Thursday, January 15, 2009

Audi A3 Cabriolet

What is it?

Car manufacturers might have been falling over themselves in recent years to produce ever more elegant and complex folding hard-tops for their convertibles, but Audi isn't following the crowd.

Like BMW's forthcoming 1-Series drop-top, the new Cabriolet version of the A3 is sticking to the tried-and-tested traditional fabric roof. Why? Partly it's for better packaging, partly due to pricing, but it's mainly to do with the fact that Audi doesn't think it's necessary. Modern cloth roofs are better insulated and soundproofed than before and Audi reckons that the days of slashed roofs patched together with duck tape are long gone.

Certainly it doesn't harm the A3's chances in the showroom that its BMW arch rival has exactly the same format, but whether it's enough to tempt buyers away from the comfort and security of a slightly cheaper and hard-topped Volkswagen Eos is another matter. Even so, with a roof that can be raised or lowered in just 9 seconds as you drive up to 19mph, the A3 is an impressive, if pricey, package.

Prices start from £20,740 for the 1.9TDI and your pockets will need to be around £4000 deeper than for an equivalent three-door A3 hatchback. If you want a fully automatic roof though, you'll have to shell out another £1850 for the Sport trim. Even so, Audi expects the Cabriolet to account for about a sixth of the 30,000-odd A3 sales in the UK each year. Not bad for a country where it typically rains one day in every three.

Does it do the job?

Although the A3 Cabriolet is available with a choice of four engines - two petrol, two turbo-diesel - unsurprisingly it's the latter pair that will account for around two-thirds of sales and the 138bhp 2.0-litre TDI taking a staggering 47 per cent of the overall.

With a 0 to 60mph time of 9.7 seconds and a 127mph top speed, the 2.0TDI is swift enough but, opt for Audi's semi-automatic S tronic system and, like the other models in the range, it's actually marginally faster. In fact, this engine and gearbox combination is very well-matched, as you use the steering wheel paddles to flick up and down the gears and it's surprisingly chuckable. Ok, so there's some body flex on more uneven roads, but it's not as bad as some more mainstream rivals and the A3 still handles well enough to put a smile on your face even if it's not as sharp as its hatchback brother. All that while still returning an average 53.3mpg.

By comparison, the two petrol units can obviously offer a sharper response to the throttle pedal and more performance (the 197bhp 2.0-litre gets from 0 to 60mph in 8 seconds with the S tronic gearbox), but neither seem as well matched to the car's personality as the diesels. Although we've yet to drive it, one thing's for sure, that the 1.9TDI with just 103bhp and a leisurely 12.3 second 0 to 60mph time is going to be strictly for those on a tight budget or without any pressing appointments.

It's not just the A3 Cabriolet's on-road performance that raises eyebrows though, the packaging does too. Ok, so anyone beyond their teenage years won't want to be accommodated in the back seats for long (and the hard front seat back mouldings don't help), but there's a reasonably-sized 260-litre boot. The opening may be narrow, but it's deep and can be expanded to 674 litres of luggage space with the rear seats folded down. Practicality might not be high up the list of Cabriolet buyer's priorities, but it's a god-send compared to those rivals with folding hard-tops.

Should I give it garage space?

There's no doubt that with the virtually simultaneous arrival of the A3 and 1-Series drop-tops that the market segment will expand to accommodate both of their respective likely successes.

Sitting between the more refined and pricier A4 Cabriolet and the sportier and more purposeful TT Roadster however, the A3 can either be seen as the perfect halfway house between the two or an awkward in-between model that's neither overly sporty or elegant. Certainly the A3 can't match the more complete styling of the other Audi soft-tops in the showroom and from some angles, particularly with the roof up, can be downright ugly.


4 stars

Strictly speaking, there's nothing really wrong with the A3 Cabriolet. It drives well, handles well and is surprisingly practical, but it won't stir your emotions in the same way that a TT Roadster will. We doubt any owners will be twitching their curtains to get a last look at it before they go to bed each night. There's also the matter of that price tag too, which could see you parting with the best part of 25 grand before you've even looked at the options list. Then again, nobody said that getting a sun tan this summer was going to be cheap...


Model: Audi A3 Cabriolet 2.0TDI
Price: £22,750 (A3 Cabriolet range - £20,740-£25,500)
Engine: 1968cc, 4cyl, turbo-diesel
Power:138p @ 4200rpm (140PS)
Torque: 236lb ft @ 1750rpm (320Nm)
Performance: 0-62mph in 9.7 seconds, 127mph top speed
Fuel economy: 53.3mpg (combined)
Co2 emissions: 139g/km
On sale: May

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