2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet

Jürgen Skarwan

Tenerife, Canary Islands-- Four years after dismissing its first-generation four-seat convertible from the U.S. market, Audi is back with a Cabriolet based on the new A4. Aimed at the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz CLK320 droptops, Audi's new Cabriolet goes on sale here in September.

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Style, space, and solidity are the key assets of this exceptionally well-made sun worshiper. Dressed up with a brushed-aluminum windshield surround and additional brightwork along the beltline as well as around the horizontally split radiator grille, the Cabriolet is arguably the most attractive model in the A4 lineup. It also offers quite a bit more room for long legs and broad shoulders than did the previous model, and the rear seat is more accommodating than either of its German rivals. The trunk, too, is unexpectedly spacious, holding 11.1 cubic feet of luggage with the top up and 8.7 cubic feet with the top down--beating both the Bimmer and the Benz. The new wind-in-the-hair Audi A4 also enjoys a vastly stiffer structure and a safer body than its predecessor. Torsional rigidity has doubled; there are front and side air bags for driver and passenger (but no rear-seat side air bags); and in case of a rollover, tubular bars pop out from behind the rear head restraints.

A convertible is only as good as its roof, and the new Audi's fully automatic electrohydraulic soft top is truly exceptional, opening and closing in 24 seconds and stowing beneath a flush-fitting lid for a neat look. The top is comprehensively insulated against wind noise and cold weather and incorporates a heated rear window made of tinted safety glass. Although a wind deflector is available as an option, buffeting is not really an issue below 100 mph. The Audi always feels as if it is traveling in the eye of a hurricane, particularly when all four side windows are raised. Thanks to the extensive use of high-strength steel, as well as a brace of sturdy subframes and detail reinforcements such as beefed-up A-pillars and additional crossmembers welded to the floorpan, the A4 Cabriolet is virtually immune to uneven pavement and high loads. Cowl shake is conspicuous by its absence.

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Although the Cabriolet shouts A4 from all angles, both the exterior sheetmetal and the interior are actually brand new. We like the round, TT-style air vents, the rearranged and fresh-faced instruments, the excellent seats with their power-operated easy-entry backrests, and the long list of standard equipment, which includes automatic climate control, a multifunction steering wheel, and a clever master switch that operates all four side windows at the same time. There are some drawbacks, however, such as front seatbelts that aren't integrated into the seat frame and poor rear-three-quarter visibility with the top up.

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Dynamically, there isn't a big difference between the softtop and its fixed-roof stablemates. The V-6 version accelerates from 0 to 62 mph in 7.8 seconds and reaches a maximum speed of 145 mph. Offered for now only with front-wheel drive, the A4 Cabriolet will chirp its tires during quick takeoffs, and there is a little steering fight to be felt through the twisties. Directional stability is nonetheless impeccable, and the car's ground-hugging stance isn't disturbed by quick lane changes. This is a refined and civilized car that keeps its composure when pushed, maintains its attitude when laden, and hangs on even when turns tighten or the road surface deteriorates. It's still not quite as fun to drive as a BMW 330Ci convertible, but it's close, and it eclipses the Mercedes CLK320 Cabriolet.

The 220-horsepower, 30-valve, 3.0-liter V-6 engine in combination with Audi's Multitronic continuously variable transmission will be the A4 Cabriolet's sole powertrain at launch time. Mid-model year, the 170-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter in-line four will be added. Sometime after that, a V-6 model with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system will join the range. If European sticker prices are anything to go by, expect Audi to position the 2003 A4 Cabriolet between $35,000 and $43,000 when it reaches American dealerships.

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