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So many cars today seem designed to add drama to the lives of their owners. But a lot of us already lead lives that are damn well dramatic enough. We need cars that are decompression chambers from an often confrontational, savagely indifferent world. Audi’s new A4 Cabrio isn’t just undramatic, it absolutely drains conflict out of practically any situation and replaces it with a stylish, placid fecundity.
I’m not quite sure what fecundity means, but it’s the word that sprang to mind.
Barely an A4
While the Cabriolet is marketed as an A4 it’s so different from its sedan and wagon brothers as to almost deserve its own series name. Maybe A4.37 would be more accurate.
The Cabrio doesn’t share a single exterior body panel with the sedan and wagon. The Cabrio’s nose is more rounded than the sedan’s and has maybe just a touch of TT in the upper grille and headlights. The two doors are of course all new and the car’s haunches seem more substantial than other A4s. The Cabrio also sits about 3/4-inch closer to the ground over its 16- or optional 17-inch wheels than other A4s, which adds a very slight aggression to the car’s countenance. There’s nothing startling about the Cabrio’s looks, but elements like the chrome surround on the windshield give it elegance without being at all ostentatious.
Underneath the unique sheetmetal is familiar A4 mechanicals and a reinforced version of the sedan’s floorpan. The Cabrio’s 104.5-inch wheelbase is actually 0.2 inches longer than the sedan’s and at exactly 15-feet, the Cabrio is an inch longer overall too. The double A-arm front and trapezoidal link independent rear suspension carry over from the four-door as do engines, transmissions, and anti-lock controlled four-wheel disc brakes. At the Cabriolet’s October launch the only drivetrain available will be the 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter DOHC, 30-valve V-6 mated to Audi’s “Multitronic” continuously variable automatic transmission driving the front wheels. By early 2003 the turbocharged 1.8-liter four will also be available and by the 2004 model year the quattro all-wheel drive system will be offered with the V-6 and a conventional five-speed automatic.
At 3814 pounds, the Cabriolet is 352 pounds porkier than the A4 sedan with the 3.0-liter V-6 and that heft shows up in the car’s overall feel. It also tempers the power-to-weight ratio and that, combined with the soothingly shiftless action of the Multitronic trans, results in eerily placid acceleration; the car moves forward in a stately manner with the balanced-shafted engine stuck resolutely at its power peak. It handles predictably too, with Audi’s Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) kicking in before utter goofiness finds its way into the chassis.
With three layers bonded together, a heated real glass rear window and quick, nearly silent one-touch electro-hydraulic power operation, it’s hard to imagine a better soft top than the A4 Cabriolet’s. Audi claims that the top goes from fully retracted to fully in place in just 24 seconds with no effort from the driver beyond holding down the console-mounted switch. According to the very latest in “one-one thousand, two-one thousand” counting techniques, they may be understating the speed.
Driving the car in beautifully sunny Southern California there was no way to test the top’s weather resistance, but there’s virtually no wind noise whatsoever and inside lining is beautifully textured – more expensive convertibles like the BMW Z8, Chevy Corvette and Ford Thunderbird should have a top this nice. And the Audi’s top goes over a truly gorgeous interior.
While the basic themes of the Cabrio’s interior are similar to that of the sedan’s, it’s subtly different enough to be unique. The upper dash is new, for example, and uses circular, aluminum-trimmed vents instead of rectangular ones. The genuine wood veneer accents are almost astonishingly lush, the leather covering the seats must come from volunteer cows, and the shifter sits in a gate on the center console that looks like it was forged for NASA. Throw in safety equipment like twin sensor-triggered spring-loaded rollover braces just behind the rear seat and standard side airbags, and this is a $41,000 car with a $70,000 car’s interior.
2003 Audi A4 CabrioletEnlarge Photo
But it’s not a perfect interior. It’s a true four-seater with enough leg room in back so that, as long as the perfectly shaped front seats aren’t all the way back on their tracks, adults can survive back there and walk out without cramped hamstrings. Up front however, the footwells are rather narrow and tall drivers will find their knees crammed into the side of the center console. Also the ventilation controls are mounted low on the dash where access is difficult and the markings on those controls are more cryptic than the Freemasons’ initiation rites.
With the top down the Cabriolet’s structure is impressively solid and the wind intrusion minimal. A windblocker is available to reduce wind noise and buffeting even further, but even without that blocker up normal conversation between the driver and front passenger is possible at cruising speeds. Top up, tire noise is more apparent on some surfaces and there’s the slightest hint of cowl shake, but wind noise basically disappears.
Even stirring the manually-operated virtual gears in the Multitronic CVT transmission can’t make the A4 Cabriolet a particularly spirited drive. Every response from the car seems muted, shorn of upsetting feedback and designed to reassure the driver rather than inspire him. Maybe when the quattro version arrives the spirit of the car will awaken. Maybe some day there will be an S4 version that will have everyone forgetting the M3 Convertible. But for the time being what we get is something very well built, very well appointed, and very placid.
Placidity, however, has its place in the automotive universe. There may not be a more soothing convertible for sale at any price.
2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet
Base price: $41,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 220 hp
Drivetrain: Continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 180.0 x 70.0 x 54.8 in
Wheelbase: 104.5 in
Curb weight: 3814 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/27 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, automatic rollover protection system
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control, CD player, keyless entry, power driver seat with memory
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles