2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet Road Test

2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Audi A4 Convertible

(3.0L V6 CVT Automatic)

No Fuss, No Muss

Outside, the rain came down in buckets. The skies were dark and there was a nip in the air; it was cold and gray as a tomb. "I've been robbed," groused our editor assigned to review the Audi A4 Cabriolet. "This isn't the sort of weather that lends itself to topless fun." But ever the optimist, our editor forced himself to look on the bright side. "Oh well," he reasoned. "At least I'll be able to test those nifty optional front-seat heaters in the proper context."

The weather may have been grim, but fortunately for Audi, its sales performance in recent years has been anything but. The manufacturer scored record-breaking numbers for the seventh year in a row in 2002, with rising sales reported in practically all of its key markets. In the United States, approximately 85,700 Audi models found a home last year, representing a 2.9 percent increase from 2001.

Call it a comeback, and a very impressive one. The early 1990s were difficult years for Audi, in large part due to the "unintended acceleration" charge (of which Audi was acquitted) that nearly put an end to the company's U.S. operations. During the '80s, the manufacturer's annual U.S. sales volume climbed as high as 74,000; by 1991, that figure had dipped to an anemic 12,300. Things began to turn around for Audi in 1996; this resurgence was led by the success of the A4, which was introduced for '96. In the years that followed, Audi's fortunes continued to rise, spurred by lust-inducing new products like the TT Coupe and the TT Roadster.

The latest of these new products is the A4 Cabriolet. The car is the first four-seat convertible offered by Audi since it pulled the plug on its Cabriolet in 1998 due to dwindling sales. The new A4 Cabriolet finds its roots in Audi's totally redesigned (and very well received) 2002 A4 sedan, and has little in common with its predecessor.

At first glance, the A4 Cabriolet seems overwhelmingly similar to the A4 sedan. But look more closely and differences reveal themselves; in fact, the convertible doesn't share any body panels with its A4 siblings. To our eyes, the A4 Cabriolet offers an attractive compromise. It's decidedly less edgy in its visual statement than the TT Roadster, but it offers more exterior verve than the stately A4 sedan. For those seeking a pleasing middle ground between these vehicles, the A4 Cabriolet is just what the doctor ordered.

Our test car was silver with a black top and black interior. If this combination doesn't suit you, rest assured there are many more to choose from. The A4 Cabriolet is available in 11 shades; additionally, there are eight colors to choose from with regard to its interior, and its soft top may be had in four hues (red, blue and beige, in addition to black), allowing buyers significant room when it comes to personalizing the vehicle to suit individual tastes. In true Audi fashion, the A4 Cabriolet's sheet metal is a symphony of discreet elegance, with rounded lines, clean surfaces and an economic, "no fuss" aesthetic. Our test vehicle's looks impressed our editors; our staff agreed that the changes that had been wrought relative to the A4 sedan rendered the A4 Cabriolet the most stylish and eye-pleasing sibling in the A4 family.

In front, the A4 Cabriolet boasts a grille that's slightly more prominent than that of the A4; this gives the convertible a somewhat sportier look. It also gets a dash more edge thanks to dark-rimmed headlights, which are reminiscent of the peepers that light the way for the TT. In back, the A4 Cabriolet resolves itself with a blunt, decisive angle; our editors preferred this design cue to the A4 sedan's softly sloping posterior. Finally, the convertible rides three-quarters of an inch closer to the ground than the sedan, and this serves to give it a more aggressive stance.

Happily, the A4 Cabriolet's sheet metal stands up to close scrutiny. "This little baby was put together with Teutonic precision," raved one of our editors. Gap tolerances are narrow, and panels are aligned with an accuracy that will satisfy even persnickety tastes.

Standard equipment on the A4 Cabriolet includes stability control; a power retractable cloth top with a heated rear window; automatic dual-zone climate control with a dust and pollen filter; electronic cruise control; and luxurious fillips like 12-way power front seats and rich wood beltline trim. Our test vehicle came loaded with options such as six-setting front seat heaters and a Bose sound system. It was also decked with the Premium Package, which endowed the car with goodies like a wind deflector, auto-dimming mirrors, HID headlights and seat memory.

We're already familiar with Audi's proficiency in crafting quality interiors. Our long-term A4 boasts a stylish, intuitively laid-out cabin that has scored high marks with many on our staff. Circular air vents trimmed in aluminum are unique to the A4 Cabriolet, and help give it an identity that's slightly more elegant than that of the A4. Elsewhere, though, the A4 Cabriolet offers an interior that's almost a carbon copy of the sedan's; this, of course, is a very good thing. Low-key opulence abounds; the glossy wood that borders the cabin is generously dispensed but not ostentatious, and seats are shrouded in hide that's pleasingly soft to the touch. Electroluminescent gauges are lit in a muted, ambient shade of red that's warm and easy on the eyes.

And if true luxury is, as some affirm, about having all your wants and needs satisfied as expeditiously as possible, then the A4 Cabriolet's trip computer scores bonus points for getting this job done, and getting this job done well. In some vehicles, drivers desiring information regarding items such as exterior temperature, time or the currently selected radio station have to divert their gaze to the center stack to satisfy their curiosity. In the A4 Cabriolet (as in the A4), all this information is conveniently shown in the instrument panel, making it easy for drivers to access important data without taking their eyes too far off the road.

Audi has equipped rear seats with head restraints; this is undoubtedly a good thing for the safety of those traveling in back. But the king-size restraints also compromise visibility; be prepared to engage in much neck-twisting when reversing the vehicle.

In terms of roominess, the A4 Cabriolet falls right in line with the competition. Front headroom is 38 inches, and front legroom is 41.3 inches; convertibles from BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo all post numbers that fall within an inch or two of these dimensions. In practice, our test vehicle felt sufficiently spacious. Rear headroom is 36.3 inches, and rear legroom is 32.4 inches; these numbers place the Audi midpack amongst drop tops in its price category.

An area in which the A4 Cabriolet easily excels is trunk space. With the top up, the A4 Cabriolet's trunk offers 11.1 cubic feet of luggage capacity; with the top down, 8.9 cubic feet. These numbers place the A4 Cabriolet near the head of its class; only the Saab 9-3, which offers a segment-leading 12.5 cubic feet of trunk space, will give you more room. A wide rear-seat pass-through means that the Audi is capable of stowing long loads, like golf clubs or a snowboard.

The A4 Cabriolet's roof is, well, its crowning glory. Some of its rivals — namely the 9-3 and the Thunderbird — feature convertible tops that require drivers to undo a latch before operation. The A4 Cabriolet is not similarly burdened; electrohydraulically operated, its hood raises and lowers with the mere touch of a button. Audi's convertible gains or loses its top in a scant 24 seconds; for those keeping score, the 330Ci convertible's power top does its thing in almost exactly the same amount of time. When lowered, the hood manages a near seamless disappearing act, leaving no visible lines to compromise the car's aerodynamic countenance. When raised, the hood boasts uniform sleekness, with none of the unsightly "tent ridges" often found on convertibles. It also does an excellent job of warding off the elements; the rain experienced during much of our week with the A4 Cabriolet proved the soft top to be unfailingly weatherproof even when faced with downpour after downpour. Additionally, its heated glass rear window makes the roof well suited for use on frigid winter days.

The A4 Cabriolet is available with either a 3.0-liter, 220-horsepower V6 that spews 221 pound-feet of torque, or a 1.8-liter 170-hp inline four that generates 166 lb-ft; both are mated to a continuously variable transmission. Additionally, all convertibles are front-wheel drive, and for the time being, cannot be optional with the quattro all-wheel-drive system. Our test vehicle was equipped with the V6; our driving impressions were, not surprisingly, very similar to those regarding our V6 CVT-equipped long-term A4. But there were a couple of differences worth noting.

First of all, at 3,814 pounds, the convertible is almost 400 pounds heavier than the sedan. Its poundage also greatly exceeds that of most of its competitors. The BMW 330Ci tips the scales at 3,616 pounds; the Volvo C70 HT, 3,400 pounds; and the Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, 3,515 pounds. Only the Ford Thunderbird, at 3,775 pounds, is in the same weight class, and it has a V8. This added heft has its pros and cons. Relative to the A4 sedan and the aforementioned competition, the A4 Cabriolet offers a driving experience that's noticeably less sporting. During track testing, the A4 Cabriolet got from zero to 60 in a sluggish 7.8 seconds. This places it way behind the competition — a full 1.1 seconds behind rival drop tops from Volvo and BMW. On the plus side, though, some of our editors felt that the A4 Cabriolet's extra poundage gave it a pleasing stability and left it feeling very well planted on the road.

Secondly, the A4 Cabriolet's CVT seemed smoother at low revs than that of our long-term A4. Our long-term A4's CVT has endured its share of criticism from our staff, with the consensus being that the transmission tends to suffer jerky shift response in stop-and-go situations. The A4 Cabriolet was not saddled with this shortcoming; shifts felt almost indiscernible, and power was dispensed predictably even when the tach needle hovered near zero. How to explain this difference in two "identical" trannies? Our long-term A4 is a 2002 model; though representatives at Audi stated that "no significant changes have been made" to the transmission, we suspect that the manufacturer has likely quietly refined the tranny for 2003.

The CVT helps the A4 Cabriolet to deliver a strong performance with regard to fuel economy. At 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway, its rating is a scant one mpg away from being tied with that of the segment's class leader. During the week that we had the car, we averaged 20 mpg.

The A4 Cabriolet offered a supremely soothing ride; its triple-layered top succeeds at keeping road noise at bay. Fortunately, there was some sunshine amongst the wet weather during our week with the car. With the top lowered and windows up, the car's wind deflector does its job nicely; even at freeway speeds, our editors never felt buffeted. Cowl shake was minimal, and handling was admirably predictable.

Audi's attractive convertible boasts a full complement of safety features. In addition to the standard plethora of airbags, the car offers driver and front-passenger seat-mounted head/thorax airbags. Crash sensors help the vehicle best determine the severity of a collision, allowing it to deploy the technology best suited to protect passengers. And, in the event of the car going bottom-up, a rollover protection system deploys from behind the rear-seat headrests.

Despite the ugliest weather, the A4 Cabriolet succeeded in leaving us with a smile; we felt coddled by its unforced opulence, and were bowled over by its easygoing, consistently self-possessed demeanor. Seeking hard-core sporting thrills? Toss your pennies in the direction of BMW's 330Ci convertible. But if luxury is the trait you value most in a convertible, then the A4 Cabriolet will give it to you, for a few bills less than the other German drop tops.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

Components: This drop top comes standard with a cassette deck, in-dash six-disc CD changer, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a supplemental display in the instrument cluster. It also includes 180 watts powering nine speakers, or the optional 225-watt system with Bose speakers found in this test vehicle. Strong midtweets are sunk in three locations across the dash, woofers pound from the door panels and four more drivers can be found near the rear seats.

Performance: The abundance of controls makes blasting tunes in this Audi a breeze, and the straightforward displays found on the deck and under the speedometer arc help keep your eyes on the road. The speakers in the dash are bright and the music that reflects off the windshield creates a full-bodied soundstage that's responsible for most of the output. The woofers in the doors produce accurate bass, but even with help from the speakers in back, the low end does not have much power. This is especially apparent when the top is dropped, but only because the tight fit of the roof is able to trap all of the bass made in the car. That's not to say you should keep the A4 shut. The difference in the audio system performance is barely noticeable when the top is down, even at freeway speeds.

Best Feature: Clear controls.

Worst Feature: Bass deficiency.

Conclusion: A smooth sound system upgrade that needs more bump.— Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
During my brief spin in the A4 Cabriolet, two things were immediately apparent; Audi's CVT works better in this Cabrio than it does in our long-term A4 sedan and this is a convertible my sister Lori would love. Although I'm not aware of any news announcing that Audi has tweaked the CVT this year for sharper response, it delivers it. Not that our 2002 A4 is by any means a slug (for the most part its performance is respectable), the Cabriolet just had more snap off the line and a more immediate rush of power when the pedal was booted at midrange speeds (such as when merging into fast-moving freeway traffic). This is all the more impressive when one considers that the drop-top A4 3.0 weighs 352 pounds more than the similarly equipped sedan.

So why would Lori love this drop top? Because she likes the airiness of an open car but doesn't care for the whirlwind effect that takes place inside many convertibles; in the A4 Cabrio, one can enjoy al fresco motoring without worry of tangled tresses. The interior remains relatively quiet and free of buffeting provided the windows are up and the effective wind blocker is employed. Running up Pacific Coast Highway on a relatively cool day (temps in the low 60s), I was warm and comfortable cruising at 60 mph in this fashion.

Lastly, this car looks great. The convertible trades the four-door's stubby rear end and quirky taillights for a more proportionate and chiseled look that works better with the rest of the car's design.

Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
It has been a while since I seen an Audi four-seat convertible. Audi never created a convertible for the last generation of the A4, and its last four-seater convertible was the carryover model 90 design that was last seen on these shores in 1998. Here in Los Angeles, I see plenty of convertibles, especially of the BMW variety. Being an Audi enthusiast, I was very excited to get a turn behind the wheel of its new cabriolet to see what it has to offer.

My first impressions of the exterior were quite positive. I prefer the older generation of the A4, but the two-door version of the current generation actually looked pretty clean and sporty to me. This Audi scored big points for having a glass rear window. There is nothing I hate more in convertibles than a plastic rear window that turns yellow and brittle over time. I've long held Audi interiors as a benchmark of quality materials and design. Sadly, however, this interior design was a mixed bag. I liked the refreshed center stack design with the three circular vents, but the dash design was quite ugly to me and appeared to be made of lower-grade plastic. If it wasn't something you'd look at all the time, it wouldn't mar the otherwise great-looking design as much as it does for me now.

Driving with the top down along Highway 1 through Malibu brings a smile to my face, even when it's cold out. This Audi had me grinning from ear to ear. The wind deflector that snaps into place in the backseat made the cabin air surprisingly still. I wore a baseball hat and it never buffeted on my head as I cruised at highway speeds. No need to turn it backward or embarrass myself with hat hair in public. The CVT, a transmission I haven't been crazy about, has been whipped into shape this year by the engineers. In comparison to the lackluster CVT in our long-term A4, the Cabriolet's transmission is accurate and fast to respond to quick pedal input. The 3.0 V6 had plenty of power to offer, but I feel that if it had been paired with a manual transmission, I could have taken better advantage of it.

Audi has made a viable and attractive alternative to the 3 Series convertible. Though you can make the argument that the Audi is more of a cruiser in comparison to the sport-oriented Bimmer, I would choose the Audi any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Consumer Commentary

"My new Audi A4 Cabrio is beyond my dreams. I had an A4 sedan on order, but fell in love with this Cabrio on the lot, and am so impressed with the vehicle. The engine is powerful, yet quiet. The new CVT transmission is so smooth on acceleration. The top mechanics are typically high-quality German design, and make the vehicle feel like a hardtop coupe with the top up. Trunk space is limited with the top down, but not too bad. Favorite features: Upgraded leather seats…red leather!! Power convertible top…too cool!! Power and handling are unbelievable. Suggested improvements: Sell it for less?" — WAREGLE83, Feb. 11, 2003

"An absolutely stunning convertible. When topless, wind and noise levels are pleasantly low. With the top up, comfort is comparable to a sedan, which is a good thing. The roof is even lined on the inside! The interior design and amenities are lavish, logical and perfect to the touch. Audi is clearly a class leader when it comes to fit and finish. The 3.0 V6 married to the high-tech multitronic transmission results in smooth acceleration. Power is surprisingly plentiful and fuel efficient for such a heavy car (3,800 pounds). Only regret is that I didn't get the Sport Package (which will be remedied with aftermarket springs). Favorite features: Drop-dead gorgeous design. Quiet ride. Rigid body. Sublime fit and finish. Excellent handling. Suggested improvements: Bring back Tiptronic controls. Sunglass holder conspicuously missing on North American models. Try to lower the curb weight. When quattro and manual get introduced in the future, the car may weigh past 4,000 pounds! More powerful optional engines (2.7T, 4.2)." — MENI, Oct. 6, 200

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