2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet First Drive

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2003 Audi A4 Convertible

(1.8L 4-cyl. Turbo CVT Automatic)

From Riches to Rag Top

It has often been suggested that the production of convertibles, like the length of women's skirts, is reflective of economic times. When times are tough, convertible offerings and hemlines drop. When prosperity and optimism run high, so does the production of rag tops (and the lack of production of skirt fabric). Of course, ask 100 people today where we are on the "prosperity-to-poverty" spectrum and you'll likely get 100 different answers.

But one issue that can't be argued is the rampant success enjoyed by Audi of America over the last eight years. After bottoming out at just over 10,000 U.S. sales for 1994 (and, rumor has it, being a "board meeting away" from ending sales in the U.S. altogether), the company has unleashed a parade of compelling products, starting with the all-new A4 in 1996. The result has been a tremendous increase in sales, with 2002 looking to have over 90,000 total vehicles leaving U.S. Audi showrooms (over 100,000 if you include Canada). So it would appear that while the state of the American economy remains in question, the state of the "Audi economy" is quite strong, ergo an all-new A4 Cabriolet for 2003.

The new drop top goes on sale in October at a starting price of $42,245 (including destination charge). Its sole drivetrain configuration will be the 3.0-liter V6 and the automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT), but a 1.8T version, also with the CVT transmission, will hit showrooms in February at a cost of $35,645. By October of 2003, the company is promising a 3.0-liter quattro version, but once again no manual transmission will be offered (though it will likely offer a CVT transmission as well, rather than a conventional automatic, if engineers can work out all reliability issues).

After offering a Preview of the A4 Cabriolet last winter, we recently experienced the all-new model in sunny Southern California and, not surprisingly, found it to drive much like our long-term A4 sedan which is equipped with an identical 3.0-liter, CVT drivetrain. But while the drivetrain, four-wheel independent suspension and much of the interior are lifted straight from the existing A4 platform, several items are unique to the convertible. These include a 3/4-inch drop in ride height and additional bracing throughout the body and chassis. The good news is that Audi's efforts resulted in a 112 percent increase in torsional rigidity compared to the Cabriolet that ceased production in 1998; the bad news is a hefty curb weight of over 3,800 pounds. That's about 200 pounds heavier than the rag top versions of BMW's 3 Series or Mercedes' CLK, and around 400 pounds heavier than a Volvo C70 convertible, all of which Audi has identified as primary competitors.

Even with 220 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque at its disposal, the A4 Cabriolet can't hide its weight when pulling away from a stoplight. Audi claims a 0-to-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds, which feels about right to us. Unfortunately, that number puts the car well behind any of the contestants in our recent Luxury Convertibles Under $55,000 comparison test. The CVT, which offers undeniably smooth shifts and superior gas mileage, further contributes to the car's somewhat mushy throttle response at low speeds.

The weight issue was similarly apparent during cornering, though to a lesser extent. Initial impressions during relaxed driving suggested that the A4 Cabriolet would have a solid and secure feel on twisty roads. With familiarity came confidence, and as we pushed the car harder through sweeping corners we were happy to discover that it remained capable even at moderately aggressive levels. None of the models we sampled were equipped with the optional Sport Package that adds stiffer suspension tuning and 17-inch alloy wheels with 235/45R17 performance tires (the standard tires are 215/55R16 all-season versions). Clearly, this setup would add to the A4's handling ability, but it bears noting that the standard suspension is well suited to comfortable cruising around town or on the highway.

Also suited to comfort is the fully automatic top design that retracts or expands in 24 seconds. Audi claims this time was targeted because that's about how long the typical red light lasts, but we should mention that is also the exact time it takes the 3 Series power top to do its thing. A heated glass rear window is standard, and the padded top features a three-layer design that creates no visible ridges when up, thus preserving the A4's classically clean body shape. The top is also said to feature horizontal cross bars to keep it from flapping (or "bubbling," as the Audi press kit says), but we heard it doing just that during our highway run at speeds above 70 mph. At lower speeds, the cabin was impressively quiet, but even more appreciated was the lack of buffeting at highway speeds when the top was down. A wind deflector (available as a stand-alone dealer item or included in the Premium Package) that deploys over the rear seat area kept the interior surprisingly placid at up to 80 mph.

Inside the Cabrio, you'll find typical Audi design cues, including chrome rings around the dash vents, red interior lighting, leather seating surfaces and high-quality wood trim on the dash and door panels (1.8T models have cloth seats and polished fiberglass trim). Standard amenities include automatic dual-zone climate control, one-touch down windows, a 12-way power driver's seat, a six-disc CD changer, heated outside mirrors, foglights, heated windshield washer nozzles and retractable headlight washers. In addition to the aforementioned Sport Package, customers can also order a Premium Package that adds Homelink, an auto-dimming interior mirror with compass, xenon headlights, driver's seat memory settings, a multifunction steering wheel and the previously mentioned wind deflector. Stand-alone options include heated front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, premium leather seats, full sport seats, a 225-watt Bose audio system and a navigation system.

Two unique items found on the A4 Cabriolet relate to the vehicle's trunk. The first item is what Audi calls a "Variable Soft Top Compartment" that is actually a sliding partition that allows the top to retract when it is placed in the "down" position. With the partition down, trunk space is given as 8.9 cubic feet, but raise the partition once the top is up and trunk space expands to a segment-leading 11.1 cubic feet (only the 9-3 convertible offers more space in this segment). Use the rear seat pass-through and long articles such as snowboards or even a golf bag can lay flat across the rear seat/trunk floor with plenty of room remaining on either side of the item. The other feature of interest is the composition trunk lid that houses the radio and, if so equipped, the GPS navigation system's antenna, meaning no protruding metal spires to muck up the otherwise flowing exterior shell. That last item no doubt contributes to the Cabrio's 0.30 coefficient of drag (0.33 with the roof down).

Buyers interested in safety technology will find plenty to like about the A4 Cabriolet. Six crash sensors located through the chassis are used to determine the severity of an impact before deploying any of the four dual-stage airbags, including seat-mounted head and thorax airbags for the driver and front passenger. Should the A4 ever go shiny side down, a rollover protection system will deploy from behind the rear seat headrests. This system, along with a reinforced windshield frame, is designed to protect occupants in any of the four seats during a rollover. Antilock brakes (ABS), Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and hydraulic BrakeAssist round out the convertible's list of standard safety features.

Audi plans on making 20,000 A4 Cabriolets a year, with about 8,000 of them coming to North America in the first 12 months. The company is hoping at least 50 percent of those buyers will be first-time Audi customers, and it expects half of all Cabriolet buyers to be women. A new television and print ad campaign, featuring the tag line "Open up your world" has already begun, and like most Audi ads, it is effective at communicating the "Do Not Follow" attitude of the company.

Our impression is that Audi has covered its bases in terms of content, safety, style and value. We're not 100 percent convinced on the performance aspect, but maybe we don't have to be. Company spokesman Doug Clark told us the A4 Cabriolet is supposed to be "a four-season, four-seat convertible for people who want to experience life." The company obviously wasn't trying to unseat the king of driving passion, BMW's 3 Series, nor did it want a softer alternative to Ford's boulevard-cruising Thunderbird. It appears Audi wanted to land somewhere in between the two. If that was indeed the goal, the A4 Cabriolet hits its mark.

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