You would never confuse the Porsche Boxster with an elephant; it neither looks nor acts nor smells like one. Yet whenever considering the merits of the Audi TT roadster, the baby Porsche plays pachyderm, a gray presence lurking in the room. The Boxster feels faster, is more agile, and—many would say—is better-looking than its four-ringed cousin. And while the Porsche also is more expensive, the margin is probably not great enough to discourage anybody who is determined to buy the best compact German roadster.
Yet the reality of the TT roadster has always diverged considerably from its portrayal as a dynamic also-ran. This is the thoroughly sensible open-topped sports car, a definition that verges on the oxymoronic but is nevertheless a niche that previous generations of TT roadster have successfully colonized. Like the third-generation TT coupe, the new roadster combines a decent dose of both style and practicality, and it marries respectable athleticism with the reassurance delivered by an all-wheel-drive chassis. As such, like its predecessors, it’s a sporty car for people who don’t want an actual sports car.
The basics remain the same as the previous two generations. The TT roadster is a stylishly decapitated version of the coupe, one that loses the hardtop’s tiny rear seats and gains a powered roof with the ability to magically disappear behind the rear roll hoops. It does this impressively well, motoring up and down in a matter of seconds at speeds of up to 31 mph. The combination of a low seating position and high beltline means the TT feels cozy when traveling top-down; a powered wind deflector rises between the seats to further reduce buffeting. This is a cabriolet in which you can conduct a conversation at 70 mph without having to shout. With the roof up, it’s fractionally louder than the coupe at cruising speeds, but it still feels well isolated from the surrounding world.
Compared with the coupe, the roadster runs an additional $3500, loses those marginal rear seats, and gains some 200 pounds. In still further support for Newtonian physics, it turns in slightly slower acceleration numbers as a consequence. Drive the roadster and the coupe back to back and the softtop feels heavier on its feet and less responsive. Look hard enough, and drive fast enough, and you can detect some mild flex in its structure on rougher road surfaces, especially with the roof down. But these are fractional differences; the impressive thing is how close the roadster gets despite missing a major structural component.
Which brings us back to the fundamental TT-ness—and an acknowledgement that this is a sports-lite type of car, one that majors in grip and safety but doesn’t deliver a huge amount of the feedback and entertainment that normally draw buyers to this segment. The 2.0-liter TSI engine is in 220-hp tune and performs as we’ve come to expect from its myriad other applications. There’s a hint of lag as the turbocharger starts to spin, followed by a strong midrange that begins to tail off only above 6000 rpm. Dropping the roof also gives a chance to confirm there is a genuine hard edge to the exhaust note beyond that normally added by the sound-symposer system.
The standard TT roadster is no rocket ship, with the chassis’ relentless quest for adhesion making it feel less exciting than the 5.2-second zero-to-60-mph time suggests. The quick wits of the standard dual-clutch automatic transmission give it impressively fleet responses when asked to make sudden progress in drive, although the system sometimes struggles to cope with requests for multiple downshifts made while in manual mode. Grip levels are high but there’s little sense of adjustability beyond the ability to tighten the front end’s trajectory by easing off the throttle. At the limit there’s well-contained steady-state understeer. As usual, the switchable steering feels most natural when Audi Drive Select is in Comfort mode, and the Dynamic setting makes steering effort heavier without adding any additional sensation.
Time to acknowledge another room-dwelling heffalump: the fact that, for many potential buyers, the way the TT roadster drives is likely to be relatively low on the list of priorities. And while the third-generation TT can’t match the shock value of the original’s bulbous, Bauhaus-inspired form, it’s still a handsome machine. Indeed, its lowness and the tightness of its overhangs are proof of how far the Volkswagen Group’s modular MQB architecture can be stretched.
The cabin is very well finished and feels more spacious than a Boxster’s. Switchgear is minimal—the HVAC controls are built into the central air vents, and many functions are controlled by the MMI interface and the vast “Virtual Cockpit” display screen that sits in front of the driver. This is likely to be one of the most controversial elements of the car. As we’ve commented before, it’s mostly invisible from the passenger’s seat, giving the cabin a distinctly undemocratic vibe. But for some the vast, 12.3-inch screen, its smooth-scrolling graphics, and the ability to configure it in different ways will tip the scales in favor. As always with modern Audis, the streaming Google navigation, which gives a similar perspective to having your own low-level drone beaming images in high definition, is particularly impressive.
This TT roadster carries on where its predecessors left off. It’s no Porsche Boxster, and that will lead many to regard it as being insufficiently focused. Yet for some it will continue to be perfectly compromised.