The soft-top convertible may not be as nimble as a BMW 3 Series, but it comes close—and for less money
Back in the late 1990s, when I was a foreign correspondent based in Germany, a lot of the demanding driving enthusiasts I met were switching from BMWs to Audis, which had fresher designs and comparable performance and handling. My guess is that these days those same people are having a tough time deciding which to buy.
Some think an Audi is just a glorified Volkswagen, but they've probably never been behind the wheel of the new A4 Cabriolet. It's a quick, beautifully designed coupe with a convertible soft top so artfully constructed you'll hardly know it's there (until, of course, you push the button that causes it to fold down into the car's trunk).
The big question: Should you wait until next March, when you'll be able to test-drive the A4 Cabriolet against the convertible versions of BMW's hot new 328i's and 335i's? The new Bimmers will feature the company's first electronically controlled retractable hard top, as well as the beefed-up engines that make them the speediest 3-Series models ever.
Tough choice. It's like having to decide whether to spend your holiday on the Riviera or in the Caribbean. Either way, you're going to have a lot of fun in the sun.
Already a hot machine, the A4 Cabriolet has been refreshed for the 2007 model year. The exterior design is improved, with a reshaped hood and a new grille. The suspension and steering have been upgraded, too, by adding gear adapted from the bigger, more expensive A6 and the sporty, high-end Audi S4. Plus, the power of the A4's two available engines has been raised: You now have the choice of either a turbocharged, 2.0 liter, 200 horsepower inline four-cylinder, or a 3.1 liter, 255-horsepower V6.
The price of the new BMW 3-Series convertibles won't be announced until next year, so there's no way to do a head-to-head comparison. But, in general, the A4 is several thousand dollars cheaper than a comparable Bimmer. The Power Information Network calculates that A4's of all types sell for an average of $35,546 right now, vs. $39,668 for the BMW 328i, and $45,903 for the BMW 335i. (Like Business Week and BusinessWeek.com, the Power Information Network is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
As usual, you pay a premium for a convertible. The 2007 A4 Cabriolet with the smaller engine and front-wheel drive starts at $39,820. With all-wheel drive and the smaller engine, the base price rises to $41,920, and with the bigger engine, to $47,670. (If you really want you can move up to the far more powerful S4 Cabriolet, which starts at $56,420 with a stick shift and $57,620 with an automatic transmission. The 2007 S4 is almost unchanged from the 2006 model.)
Sales of the A4 Cabriolet aren't exactly burning up the track. In the first 10 months of this year, the model's U.S. sales have fallen 11.9%, to 6,193. That's a much bigger drop than for A4 sales generally, which are only down 1.6%, to 30,823, during the same period. Audi's overall U.S. sales are actually up 4.1%, to 69,010, largely because the new Q7 SUV is selling well.
Those who do buy the A4 tend to be youthful: Power figures that 41.5% of buyers are under 35, slightly more than for the BMW 3 Series and way more than for the Saab 9-3. Nearly two-thirds of buyers lease the A4, Power figures, a much higher percentage than for the 3-Series.
Behind the Wheel
The A4 is by no means a wimp, but it's further over on the soft ride/comfort side of the equation than the BMW 3-Series. To me, it falls somewhere between a BMW and a Mercedes.
The upgraded steering and suspension make the '07 A4 Cabriolet plenty responsive for most Americans, and the engine has a distinctive angry growl that sounds like a dog wrestling for a bone. Yet the comfortable ride makes it practical for daily shopping and commuting.
Hardcore driving enthusiasts will be disappointed that you can't get the A4 Cabriolet with a stick shift. But with the big engine and the six-speed automatic transmission that comes with it, the A4 is a lot of fun to drive.
In automatic mode, the transmission constantly varies the sportiness of the shifting pattern: When you drive at higher speeds, or punch the gas at any speed, it goes into sport mode, shifting down to a lower gear for quicker acceleration. As usual with a German car, there's also a manual mode and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. To me, the paddle shifters didn't seem quite as responsive as the ones in the new 3-Series, but they're pretty quick.
If raw speed is a priority, even with the bigger engine the A4 isn't as quick as the new BMW 3-Series. The fastest time I got accelerating from zero to sixty was 6.8 seconds, but most of my times were between 7.2 and 7.9.
My test car was markedly slower when I let the transmission do the shifting on its own, rather than using the paddle shifters in manual mode. The times I got were around the same as the rated speed of the 328i, which BMW says will do zero to sixty in 6.8 seconds with a stick shift and 7.2 seconds with an automatic.
But the A4 Cabriolet is considerably slower than the BMW 335i convertible's rating of 5.5 seconds with a stick shift and 5.7 seconds with an automatic. Also, I found that 3-Series Coupes were actually faster than the company's rated times (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06, "BMW's Super Coupe").
The A4 Cabriolet's interior is classy. The standard brushed-aluminum highlights along with the tan leather upholstery in my test car went well together, and I really like the airplane-style polished aluminum highlights around the gear shifter. The convertible roof is also well disguised by a fabric roof liner, with none of the unsightly bumps and bulges you sometimes get with soft tops.
With the top down and the side windows up, the cabin is surprisingly still. I took my test car out with the top down near dusk on a cool, late-autumn day and was quite comfortable with only a sweater to keep me warm. There's a wind deflector that stows in a pouch in the trunk to cover the rear seats when you have the top down and no one in the rear seats.
Maximum seating is only four, and the rear passengers will be cramped. Rear leg-room is listed at a mere 32.4 inches. Trunk space is limited with the top down, but there's room for limited luggage for weekend overnighters. The rear seats don't fold down, but there's a pass-through from the trunk with a ski bag.
Buy It or Bag it?
First question: Do you want a soft top like the one on the A4 or a retractable hard top like the new BMWs will have? Retractable hard tops are more and more common. You'll find them on everything from the Pontiac G-6 (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/15/06, "Pontiac Coverts") and Mazda MX-5 Miata to the Mercedes SL 550(see BusinessWeek.com, 10/3/06, "Fast, Fun, Flashy SL 550").
The soft top on my test A4 Cabriolet seemed tight and well-made, but a retractable hard top is probably more durable in cold, snowy climes. Also, BMW says the new 328i convertible will be available with all-wheel drive, matching the Audi in that respect.
If your budget is tight, there are cheaper alternatives to the A4 Cabriolet. A Volvo C70 with a retractable hard top starts at about $40,000, and the Saab 9-3 soft top convertible starts at about $37,500 (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/06, "Sexy Swede") You can probably negotiate a deal on either one, given the troubles parent companies Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) are experiencing.
Keep in mind that, as with many German cars, adding features to the A4 can be expensive. Some of the major options include two different "S line" packages for $3,000 that give you either performance or all-season tires, plus sports-tuned suspension, brushed-aluminum trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and some fancier badges and trim. For $1,400, you can also add a convenience package that includes auto-dimming inside, exterior mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and dusk-sensing Xenon headlights.
A $2,100 navigation system includes a glove box six-CD player (one of the oddities of this car is that the nav system DVD player can't play music CDs when the navigation system is in use). Adding a Sirius satellite radio (SIRI) and an upgraded Bose sound system costs $1,000, heated front seats are $450, and light or dark wood trim is $400.
If fuel economy is a priority, the A4 Cabriolet with the smaller engine gets decent mileage. It's rated at 24 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway with front-wheel drive and 22/30 with all-wheel drive. The Cabriolet with the bigger engine only comes with all-wheel drive and is rated to get 19 in the city and 27 on the highway.
In 350 miles of mixed driving, I only got 18.3, but as usual I ran the car pretty hard. Still, that's well below the 25.6 mpg I got in the BMW 328i Coupe, and the 20.8 mpg I got in the 335i Coupe.
The bottom line is that the A4 Cabriolet is a great choice if you want a classy, German-made rag top. But it has competition, so shop around if you're buying now. And wait and test-drive it against the new BMWs if you want to be sure of getting the best German-made convertible in its class.