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Successful innovations make you forget how you ever got by without them. For me, the mobile phone and adaptive cruise control have become essential, while I'm sure early humans went pfft to carrying stuff once they invented the wheel. And such seems the case with the Virtual Cockpit in the 2016 Audi TT Roadster, a novel new interface for navigation, stereo and other features that rapidly became second nature for me as I drove this sharp little convertible.
As if the Virtual Cockpit wasn't enough, the TT Roadster is also just brilliantly fun, a responsive little sports car with exceptional handling and a finely appointed cabin.
The 2016 TT Roadster is the third generation of a model that launched in 1998 with a distinctive design. Audi simultaneously launches the 3rd generation TT coupe and Roadster as 2016 model year cars in the US, each version nearly identical as to driveline and cabin appointments. The Roadster sheds the rear seats and exchanges the metal roof for a fast power-folding soft top.
Audi plays in the premium realm, so the base TT Roadster goes for $47,325 delivered. The version I drove added navigation, Bang & Olufsen audio, 19-inch wheels and sundry other options, bringing the total to $54,125. The good news for UK and Australian buyers is that the TT Roadster is virtually identical in power, handing and equipment to the US model. UK buyers are looking at a base price of £28,915, while Australians will have to come up with $91,966 as a driveaway price.
I've been impressed with Audi's recent cabin tech features, such as integrating Google Earth with navigation and including data-driven parking and location information apps. For the new Virtual Cockpit interface, Audi takes the seemingly very logical step of removing the center screen and displaying all that useful navigation, entertainment and connectivity information right on the instrument cluster. While driving, I got very used to merely lowering my gaze rather than glancing off to the right to choose an album for the stereo or see where I should be turning next.
But what of immediately crucial information such as vehicle and engine speed? The Virtual Cockpit showed those on virtual gauges overlaid on the map and menu screens, all displayed on a big, bright LCD that never succumbed to glare. Simply thumbing a button on the steering wheel, I could change the gauges from small to large format, whichever was most appropriate for the current driving task.
To be honest, it took me a little time to figure out how to find my way through the various onscreen menus with the steering wheel-mounted buttons. Used to the previous generation system, I tended to grab the console-mounted dial and shortcut buttons. But after a few hours, I could keep my hands on the wheel and delve into my music library or contacts or destination options.
Most of all, the Virtual Cockpit interface in the TT Roadster became something I missed when I got into other cars that used more conventional, center-mounted systems.
Moving all these functions to a driver-focused screen might seem to shortchange passengers, but the display remains surprisingly visible at an angle. A high resolution LCD and bright display widens the viewing angle enough that your passenger can play DJ or enter destinations using the console-mounted controls.
Audi fits the new TT with a dedicated 4G/LTE connection powering Google Earth imagery and Google search for navigation. Or I could choose the onboard graphical maps in perspective or plan view. Another change I embraced was how Audi streamlined destination entry, going to a one-box system that immediately began searching as I entered letters, finding both local businesses or street names. Ford switched to a similar paradigm in its new Sync 3 system.
Supplementing manual address entry, Audi includes location-based services, such as nearby parking lots with current capacity information, when available. Although I like how these services work, I would like to see Audi partner with some existing big third-party companies, such as Yelp or other business rating services.
Thankfully, Audi also does away with its old, proprietary audio port system, switching to a simple USB port. That let me use my iPhone and its own cable or simply plug in a USB drive to use as a music source. Other audio sources include Bluetooth streaming, satellite radio, HD radio and Wi-Fi, but a CD player is optional.
At $950, I think the Bang & Olufsen audio option is extremely worthwhile. With 12 speakers and 680 watts, it produces rich sound with excellent resolution from high to low frequencies. This audiophile sound will please any music lover.
However, with the top down and Audi's DriveSelect system in Dynamic mode, the note from the sport exhaust tends to drown out music with its own melodious roar. That may be surprising, as the TT uses a 2-liter four cylinder, not exactly a muscular power plant. But with direct injection and a turbocharger, output peaks at 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, not bad for a 3,384 pound car.
On the throttle I felt just a little lag before the TT's thrust kicked in, but once going it didn't want to stop. The six speed dual clutch transmission, which Audi calls S tronic, shifted extremely fast, with almost no rev drop between gears. A manual transmission would be even more engaging, but Audi won't offer one for the TT.
The DriveSelect system gave me a choice of Comfort, Dynamic and Automatic modes, affecting steering, throttle and engine sound, but the TT Roadster comes with a fixed suspension. Audi's current Quattro all-wheel-drive system pushes up to 100 percent torque between the front and rear wheels based on the input of multiple ride sensors. A corner braking system applies light braking to the inside wheel under certain turn conditions to help the car rotate through.
The steering, with electric boost, felt direct and responsive, although the tuning is very light. I tend to prefer a bit more heft at the wheel, but I could appreciate how the TT Roadster's steering offered no impediment to my inputs, giving precise, quick control.
I found the ride competent and comfortable on long, highway straights, or cruising through the city. The TT Roadster really shows its stuff on the twisty backroads, where its enormous grip and tossability makes for some very fast cornering. Hitting a turn just right, it proved extremely rewarding as I could feel the car quickly come around the apex thanks to Quattro and its handling systems. In traditional Audi fashion, the TT Roadster doesn't want to swing its tail out in the turns, instead perfectly adhering to the driver's line.
Unfortunately, the car was just too fun for me to give it a fair fuel economy test. Although rated at 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, its handling proved too strong of a temptation to put it in Dynamic mode and tear up the turns, bringing my average down to 22.9 mpg. Less time on the backroads will likely raise that fuel economy significantly.
At around $50,000, the 2016 Audi TT Roadster is an amazingly fun but expensive toy. Despite its lack of space for groceries or juvenile soccer teams, it is comfortable enough to serve the daily commute. Its best use comes from the carefree weekend drive, taking the top down to see the sights.
Sport devotees will probably want to wait for the TTS, which cranks the engine up to 292 horsepower and should arrive next year. Compared to that model, the TT Roadster stakes its place as an excellent entry point for the TT model line, satisfying the casual driving enthusiast. The light steering feel may throw drivers off who prefer more heft, but it lets you tell the car precisely where you want it to go.
The Virtual Cockpit is much more than a novelty in the TT Roadster, showing real innovation in how we interact with navigation and other onboard systems. Audi will be spreading this interface technology throughout its other models as they receive updates. It serves to show that the TT Roadster is intended to provide an upscale sports car experience rather than a raw, stripped-down drive.
Competitors in the upscale small sports car space are few, and the open-top nature of the TT Roadster narrows it down further. The Porsche Boxster is arguably the better driver, but Audi takes the lead in its cabin electronics. For less money, the Nissan 370Z Roadster offers less interior opulence but a manual transmission option and good driving dynamics.
|Model||2016 Audi TT Roadster|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct injection 2-liter four cylinder engine, six-speed dual clutch automated manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/30 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||22.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, SD card, iOS integration, USB drive, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 12-speaker 680-watt system|
|Driver assistance||Blind spot monitor, rear view camera|
|Price as tested||$54,125|