Heading into the sunset down Interstate 70, the wind whistling quietly overhead, was the perfect way to experience the top-down performance of Audi's Cabriolet.Ragtops and road trips have an irresistible appeal, especially when the summer's heat is waning and cool nights foretell the coming autumn. When Audi's convertible arrived for a test drive, we headed for a spin across the high plains and a rendezvous with the mountains of Colorado. Motoring through the late-evening stillness with the top down was almost surreal, but as soon as we rolled past an 18-wheeler the howl from its tires shattered the evening like it was made of crystal. The lack of noise with the top down was uncanny, thanks to the optional ($400) two-piece windblocker screen that snapped across the back seat and snuggled up close to the headrests of the front seats. Windblockers are fairly common among imported convertibles these days, but this one seemed to do a better job than any I have experienced. At 70 mph with the side windows up we could have a normal conversation, although it was nearly impossible to hear the radio unless the volume was cranked up. Mostly we left the radio off and enjoyed watching the stars peek out as the sky turned from amber to cobalt. The Cabriolet's base price is $34,600, the same as 1997. Our test car was equipped with the Premium Package of leather seats, power top, wood trim and remote locking, at an additional cost of $3,700. I suspect that most folks who are looking for a convertible in this price range will choose this package because the power top makes the convertible experience so much easier to enjoy, Plus, leather and wood add warmth and luxury to the interior. Putting the power top up and down was simple: Twist the T-handle to unlatch the top from the windshield, hit the button on the console and wait for the top to hide itself electrically under a hard cover behind the rear seat. The whole operation takes about 30 seconds, which seems like an eternity when you're in a hurry. Even though the Cabriolet is a four-seater, the wheelbase is only 100.6 inches. Its limited luggage capacity and a small back seat pretty much relegate it to two people and their gear for a weekend trip. We ended up putting one suitcase in the trunk and one in the back seat. Upon arrival at our destination, we did, however, squeeze two children and one adult into the back seat for a short drive to dinner. Power comes from a 2.8-liter V6 that has 172 horsepower, and it drives through the front wheels. The Audi is one of the few front-wheel-drive convertibles, which should give it good winter traction. Acceleration with the automatic transmission, a no-charge option, is moderate, yet it whizzed along at highway speeds without apparent effort. On the long climbs up I-70 west of Denver, I shifted into third gear and it kept pace with the fastest traffic and never seemed to breathe hard. Highway mileage is rated at 24 mpg, and we seemed to average at least that while driving no slower than 70 mph. Various other observations: Spending all day on the highway makes one aware of the fact that at 70 mph, wind noise with the top up is almost as loud as it is with the top down. The contoured leather seats did a good job of providing support for long stints behind the wheel, but more support for the upper back and shoulder region would be welcome. I missed the lack of a tilt steering wheel. Handling was crisp, especially on mountain curves. Four-wheel disc brakes, with anti-lock standard, scrubbed off speed quickly. The lack of a top means that bumps send shudders through the dash and steering wheel, which is fairly common among convertibles today. The instruments were large and clearly marked. At night, they glow with soft red light so they are not distracting. Cupholders built into the center console are mall and will not hold large paper cups. Price The base price of our test car was $34,600. Options included Pelican Blue Metallic paint, Premium Package, 16-inch alloy wheels, windscreen, heated front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles and heated door locks. The sticker price was $40,530. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles. All maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles is done without charge. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Audi's Cabriolet is one of the few front-wheel-drive convertibles. Equipping it with the Premium Package raises the level of comfort significantly because it includes a power top and leather seats. Counterpoint: The trunk and back seat are both fairly small, which limits the amount of luggage you can take, and some cowl shake is noticeable over bumpy roads. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 2.8-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 100.6 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,364 lbs. BASE PRICE: $34,600 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $40,530 MPG RATING: 19 city, 24 hwy.
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