weighing in at 3200 pounds in quattro coupe form the car is not svelte, but in practice it is plenty fast. Its torque curve is broad and flat to the point where I sometimes find myself shifting into fifth gear at thirty miles an hour.

With the quattro system feeding all four seventeen inch wheels the car sticks more tightly to the road than any vehicle I have ever owned. The car is wonderful to drive on trips where it faithfully does what a coupe is designed to do – transport two people and their weekend luggage in luxury and style. If I have a complaint with its speed and handling, it’s this – I will never come close to the TT’s limits. Having owned so many small, underpowered cars I belong to the camp that says it’s more fun to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow. I don’t think the Audi is fully challenged until it reaches triple digits.

So the TT is beautiful and fast – that’s the good news but what has the maintenance been like?

The car had covered 89,000 miles in its first twelve years. The original owner had kept the car for ten years and the second owner for two. The car was in generally good condition when I purchased it, but there were signs that the second owner had skimped on maintenance. For example, the rear tires were off brand replicas of the name brand front rubber. They looked the part, but were noisy and seemed to be a hard and unrefined.

In my first attempt to get ahead of the curve I replaced the timing belt and related pulleys (there had been a class action lawsuit against Audi for premature failures in this area). As well, I had all fluids and hoses replaced, serviced the quattro’s Haldex unit and installed new discs and brake pads. Mechanically this brought it up to snuff, but at a fairly steep cost. Later I added new Bilstein sport shocks and struts, replaced suspension bushings and installed new rubber all around.

Inside the TT followed the pattern I had experienced with my other Audis. In the first year I replaced a seat heater switch, a three switch console located just in front of the shifter, and the driver’s side mirror switch. The first was an electronic failure, but the other two were mechanical failures due to shoddy materials. I also discovered the glovebox was broken – an extremely common problem in the TT due to a glove box design that incorporates an overweight unit dampened by a dedicated but delicate strut.

In the ensuing 26 months and 16,000 miles the TT has continued to be plagued with seemingly small problems that always add up to big dollars. The temperature gauge on the dash read just a tad high. Solution – replace a couple of sensors at a hundred dollars or so each. On rare occasions the electronic stability program would need to be switched off due to a false reading on one of the front wheels. A bad yaw sensor it turns out – only $600.

9 - Audi TT - another day another issue

Et cetera, et cetera.

Which brings us to this past Monday. The TT had been working well for several months. I had recently noticed a slight ‘clunk’ in the rear suspension but it felt fine. I was running errands and my last stop was at the grocery about a mile from home. I parked and shopped. Fifteen minutes later the car would not start. Time was limited as I was catching a flight in a few hours but I didn’t want to call a tow truck yet. I walked home and returned about an hour later. The car started right up, but I had already decided to drive it directly to my Audi mechanic David at AutoWerke. He diagnosed the starting issue as, you guessed it, yet another bad sensor. The minor clunk? The rear springs were broken! My suspicion is that Debbie has been secretly rallying the car when I’m out of town as these are the first springs I’ve ever broken (and we’re fifteen cars into this COAL).

And so I ask you, gentle readers, does the TT stay or go? Is it Sydney or the Bush?

7 - Audi TT jury

Next week – An end to this COAL series with an appropriately confusing car.

Last week – A Small Car with a Passion for the Open Road.