Market Spotlight

The Mk1 Audi TT is airy, artsy, and impressively affordable

by Eric Weiner
8 September 2023 5 min read
Photos: Jordan Lewis

Rare is the concept car that makes it to production intact. The 1999 Audi TT was one such design, launching three years after the gorgeous TT concept dropped every jaw in the hall at the 1995 Frankfurt IAA show. Whether in coupe or roadster form (the latter arriving for 2000), this particular Audi’s strength has always been its styling. It was soft yet edgy, cute yet sophisticated. The car still turns heads today, and with driver-quality examples costing under $10,000, the TT is one of the best-looking little sports cars for a budget.

Audi TT MK1 Roadster side profile

Truly, it’s difficult to overstate the halo effect the TT concept had on the entire Audi brand when it debuted in Frankfurt. At that point, Audi’s lineup consisted of the 100, the 90, and the V8—staid, boxy sedans for Europe’s sober upper-middle management set. Inspired by the smoothness of Bauhaus architecture, designer Freeman Thomas’ show car was sensationally curvy and shapely, but also simple, so comprehensible. The interior was handsome, ergonomically considered, and full of little design delights. The car signaled a shift at Audi, and this invigorated design ethos helped drive the success of the era-defining Audi A3 and A4 in the years that followed.

Displacing just 1.8 liters, Audi’s four-cylinder engine was turbocharged to 180 hp in base form, paired with a five-speed manual gearbox and an optional Haldex all-wheel-drive system (branded as Quattro). Ticking the box for the 225-hp version of this same engine yielded a six-speed manual transmission, as well as standard Quattro.

Though named after the historic Tourist Trophy race on the Isle of Man, the TT was much more of a looker than a cooker. The Mk I model was built on front-wheel-drive Volkswagen bones, sharing its platform with the Golf, Jetta, and New Beetle. Its transverse-engine, front-heavy design put the TT at a dynamic disadvantage compared with rear-drive sports cars like the BMW Z3, Honda S2000, and mid-engine Porsche Boxster. In a 2000 group comparison test, Car and Driver’s Csaba Csere summed it up: “By itself, the TT seems fine,” he wrote. “But in this company, its road manners leave much to be desired.”

Further complicating matters were a handful of high-speed TT accidents on the autobahn that prompted Audi to disturb that perfectly formed booty with a spoiler to increase downforce and stability on the rear axle. The suspension was also largely revised, which combined with updated software for electronic stability control to put the handling issues to bed. Prior examples were recalled and retrofitted with the changes.

Priced right on top of the Z3, the base TT roadster cost about $34,000, or $40K for the 225-hp Quattro version. That made it nearly $10K cheaper than the Boxster or the Mercedes-Benz SLK, but the TT was nonetheless considerably nicer to ride in than either. “Compared with the TT’s interior,” Csere reflected, “[the Boxster] looks as plain as a taxicab.”

The cabin really is a work of art. I borrowed this manual-equipped, 225-hp 2001 TT from Hagerty executive Doug Clark and loved spending time in it so much that he almost didn’t get it back. His particular example is fitted with a deeply distinctive baseball-glove leather interior, complete with laces through the seams of the seats. Now more than two decades old, the twin buckets have aged beautifully, like—as you might expect—a well-worn and well-oiled mitt.

Audi’s recurring ring theme and baseball glove appointments elevate the TT’s interior above contemporary sports cars.

Leather aside, it’s the unified art deco feel of this interior that most impresses. Credited to designer Romulus Rost, it offers a view from the driver’s seat that is downright pleasing. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous circles—circles for the knobs, switches, gauges, and much more—that are so easy on the eyes. In key places these circles are tastefully accented with dimpled bezels, as on the steering wheel, HVAC vents, fuel filler door, shift knob, and even in hidden places such as the base of the roll hoops. Because you sit low in the TT and the top of the doors are relatively high, the cabin feels all-encompassing, even with the top down. That would be a bad thing in any other roadster.

I’ve written on this site several times about my personal BMW Z3, which after a day in Doug’s TT feels like the dark purples in Monopoly. It’s not that the TT is Park Place, but for the same money when new it provides a much friendlier space. The TT feels wider, for one, and the material quality is noticeably better. The convertible top closes with a couple twists of a hefty-feeling handle, and the rear window is made of heated glass instead of my Z3’s plastic. The Audi is just classy.

Audi TT MK1 Roadster front driving action pan
The TT’s backroad manners aren’t quite as sporting as those of the Z3, Boxster, or S2000, but for everyday squirting about town, the car is ideal.

At the same time, it isn’t quite as much fun to drive. The TT feels most at home when making quick directional changes, such as squirting through slower-moving traffic or negotiating a friendly back road. When you really start pushing it through gnarlier stuff, however, you realize there isn’t a deeper layer of communication or entertainment buried in the chassis, waiting to be revealed. Past a certain point, it’s all understeer, albeit well-managed on corner exit with a boot of the gas pedal. In this respect the TT is very unlike the Porsche Boxster, whose subtle handling nuances provide substantial education and entertainment.

Turbo lag is a given when dealing with a small, boosted engine dating back to the Clinton administration, but here it doesn’t diminish what is otherwise a perfectly friendly four-cylinder. The trick is just to keep the revs right in the middle. In the 2500–5000 range, there’s plenty of usable torque on demand, even in higher gears, and each roll on the throttle evinces a sweet-sounding turbine whistle. That’s about all the aural feedback there is to savor, because the twin exhausts sound rather demure, even with the top down.

For Doug’s part, he drives this TT almost every day in spring and summer as a second car in his household. “I don’t look for it to carry much or be the most practical car ever. I just love the manual and use it with the top down every day I can,” he says.

Given the TT’s combination of around-town drivability and interior comfort, it perhaps does not come as a shock that older demographics favor it. Baby boomers (39.4 percent) and Gen X (31.7 percent) overwhelmingly dominate the Hagerty insurance quote pool for the TT, with Gen Z representing just 4.8 percent of quotes.

Ultimate performance is often a driver of popularity, and thus, a driver of pricing for collector cars, which is one explanation for why the TT’s softer personality hasn’t yet translated to big bucks. The best examples in the world (#1-condition, Concours) of the highest-value variant—late-model coupes with VW’s 3.2-liter VR6 engine—command $35,200. Pristine BMW M Coupes go for more than twice that, M Roadsters inhabit the low-$60,000s at the very top end, and Honda S2000s even in #2 (Excellent) condition average over $40,000.

Driver-condition TTs (#3, Good) come in at about 9 grand, up about $2000 since early 2021, when the TT appeared on our annual Bull Market list. (Coupes go for a bit more than roadsters, as do manuals and cars with the baseball-glove interior.) While #2 and #1 examples are climbing faster than #3s and #4s, there’s no reason to believe the average TT will march out of reach for mortals any time soon. These may well be fun, fashionable, affordable little machines for the foreseeable future.

Part of Doug’s passion for the TT is that he worked at Audi in public relations and helped launch the car in the U.S. market. “I am biased, of course,” he says, “but even trying to put all of that aside I think the design is fantastic. Both modern and like a storied car from the past—it just makes me smile.”

He’s onto something there. The TT has aged more gracefully than perhaps any of its competitors, and even 25 years later the car looks fresh. It might not go down as one of history’s greatest sports cars, but it may well be remembered as one of the most important sports car designs of its era. At under five figures, it’s a Bauhaus bargain.

Audi TT MK1 Roadster front headlights
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  • Gary Bechtold says:

    The TT was a real breakthrough car. It is a very stylish car. The current TT didn’t have the same impact as the original but was a great improvement.

    • SJM1 says:

      Over weight, understeering, not very nimble compared to just about everything it competed against, and not that fast. Nothing like the later TTRS with that screaming 5 cylinder and a properly sorted chassis. Certainly a styling success, but as a performance or enthusiast car, it was Audi’s Thunderbird. Meh…

      • Jan Burden says:

        Bought my 2005 3.2.L TT Quattro coupe with DSG from a friend without even a test drive. Loved it so much I bought a 2017 TTS coupe as well. I had a stage one APR tune installed and I love that car more than the 1993 NSX I had for 17 years. The Gen 3 with the tune is a mini R8 and it really rips. I love my TT for around the town and the 3.2 is like a watch. I m a lucky guy.

  • Stan Kimmel says:

    We own a 2008 TT roadster front wheel drive automatic that my Bride purchased new. It has a beautiful red and black leather interior which is like new after 16 years. She handed the TT off to me when she purchased a paint-to-sample Audi Cabriolet Several years back. I drive the TT during Kentucky summers and love it. I have
    owned 3 Porsches and 2 SL Mercedes and have more fun driving the TT. Even though I’m 81, I enjoy driving a slow car fast rather than a fast car slow.

  • Dave Riddle says:

    I’ve had my Silver 2001 Mk1 225 for about 8 years. I have often thought about selling it as I have 4 cars but every time I think I’m going to take some photos and post it for sell I just can’t bring myself to do so. The car is so reliable that it just keeps it’s place as a spare if/when the daily needs to go in for maintenance. I had black vinyl applied to the roof and side mirrors a few years ago to kinda look like one of the Clubsports and replaced the front bumper/grill with one that has a Mk2 look from Eurogear Rieger R-Frame when some moron put his car in reverse and backed into me at a Stop light. Plus added a black carbon fiber lip to the rear spoiler. The car has an even more distinctive yet mostly subtle appearance

  • Brian Holley says:

    Great car. So much fun, stunning good looks even today and there is so much value for money!
    My 02 TT quattro coupe never fails to make me smile as I turbo thru the twisty two lanes.

  • paul s murray says:

    I’ve always been on the fence with these cars and I still am. To begin with the original 80’s Audi Quattro with it’s angular lines seems more of a Bauhaus design than the TT. I can’t not think of Gropius’s ‘Bauhaus Building” and all that and those like it that followed . Very linear, more T square than french curve. So while you could say the TT follows the ‘form follows function rule ( especially the rear spoiler by the way) and give examples of , I’m not feeling it so much. I would probably use the term ‘ germanic’ instead for lack of a better one. Likewise the interior which looks more arts and crafts movement than art deco with the baseball stitched leather seats. Something Stickley might have done. Not that I’m saying I don’t appreciate it . Its a thousand times better than the way too over the top gaudy interior of Pagani Huayra, which everyone praises, for some reason that escapes me. The TT has its virtues and E for effort but I’m just not sure I like it, and that usually means, I don’t. Unfortunately .

  • Richard Stanley says:

    I bought a metallic black/tan “baseball” interior TT when they first came out. It was gorgeous; one of the prettiest cars I ever owned. Unfortunately, it went back to Audi under the Lemon Law. Not only did the car have no low end torque due to turbo lag (making parking on hills very dicey), but the car had so many creaks and groans my service writer called it “a one-man band”. The body had to be disassembled and re-welded. So much for German quality. Warning lights came on regularly. The car was in the shop so often (I got tired of driving rental Buicks) it was taken back by Audi without contest. I was terribly disappointed. The newer models got ever-uglier as they drifted away from the original design integrity and diluted the fun, unique personality of the car–which made my TT loss tolerable.

  • Uberfun says:

    I’ve been an air cooled 911 guy for 25+ years and still find them terrific sports cars. I’m finding as years pass the 2006 Audi TT 225HP convertible I picked up many years ago is the car I enjoy driving the most anymore. Its not constructed to the same level of quality as the 911’s or as quick around a track, otherwise for me, it’s a more enjoyable driver. It’s one of those cars you always turn and look at before you walk away. It’s automotive art, inside and out.

  • Marshall Coleman says:

    I was working at AOL in the late 90s, early 2000s when the TT first came out. As soon as my stock options, vested, I treated myself to a silver Quattro coupe with blue interior. Great body styling, sumptuous interior, handled like it was on rails. Sold the car eventually but kept the vanity plate..VESTTED

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