Germans build handsome four-place convertibles with the same level of seriousness they apply to creating opera, dark beer, tennis players and hasenpfeffer. That makes ragtops by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi not only magnificently engineered cars, but also the prettiest statements in topless travel since Godiva streaked Coventry. Mercedes power and dignity, of course, have always been expensive acquisitions. It costs $80,000 to view receding traffic from the leather-covered seats and sofa of an E320 Cabriolet these days. Knowing the vehicle will likely outlive you, your finance company and Steffi Graf does not soften the pain. At $40,000, BMW's 325i Convertible costs half as much as the E320, which should make it twice as appealing. Bimmer's bias, however, has always been on performance before elegance and there is no better proof than in their somewhat stiff, spare interiors. But the new Audi Cabriolet--as brut and sec are interchangeable among Champagnes, so there is no meaningful difference between a cabriolet and a convertible--seems to have the best of both marques and the downsides of neither. It costs less than the BMW and the accommodations are much more inviting. It is neither as ponderous nor as haughty as the Mercedes-Benz. In fact, the Audi's distinct personality is that of a pleasant, smooth, uncomplaining daily companion; a car much more a leisure form than a mode of transportation. Above all, this is an effortless car executing the routine chores of steering, braking, shifting gears and soaking up lumps and ulcers of antique asphalt without bothering its driver with such labors. The car is nice, in the nicest sense. Polite, without being the least bit boring. Relaxing, as in being one of those rare convertibles capable of carrying occupants any distance, day in and month out, without leaving them limp, element-blasted and travel bitchy. But enough flattery. Although the purpose and means of Audi's Cabriolet compares most favorably with the other topless Teutons, its 172-horsepower V-6 does not. The 189-horsepower BMW 325i Convertible and the 217-horsepower Mercedes-Benz E320 Cabriolet are much better endowed. It follows they accelerate quicker and run out faster. Not that the Audi is a slug. But its pace falls just a little short of looks that ooze zip and mischief. Audi's styling is also a little closer to Pasadena than Rodeo Drive. In fairness, what is safe and conservative to one set of eyes is discreet and reassuring to another. To these eyes, the Cabriolet appears a little blocky, its sharp edges rounded to suggest modern styling without actually going to a fresh design and noticeable aerodynamics. And every time we stepped to the blunt rear, a nasty little voice kept squawking: Mercury Tracer, Mercury Tracer. Although this is Audi's maiden effort at building a car for those who enjoy smoggy breezes through their forelocks, the Cabriolet goes way beyond being an entry-level Audi 90 with its lid removed and rolled back. Granted, this was a sensible and marketable place to start. For the Audi 90 is already a sound mid-size luxury car, accepted and proven. It wears enough burled walnut to make wood in other cars look like token trim. Standard equipment includes all conceivable conveniences short of the quite unnecessary or overindulgent. And the interior is warm, comfortable and absolutely splendid. Especially door panels, carpeting and upholstery, which come in black with blue inserts--a color scheme the world hasn't enjoyed since we gave up fountain pens and blue-black ink. Although sized cozier than the E320 and the BMW, the Audi is far from a shrink fit. Front seating is enormously comfortable and even bad postures will go unnoticed. There is no rubbing of shoulders or knees, and plenty of leg room for drivers and passengers long of s anks. Although not in the back seat where only little guys will be able to sit square. There are many questions attached to the purchase of any convertible. With top up, does it become just another fair-weather friend allowing the entrance of drafts, droplets and leaf-blower noise? With top down, will you need a comb-through by Jose Eber or a one-hour consult with Heddy's House of Wigs? How much chassis strengthening was done to prevent the car from trying to turnaround its longitudinal axis? Is raising and lowering the top a one-hand or six-man operation? The bad news first. On cobbles and cracked surfaces, the Audi does indeed develop cowl and windshield shake with a noticeable amount of steering column movement. The good news is that it isn't enough to throw you through the nearest storefront. But it is there. With the top up, sound and weather conditions inside the car are almost those of a sedan. With the top down, there is a surprising lack of cockpit noise and wind bluster. Conversations and Charles Osgood at normal volumes are possible even at freeway speeds. For those who prefer not to share their secrets with the family in the next lane, whispering is possible with an optional mesh wind screen raised behind the front seat backs. Operating the top is a breeze, pun intended. Twist a T-handle where the header meets the top of the windshield frame. Push up and touch a button on the center console. Look smug as the canvas top plus header, brackets and soft rear window disappear under a hard boot in 20 seconds. But the lasting memory will be of the Audi's relaxed ride, the precise fit of its parts, their quality finish and ability to work together in absolute harmony. Steering is responsive and devoid of twitches and guesswork. Brakes are powerful without being brutish. This is a convertible with a little to learn, but so many easy pleasures to offer. As Gertrude Stein might have said: Whatever is there is certainly there without seeming to be there. 1995 Audi Cabriolet The Good: Most pleasant, most affordable German convertible. Warm and tasteful interior. With top up, car stays noise- and weather-tight; with top down, breezes are minimal. The Bad: Short on power. Styling more conservative than Newt. The Ugly: Rear end of Mercury Cost Base, $35,900. As tested, $37,695. (Includes two air bags, leather upholstery, alarm system, power top, anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic, sound system, air conditioning, wood trim, power steering as standard equipment. Also optional pearlescent metallic paint, cold weather package, breeze screen for top-down motoring.) Engine 2.8-liter V6 developing 172 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger convertible. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 9.9 seconds. Top s peed, manufacturer's estimate, 126 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 18 and 26 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,340 pounds.
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