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How could a vehicle that I was so proficient at hating in high school manage to win me over during a recent road test? After all, isn't this the same "cute" VW that served as the quintessential cheerleader carriage throughout the late '80s and early '90s? A car voted "Most likely to be filled with Pompoms" and covered in shoe polish stating, "Beat the (insert innocuous high-school mascot name here)." While it may not be a politically correct, in-tune-with-the-approaching-millennium view, I've always pictured these things as the ultimate expression of automotive femininity. In other words, they're chick cars.
At least, that was my impression before driving the latest Volkswagen drop-top. What used to be the Rabbit-based Cabriolet has been transformed into the Golf-based Cabrio, resulting in a superior convertible in every way (with the exception of the goofy "Cabrio" name itself). This platform changeover came in 1995, giving us an open-air Golf much like the recently introduced New Beetle gave us a fun and nostalgic Golf. Normally we don't praise automakers for simply redecorating the same platform and calling it a new model. But when it comes to the Golf, Volkswagen has such a stellar chassis that we'll take as many versions of it as the company is willing to produce.
What this means for the latest Cabrio is a solid, refined and comfortable ride, whether cruising at highway speeds or clipping apexes on your favorite mountain road. The single most alluring aspect of this convertible is the pure driving thrill imparted by its capable and confident underpinnings. MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar control front-end movement, while Volkswagen's own "independent track correcting torsion-beam rear axle" keeps the Cabrio's hindquarters in line. This suspension is complimented by a perfectly weighted, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system that offers excellent turn-in and fantastic feedback. Here is where the Cabrio makes its leap from cute Barbie-mobile to serious driver's car.
Volkswagen's antilock braking system, standard on the upscale GLS model but not available on the base GL, further contributed to the Cabrio's performance abilities. Maximum braking tests showed a 60-to-zero distance of 134 feet, but the real test came during repeated braking on a canyon run. A quick jab at the easily modulated pedal would kick the Cabrio's tail out for improved corner-entry angles in the twisty roads above Los Angeles.
If we could make one improvement to the Cabrio's technical readout, it would be in the horsepower department. The stock 2.0-liter in-line four makes an uninspired 115 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 122 foot-pounds of torque at 2,600 rpm. This is fewer horsepower than any of the Cabrio's competitors (but three more foot-pounds of torque than the Miata). When you consider how capable the Cabrio is in terms of handling and braking, it seems almost criminal that this car receives a measly 115 horses, while far less capable ragtops like the Toyota Celica and Chevy Cavalier get 130 and 150 horsepower, respectively. This engine heaves the five-speed Cabrio from zero-to-60 mph in a belabored 10.8 seconds. That's one of the slowest convertible times we have on record. Only the automatic versions of the Miata and Celica convertible are slower.
Another area we'd like to see Volkswagen work on is exterior styling. Despite the "new Euro-styling" (which is essentially just an updated twin headlight design and revised taillights) the car still looks basically the same as it did 15 years ago. There's nothing terribly wrong with the Cabrio's appearance, but it's not particularly exciting or inspiring, either. If Mazda can successfully update the Miata's look, we're certain Volkswagen could do the same for its convertible.
Where Volkswagen has kept pace with today's best cars is in the design of the Cabrio's interior. Everything from comfort to ergonomics has been addressed, putting the "fun" back into functional and giving passengers a great place to spend a sunny day with the top down. Front seats offer substantial bolstering, firm padding, and a wide range of adjustments to satisfy drivers of all sizes. This is one of the few small cars we've driven recently that had front legroom to spare. Rear seating is a bit tighter, but two average-sized adults will fit back there without moving the front seats all the way forward. There's neither a seatbelt provision, nor room, for a center passenger in the rear seat.
Climate and radio controls are within easy reach and have a logical layout. The one-touch operation of both the front and rear windows makes going from a closed to open-air configuration a simple procedure. The two convertible latches unhook easily and the power top (manual on GL models) stows in less than 10 seconds. Placement and labeling of the rear window buttons (under the climate controls in the central dash) is a bit confusing, and we had a problem with our driver's side rear-window. If the convertible top was up and we tried to use the one-touch up feature, the window would raise and immediately retract again. Volkswagen's "pinch protection" is designed to keep the windows from closing on fingers, arms or anything else that might get caught between the window and the top. This window's sensitivity was obviously off a bit, requiring it to be raised slowly and incrementally to avoid the retraction reaction.
Once stowed, the folded top can be quickly concealed under an attractive boot. Using just two snap fittings (one on each end) and some creative tucking, this unit is one of the easiest, yet attractive, boots we've ever encountered. Compared to the complex system used on the Sunfire/Cavalier drop-tops, it was downright brainless. Top-down travel was a joy with minimal buffeting below 40 mph. Raise the rear windows and that number climbs to 60. With all four windows up you can hit 80 without risking your prom date's freshly coifed hairdo.
Even more impressive was the Cabrio's ride quality with the top up. At highway speeds there was a subtle increase in road roar compared to a hardtop Golf, but no specific wind noise or rattles could be detected. Turn up the radio a little and you could easily forget you're in a softtop automobile.
Besides the horsepower and styling issues, our list of complaints was relatively short. We didn't care for the non-adjustable cupholders that are located too close to the dash to accommodate tall drinks. A general lack of interior storage space was mentioned as well. Despite a multitude of small pockets and bins (including an under-seat shelf and lockable center console) there was no single space that could hold a 35mm camera. This problem is exasperated by the miniscule (8 cubic feet) amount of trunk space. While the interior can carry four adults for a weekend getaway, we're not sure where those adults would store their belongings.
We were also disappointed with the Cabrio's sound system that featured an in-dash cassette player and trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer. With all that hardware on board, we expected a stunning audio experience. Instead, the system buzzed and was unable to reproduce effective bass. In Volkswagen's defense, this car had over 8,000 test miles on it and we suspect a partially blown rear speaker (or speakers) was to blame.
Even with its faults, we have to give Volkswagen points for building such a fine car. Instead of creating a convertible whose only redeeming factor is a roof that stows away, the Cabrio GLS offers comfortable seating, excellent ergonomics, sumptuous leather, high levels of luxury and a sublime driving experience. And all this comes before you lower the top. It's unfortunate that so many people (Edmund's staffers included) have trouble seeing past the double-X chromosome image of this car. For those who can, the Cabrio offers an attractive blend of value and fun. If those same individuals are primarily interested in the Cabrio's top-down (rather than top-speed) characteristics, this is a great car.