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1998 proved to be one of the best and most profitable years the auto industry has ever had, and nearly every manufacturer is healthy and happy. There are a few exceptions, however. Of the Japanese automakers, Nissan and Mitsubishi are fiscally troubled. In Korea, all brands are struggling although Hyundai purchased the assets of bankrupt Kia. But all U.S. and European brands are as hearty as ever.
To consumers, this means there’s money to fuel further development, so cars will remain interesting and functional. But it also means limited bargains out there. For the first time ever, trucks now account for more than half the vehicle sales in America. With the public still clamoring for SUVs, the bargains continue to be found elsewhere. There are too many factories building too many passenger cars, so those are the vehicles where the best deals are to be made. Look toward the future for an over-abundance of fashionable SUVs. History has proven the tendency of this industry to keep jumping on a bandwagon until it’s overloaded. It’s just a matter of meeting the demand-then exceeding it.
Those in the market for sporty cars, both luxury and economy sedans and just plain family cars will discover a renaissance of quality and value. And the first anti-SUV movement has begun with, of all things, station wagons. There’s a new breed of sporty European wagons out there that offer all the luxury of a top SUV, but with far better performance and luxury.
Coming soon is another sports car in the $40,000 arena, giving buyers in this segment an array of very tough choices. The TT Coupe (a roadster arrives later) is among the most elegantly designed vehicles in the class. It’s the only one to offer Audi’s wonderful Quattro AWD system and-among serious sports car-one of very few to offer both a back seat suitable for children and decent cargo capacity.
Inside, windows are narrow and accommodations a bit tight, making entry and exit a challenge for larger and less limber folks. Controls are rather unusual yet pleasant to touch and easily deciphered, then put to use. Perhaps most striking is how well finished the entire car is, from the inside of the engine compartment to the rear hatch. Materials and shapes make this a true designer’s delight. Specifications for the tiny 1.8-liter turbo-charged engine are quite deceptive: the TT accelerates strongly with a moderately ferocious growl. This 180-horsepower 4-cylinder propels with panache. The ride is firm like a sports car, but short of punishing. Handling is wonderfully nimble and the car feels tighter than a lycra glove.
Styling is quite controversial for this small hatchback. It looks something like a cut-off economy car, but with big fender flares and huge tires. The front end is quite familiar as the same one is found on BMW’s Z3 roadster. Essentially, this is a hardtop version of the M Roadster. It has the same powerful 240-horsepower, 3.2-liter 6-cylinder engine. By adding a roof, the company is able to more