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2011 Audi TTS: Fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun

Dropping the top increasing the driving enjoyment of unique-looking roadster
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Big performance in a small — and distinctive — package.

Some cars get exceptional mileage to cut your commute costs. Others are large enough to carry families on long vacations. And some have no practical purpose at all, like the two-seater 2011 Audi TTS.

The convertible version of the TTS seems like two different cars. With the top up, it feels cramped and dark inside, amplifying the harshness of its peaky turbocharged engine, jumpy dual-clutch automated manual transmission and overly stiff suspension. Yes, it can be driven fast. Visibility is severely limited by the low windshield and large side blind spots, however, taking a lot of the fun out of it.

But with the top down, all of these liabilities are transformed into assets. With a clear view of the road and surrounding traffic, the engine, transmission and suspension seem to flawlessly combine to make driving the TTS an exhilarating experience. With the fear of hitting an unnoticed vehicle eliminated, it is easy to drive the car quickly, either through slower traffic or along rural roads.

Manufacturers of ragtop roadsters have always faced this problem, of course. Because of their greater structural integrity, permanent and removable hardtops can have larger windows, including at least small ones in the rear quarter panels. But convertible tops almost always compromise visibility, requiring drivers to be more cautious when they are up.

Audi faced an even greater challenge when it designed the open-air version of the TT and its high performance versions, including the TTS. First released in 1998, the rounded styling was intentionally outrageous, like an old Volkswagen Beetle on steroids. A low windshield and roofline was integral to it success, but reduced outward visibility even in hardtop versions. The designers made no apparent compromises with the convertible tops, maintaining the trademark lines but reducing visibility even further. The result looks great from the outside but requires drivers to be especially alert to their surroundings when the top's up. But at least it is easy to lower the top with a one-touch electric control that also opens and closes flush-fitting body panels that keep it completely out of sight when down.

Our test car was the high performance version, which requires even more attention to drive safely. It includes a turborcharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 265 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. There is virtually no turbo lag, meaning the power comes on quickly and builds exponentially to the redline.

The power is channeled though Audi's S-tronic six-speed transmission, which includes dual-clutches to make the automatic feel like a manual. Shifts happen quickly, and can be made even more abruptly in the manual mode. The company's Quattro all-wheel-drive system helps prevent the TTS from breaking loose when accelerating heavily or taking fast corners.

The suspension is as stiff as any sport car, increasing cornering ability but resulting in a bumpy ride over broken pavement. The effect is like a go-cart - fun at high speeds but occasionally punishing the rest of the time.

For even more performance, both the transmission and suspension can be set in Sport modes. Doing so delays the shift points for more usable power and firms up the already stiff suspension. The transmission can also be shifted manually, either with the lever or steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

As a result, the TTS is a great drive for sunny weekend escapes, but not necessarily for day-to-day driving, even by people who enjoy fast cars.

The interior also requires some adjustments. It is so small the CD player is placed in the glove box on models with the optional navigation system, like ours. The deeply contoured sport seats are also very narrow, reducing the comfort for larger drivers and passengers. Most of the controls are easy to find and use, although a few small buttons are stuck between large knobs for basic climate controls. The gauges are large and easy to read, though, and the materials are high quality.

When the TT was first introduced in 1998, it looked like nothing else on the road. The rounded front and rear end emphasized the egg-shaped look. when Audi restyled the car in 2006, it added a bigger grill and wider rear end. Compared to the first generation, the second generation looks less iconic and more like an oddly-proportioned sport car.

At $53,800 with the optional navigation system, our test car was priced in the range of such other high performance convertibles as the BMW Z4, Mercedes SLK and based model Porsche Boxster. With its feature-laden drive train, the TTS can hold match or exceed them when it comes to driving entertainment - at least when the sun shines.

• Model: 2011 TTS 2.0 TFSI.

• Manufacturer: Audi.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Two door, two-passenger car.

• Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 (265 hp, 258 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: S-tronic six-speed dual-clutch automated manual.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/29

• Price: Beginning at approximately $50,000 ($53,800 as tested).