October 6, 2002

Road Test: 2003 Audi A4 Cabriolet
Article and Photos By: Jason Teller

Audi of America Vice President Len Hunt kicked off the press launch of the A4 Cabriolet by citing four defining characteristics for Audi in today's marketplace: advanced technology, design, performance and emotion.

"We view these four key things as being at the core of what Audi is about today, and indeed has always stood for," remarked Hunt. "Today we will show you an automobile that not only embodies the first three characteristics, but makes a strong appeal to our emotions as well."

Put simply, Audi proposes to build on the momentum of the A4 sedan and Avant by adding the emotional appeal of a Cabriolet to the model lineup. Audi appears unconcerned with the "I've arrived!" social positioning normally associated with a convertible, but instead with the experience-oriented smell, vision and sensation afforded by open-top motoring. Audi insinuates that whereas convertible offerings from some brands are about enabling status, the A4 Cabriolet is about enabling lifestyle.

First and foremost, the A4 Cab is a true four-season convertible. This point may at first appear counterintuitive; a convertible is by definition a drive-with-the-top-down mode of transportation. At closer inspection one realizes that the driving experience with the top down is only half the story. Visceral emotional appeal be damned - if the car adopts a schizophrenic personality disorder between top down and top up drivability, then the manufacturer has failed.

Audi certainly did not fail in this regard. Drawing on the aforementioned qualities of advanced technology and design, the fully automatic soft top is the exceptional result of precision, leakproof sonic welding. Discarding the more typical sewn/stitched roof, the A4 Cabriolet utilizes a tri-layer construction consisting of a poly acrylic exterior layer, a 15 mm neoprene sound/weather insulating core and an interior headliner. Appropriately, the rear window is glass and is heated for the wintertime. Passengers in this vehicle are rewarded with a peaceful interior at speeds far in excess of the legal limit, as well as reasonable visibility through the rear window.

The roof is controlled either through a button in the center console or the driver's side exterior keyhole. The top, which utilizes reinforced aluminum in some areas to keep overall weight down to just 66 lbs., can be raised or lowered in 24 seconds. This time interval was not arbitrary, but rather engineered to enable the owner to make the up/down transition in slightly less time than the cycle of an average stoplight.

Further substantiation of the four-season claim comes from the variable soft-top compartment. With the roof retracted, the trunk yields a not-too-shabby 8.9 cu ft. of space. Luggage will still fit in the trunk; together with the pass-through ski sack, golf clubs can be accommodated. Innovatively, with the roof up and extended, the trunk space increases by 45% to 11.1 cu ft. Again, utilizing the pass-through ski sack, the car will easily transport two ski boards or three sets of skis in addition to all the other requisite winter gear.

From an exterior point of view, the A4 Cabriolet adopts a natural, Bauhaus-inspired appearance both with the top up or down. The body, which surprisingly shares no parts with the A4 sedan, flows fluidly from the now-familiar Audi "face" to the distinctive B6 platform rear together with dual exhaust pipes. The headlight assemblies are intentionally clear (showcasing the lighting technology within), while the front grille is dual style. Complimenting the Cabriolet's sportiness, it sits a full 20 mm lower than the A4 sedan or Avant.

Notably absent from the exterior of the vehicle is an antenna; the lines are not encumbered by a flimsy looking plastic dowel. Audi accomplishes this bit of magic by taking not only the dual diversity, dual amplified radio antennas, but also the GPS receiver and remote locking receiver and concealing everything under a composite trunk lid. This advancement will no doubt find its way into subsequent Audi models.

The interior builds favorably on the vibe created by the car's exterior by employing all new tubular shaped climate vents, a new door design and also a redesigned instrument cluster which gazes in on the driver from a slightly oblique angle. I give heaps of praise to the team that devised the seats; they can be operated both forwards and backwards from a switch near the headrest (meaning no awkward bending), and in addition the headrest will automatically retract to allow the seats to fold further forward. Of course when the seat is returned upright the headrest again returns to its previous position. With all the discussion of seat functionality, they are also noteworthy for their comfort and support during aggressive driving.

Besides the uniqueness of being a convertible, Audi is doing a few more things to differentiate the A4 Cabriolet from its A4 brethren. These include: exclusive Cabriolet colors (Champagne metallic, Cambridge Green pearl effect, Caribic Blue metallic and Aquamarine Blue metallic), unique wheel program, four color choices for the top (black, blue, red and beige) and two exclusive interior colors (red and vanilla, offered in the sport seats only).

The A4 Cabriolet starts life in North America this coming fall with the 3.0-liter V6 engine combined with FrontTrak front-wheel drive and the innovative multitronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). It will be followed up around February 2003 with a 1.8 T FrontTrak CVT. Then, as Audi continues to refine its CVT technology to deal with increased torque and design complexities, the A4 Cabriolet has been promised in a 3.0 quattro version. Audi has not yet given a timeline for availability of the quattro.

For those unfamiliar with CVT, a quick reference back to our initial coverage of the multitronic option in the 2002 A4 is a good starting point. Suffice it to say, The A4 Cabriolet will be the first convertible ever - from any manufacturer - to utilize this type of transmission technology. The advanced transmission uses a link-plate chain for limitless ratios and nearly constant power.

Happily, the A4 Cabriolet drives a lot like the rest of the current A4 lineup. This simple statement is a good indicator of Audi's success in overcoming the "loose convertible" issues sometimes prevalent in soft-tops. I had intentionally spent a weekend driving a 2002 A4 sedan literally the week before the Cabriolet launch event, and found the handling to be quite consistent between the two vehicles. Audi, in fact, claims that the Cabriolet's torsenial rigidity is actually better than the sedan and Avant.

Power from the 3.0-liter V6 is more than adequate, although at times could result in mild FWD-induced torque steer. The CVT transmission seems perfectly mated with this engine and gives the driver a positive sense of power on demand at basically all speeds. Our test route in Orange County took us through a variety of driving conditions, including some relatively large elevation changes. The gearing (if you can call it that with the multitronic) was well suited to climbing hills and didn't search unnecessarily.

At higher speeds the cabin is quieter than one would expect from a convertible, both with the top up and with the top down. While driving down the highway at 85mph with the roof in place I would again make a favorable comparison to the A4 sedan - the cabin is relatively quiet and there is little or no engine noise. Even with the top down at the same speed (or faster) it is comfortable to carry on a normal conversation. This is a real plus because it means that the passengers can enjoy blue skies and each other's company at the same time.

The best way I can conclude my thoughts regarding the A4 Cabriolet is to honestly say that I'm not a huge fan of non-sports car convertibles. Give me a TT Roadster (or a 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet, 360 Spider or even a Corvette convertible) and I've got a car that I can back out of the garage with a purpose on a sunny day. The idea of taking an everyday vehicle, albeit an extremely solid one, and opting for a convertible version seems counterintuitive to me. The A4 Cabriolet forced me to reevaluate my perspective because it appears by all rights to be a car that looks as good as and drives as well as a sedan, but has the added bonus of a retracting roof.

The vehicle that could truly force me to come to grips with my preconceived notions would be the S4 Cabriolet. The A4 Cabriolet certainly paves a positive way if that vehicle is on Audi's drawing board.

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