No sooner had BMW kicked off the launch of its new 1 Series convertible in Valencia, Spain, than we were driving the 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet a week later under similarly sunny skies a few hours up the road in Marseilles, France.
As anyone who has followed the fortunes of BMW and Audi in recent years will attest, it is typical of the rivalry of these two German carmakers that when one presents a new model, the other is not far behind.
We can expect the same confrontation when the 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet joins the 2008 BMW 135i Convertible on the streets of America. We don't know yet when that will be, but our guess is probably later rather than sooner.
Back to the Ragtop
Hardtop convertibles have been the trend item from Europe lately, as only the very well-to-do can afford garage parking, and cloth-top convertibles are vulnerable to break-ins while parked on the street. The Volkswagen Eos hardtop is a direct response to these concerns.
But just like the BMW 1 Series convertible, the 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet is a classic convertible with a power-operated fabric top. Michael Dick, Audi's development boss, maintains, "Audi has always offered cabriolets with a fabric roof. It provides greater upmarket cachet. When was the last time you saw a Bentley with a folding hardtop? With the latest developments in place, there are no compromises to a fabric roof."
Well, if you say so. More likely, the use of a fabric top reduces engineering costs and also lowers the price of the car to the customer. Of course, we'll admit that the modern, well-insulated cloth top with a glass rear window doesn't force you to accept any compromises in insulation from either the weather or road noise, and it's lightweight besides.
Conceived as a direct competitor to the BMW 1 Series convertible, the new four-seat cabriolet extends the A3 lineup to three body styles — three- and five-door hatchbacks plus this two-door convertible. But while the 1 Series is clearly the A3 cabriolet's keenest rival, Audi also counts the Ford Focus Coupe Convertible, Opel Astra TwinTop and Volkswagen Eos among the competition.
At this early stage, Audi is not committing to American sales, but with BMW set to push its new entry-level convertible in the U.S., the decision is just a matter of timing, really.
On Looks Alone
On looks alone, the A3 cabriolet gives the 1 Series a good run for its money. Flaunting the revised front end soon to be adopted by the upcoming face-lifted A3 hatchback and also wearing a stylish new rear treatment, the cabriolet turns heads, which is one of the most important measurements of convertible goodness.
Styled under the direction of Walter de'Silva (prior to his promotion to the post of design director for the whole of the Volkswagen Group), the A3 cabriolet looks more elegant than its competition. It hints at the larger A4 cabriolet, then mixes in elements of the recently introduced A5 coupe, most notably in the design of the angular taillights with their distinctive LEDs.
By choosing a traditional fabric roof over one of the more fashionable folding-hardtop arrangements that have come to dominate the compact cabriolet class in Europe in recent years, Audi says it has saved a valuable 88 pounds in weight. Moreover, the simplified packaging of the Z-fold fabric roof has left the back of the A3 cabriolet looking graceful and uncompromised. Unlike its hardtop rivals, the A3's rear overhang is ultra-short, and the trunk does not appear disproportionately large.
Pushing a button on the center console automatically lowers the windows an inch or two and unclips the roof from the windshield header, and then the roof neatly folds back over the cabin. The compact, Z-fold roof stack settles into a dedicated space behind the new Audi's fixed twin roll-over hoops, leaving behind an exposed tonneau cover. The whole operation takes just 10 seconds, or 6 seconds more if you count the time it takes for the windows to wind all the way up again. It is slick and quick!
While BMW has engineered the roof of the 1 Series convertible to operate at speeds up to 50 km/h (31 mph), the A3 cabriolet's fast-acting roof can only be set in motion at speeds up to 30 km/h (19 mph).
Inside, the 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet comes with the same expensive-looking dashboard and cabin appointments as the A3 hatchback. Despite this car's compact exterior dimensions, the interior accommodations seem spacious and the front seats have a generous range of adjustment.
But of course it's a whole different story in the rear seat, since the top uses up most of the space. Between the upright seatback, narrow shoulder room and limited legroom, this is a space suitable only for pre-teen kids. At the same time, the seatback flips down, expanding the trunk's 9.2 cubic feet to 23.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
Audi offers the European-specification A3 cabriolet with a choice of four different engine options, with the promise of more to come once production gets up to speed.
There's a 160-horsepower turbocharged direct-injection 1.8-liter inline-4 and a 200-hp turbocharged direct-injection 2.0-liter inline-4. And since there's surprising demand for extremely frugal versions of even such luxury models as a convertible, Audi offers a 105-hp 1.9-liter inline-4 diesel as well as a 160-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 diesel.
The 200-hp turbo is already familiar to everyone in the U.S. And it's perfectly up to the task of motivating the 3,274-pound cabriolet with a solid shove at low rpm, tremendous flexibility through the midrange and a strapping amount of top-end power.
Making it all the more attractive is Audi's optional six-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission with shift paddles on the steering wheel. It channels power to the front wheels with incredible efficiency, performing lightning-fast gearchanges both on part throttle around town and full load on the open road. Opting for it over the standard six-speed manual will be an easy choice for most buyers, no doubt. Audi claims the 200-hp cabriolet will accelerate to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 7.3 seconds on the way to a top speed of 144 mph.
Not Just a Parade Car
There is more to the A3 cabriolet than its simple good looks and sheer straight-line performance. It is also a surprisingly good drive, with the sort of handling that is sure to see this car appeal not only to the traditional boulevard-cruising crowd but also to driving enthusiasts. Granted, it is not quite in the same league as the TT roadster, but it is rewarding all the same. The electronically assisted steering is linear, the chassis handles well at speed and there's lots of cornering grip from the 225/45R17 tires. Added to all this is a nicely composed ride.
Great handling begins with excellent chassis rigidity. Many convertibles at this end of the market feel compromised by a lack of structural rigidity, but Audi has done its homework, adding a substantial amount of bracing to the floor pan and bulkheads. In fact, Audi claims the A3 cabriolet has better body stiffness than any of its top-down rivals. Scuttle shake is conspicuous only by its absence on all but the roughest roads, and there's no annoying kickback through the steering wheel.
Class Always Tells
The 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet gives the impression of being a far more expensive car than you'd expect in this class. It reflects all the lessons Audi has learned with the A4 cabriolet, which itself is scheduled shortly to be replaced by the A5 cabriolet.
Of course, this 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet with its 200-hp turbo engine is priced at $41,400 in Europe, so it's not cheap. Like all of its competition — including the BMW 1 Series convertible — the A3 isn't making top-down driving more affordable. Instead it's simply preventing the cost from becoming even more expensive, as hardtop convertibles like the forthcoming Audi A5 and the recently introduced BMW 3 Series Convertible climb the price scale toward the luxury class.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.