When it came to selling lots of cars in the United States, Volkswagen of America's Audi division didn't. Instead, it saw its sales screech to a halt faster than you can say "sudden acceleration." Although the charges really never were proven, Audi has gone through years of depressed sales and depressed salespeople. But the automaker has turned the corner, and their cars are better than ever. A good way to prove it is to take a spin in the new Audi Cabriolet. The test vehicle was bathed in a beautiful pearl white paint, the color of which was deeper than Bill Gates' pockets. Matched to a burgundy top and matching interior, the car screamed, "Palm Beach!" Mechanically, this car is the A4 2.8. That's Audi-speak for their smallest platform with the 2.8-liter, 172-horsepower V6 engine. This marvelous mill is thoroughly modern with double overhead cams and five valves per cylinder. It's available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Despite a somewhat sluggish feel off the line, power comes on swiftly, with amazing amounts available at highway speed. The variable assist power steering returns good road feel, and the ride is the typical Teutonic tight one that fans of the marque have come to expect. Handling was firm and very neutral for a front-driver, although the car can lean more than you might expect. The tires, Goodyear all-seasons, squealed a bit prematurely as well. But overall, these are minor nits in a car that handles conditions with an ease of the finest road cars. In other words, it was a blast. Road, wind and tire noise were well-suppressed for a convertible. There was little wind rustle with the top down. The top itself was easy to use, as long you remember to have the parking brake on (that sudden acceleration left a bitter taste in someone's mouth). Just twist the lever atop the windshield, lift up and hold the button. The top stows neatly beneath a tonneau cover, finishing off the appearance. The whole operation takes less than a minute. It's all very convenient. But back-seat occupants should keep aware -- the top infringes on their space, meaning they have to duck so as not to get clobbered by it and its plastic rear window. Did I mention the lavish interior? There were acres of beautiful walnut spread out inside the test car. It's part of the $3,700 Premium Equipment Package along with a power roof (a manual roof is standard), keyless entry and leather seats. The leather was exquisite and rich, lending an opulent air to an otherwise stark cabin. But Audi has learned not to overindulge in flat, black plastic. The layout of the interior is easy to divine for the most part. The steering wheel doesn't tilt. In its place, you'll find a lever for the lights. The climate control is easy to figure out, but there's no dual setting and it's not automatic. But there are heated seats, a part of the optional All Weather Package (a $470 option that also gives you heated windshield washer nozzles and door locks). The worst part of the interior was the lack of a center console bin with lid. When the top is down and wind is whipping around the passenger compartment, there is no safe place to stash a turnpike ticket. In its place were two small cup holders. The front seats were comfortable and very firm, lending good support for long drives. The back seats were fine, even if rear legroom was sacrificed for the convertible top. The trunk was sacrificed too, but space is sufficient if you pack light. Safety is pretty good. The Audi rates their bumpers at 5 mph, and dual air bags are standard. There are no side air bags or rollover bar. Anti-lock brakes are standard. So this little German sweetheart is a fun, enjoyable roadster. And because so many have sworn off the Audi nameplate, you won't see yourself coming and going either. But others will see you -- the double-takes this car causes will make you smile, but not as much as the performance will. Welcome back, Audi.
1998 Audi Cabriolet Standard: 2.8-liter double overhead-cam V6, five-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock disc brakes, all-season radial tires with alloy wheels, variable assist rack-and-pinion power steering, dual air bags, alarm system, rear-window defogger, front and rear fog lamps, dual power mirrors with defogger, central power window switch, air-conditioning, power windows, cruise control, AM-FM stereo with cassette, power locks, headlamp washers, cup holders, floor mats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 120-watt sound system with sub-woofer, pre-wiring for CD player. Options: Pearlescent white paint with red roof, 16-inch wheels with 205-55 16-inch tires, Premium Equipment Package, All Weather Package, interior windscreen. Base price: $34,600 As tested: $40,640 EPA rating: 19 mpg city, 24 mpg highway Test mileage: 20 mpg, premium unleaded only.
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