When you're going to the beach for a snow cone, a convertible is just the ticket. The rest of the time, it's usually an embarrassment, like a Hawaiian shirt you keep buried in your closet.
Leave it to Audi to build a convertible so buttoned-up in every way that you'll be planning a trip to the Santa Monica Pier for a snow cone even if you're snowbound in Utah. The combination of 340 horsepower and all-wheel drive ought to get you to the beach by sunset, no matter how far away it might be and no matter what the road conditions are.
The Audi folks always do their homework and never skip over the hard parts, so it's no wonder that the S4 Cabriolet incorporates everything they know about building cars. The 40-valve V-8 is remarkably compact and lightweight. Along with all-wheel drive, you get a 235/40ZR-18 Continental ContiSportContact 2 tire at every corner. A safety net of electronic driver's aids is there to catch you if you do something stupid. It's all here, as well conceived as a physics project turned in by the smartest kids in class.
Just as you'd expect from engineering nerds such as these, Audi put most of its effort into making the car better with the top up, not down. The taut, three-layer convertible top with its glass rear window should be proof against February weather, and a push of the button peels it back electronically in twenty-four seconds, so you can get it done while parked at a stoplight. There's plenty of structural reinforcement in the chassis, and it proves notably rattle-free. The trunk capacity is 10.2 cubic feet when the top is up.
We've rarely been behind the wheel of a convertible that was as much like a grown-up car as this one is. Once you're on the highway with the top down, the interior is turbulence-free, and when your companion folds her legs under her and turns to talk to you in this intimate bubble of sunshine at 80 mph, you can hear every word she's saying (whether you want to or not). This is just the kind of 155-mph convertible that a man can drive, and indeed, Audi reckons that 75 percent of the buyers for this car will be male.
But while the S4 Cabriolet is a brilliant highway car, it is not a pure sporting device. There's a layer of engineering refinement between the driver and the car, and it's particularly noticeable in the dynamo-like yet remote smoothness of the V-8, even with the six-speed manual transmission, which has an excellent short-throw linkage. (Audi tells us 70 percent of the 2100 S4 Cabrios that come to the United States will be so equipped.) The body control of the 4090-pound S4 isn't quite taut enough at extreme speed, and the steering's off-center response is disconcertingly slow.
Yet when it comes to real-world traveling, the S4 Cabriolet has all the best aspects of the Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabrio and the BMW 3-series and Saab 9-3 convertibles. It's just what you want when you're going for a snow cone, but it's just what you want the rest of the time, too.