It all started with a bad test grade in the spring of 2015. Our oldest son Josh, then in 8th grade, had just bombed a math test, and as a result, we had grounded him from his Xbox. Josh was 14 1/2 at the time, was about a year away from getting his learner’s permit (which in Ohio you can get as young as 15 1/2). Since Josh has a hard time envisioning any kind of entertainment other than video games, Kristen and I decided to occupy him by looking around online at what kind of car he could expect to get for his first car the following year. Our price range was about $5,000, so we did some Googling to see what you can get for that kind of money.
KDK Auto Brokers, a local used car dealership specializing in off-lease and high mileage cars, had a few that looked interesting on their website, so to further distract Josh we decided to go to the lot to check them out. Even though it was Saturday night and the dealership was closed, all the cars were unlocked (what can I say, we live in a small town). I have since come to find that after hours car shopping at KDK is a popular local pastime.
Anyways, there we were, kicking tires on a tired Mercedes C-Class with 240,000 miles when we saw it: A 2002 Audi TT Quattro Roadster. Kristen had always liked the styling of the first-generation TT, and I was partial to Audis due to my previous ownership experience. Plus, “TT Roadster” was our nickname for Josh since he was a baby, his middle initial being “T.” At only $6,000, the price was far less than either of us would have expected. Indeed, that was almost impulse purchase territory…
We opened the unlocked door and climbed in. The interior still oozed charm, from the chrome-ringed round vents to the flip-down cover over the radio, despite having accumulated 120,000 miles of wear and sporting cheesy vinyl seat covers. Really, the only drawback was the 6-speed manual, as Kristen couldn’t drive a stick shift. But no matter: We gave each other the “wouldn’t this be nice someday” look, climbed back out, and went home. But the thought of the TT Roadster could not escape our minds.
The next day, I called KDK from the office to inquire about the car. I left work early and stopped by the dealership to take a test drive. This was the first convertible I had driven for probably 20 years (not since our 1971 Buick), and I had all but forgotten what it was like. Even though it was no warmer than 50 degrees, as soon as I put the top down the sensation was sheer bliss. So I pulled back into the dealership, and I bought it, without even consulting with Kristen. This was easily one of the most impulsive things I have ever done in my life.
I drove it home, pulled into the driveway, and honked the horn. Kristen came out stunned and thought that I was just test driving it. I then informed her that no, it was ours. She was shocked, but later confessed to me that she saw the car driving around that morning, and kind of hoped that someone else didn’t buy it (obviously they didn’t).
This was almost the perfect car for us. Two seats meant no kids allowed – strictly Mom and Dad territory here. This was not a purchase we could have made even a year or two earlier. But now that the kids were old enough, we could leave them with some microwave burritos while Kristen and I went out to a nice steakhouse, and then maybe a romantic after dark cruise with the top down.
So what was it like to drive? Well, let’s just say that most of the charms of the first-generation TT were around its quirky styling. The 225hp 1.8T engine was exceptionally peaky, and suffered from severe turbo lag (nothing like the linear power delivery of the Ecoboost engine in my Lincoln). The Haldex AWD system ran in FWD most of the time, and only sent power to the rear wheels when the fronts started slipping. This meant that on a fast launch, the front wheels might chirp a little before the rears started digging in and doing their part. The six-speed manual and slow clutch were just as much a chore to drive as they were in my 2002 Jetta. Honestly, the only reason I put up with such a lousy powertrain was the roadster body style and smile-inducing looks.
Wind control wasn’t great either. It felt like the windshield was too far forward (and too upright) to be effective. No doubt both were dictated by the demands of the retro styling, and the hard points shared with the PQ34 stablemates. The droopy decklid looked cool, but didn’t do anything to stop backdrafts, something that the power-operated glass windblocker (just visible in the picture above) didn’t do much to mitigate. The tonneau cover that came with the car was long gone, leaving a huge gaping hole behind the seats.
But in the final analysis, none of this really mattered. Flipping down the top on a warm summer evening, the troubles of the world just kind of melt away. Looking back, I now see that this was the kind of bliss I was trying to achieve with my various motorcycles in the 1990s. However, convertibles give you about 90% of the experience of a motorcycle, with exactly 0% of the risk of wiping out. Plus, if the weather turns bad, I can just put the top up, an option that was unavailable on my motorcycles. I can recall countless times racing my motorcycle home, trying to beat the arrival of an impending thunderstorm.
The first summer we owned it, we put thousands of miles on our TT Roadster. Everyone loved riding in the roadster: Kristen, our two boys, even our dog loved going for rides. I even drove it to car shows when the Mark III was in the shop (which was a lot that first year I owned it).
Alas, the roadster only spent that one summer with us, but I’m glad I got to experience owning a car as iconic as the first-generation Audi TT. As is often the case, the follow-up TT models from Audi are a lot more conventional, which is probably why they are not held in as high regard as the original. So what happened to it? Stay tuned for the answer next week…