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Expert Reviews 2 of 2
By Warren Brown
April 11, 1997
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- I should've driven the car here. The 1997 Volkswagen Cabrio Highline. A tiny bubble-bodied convertible. Painted a light, metallic red, which I think has a more exotic name like "tornado red." Can't remember. I'm staring at the
Santa Rosa Mountains on a bright day filled with rich people out to play. Not that any of the wealthy would've noticed. Too many BMW, Mercedes-Benz, gold-trimmed Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles for folks 'round here to pay much attention to a little
ragtop VW. The local cocktail waitresses, many of them stars in pursuit of discovery, drive that kind of car. But, hey, there's no snow in this posh valley. It's warm and toasty, marvelously different from the sudden burst of latent winter that
turned my time in the Cabrio into life in a motorized cocoon back East. There was no joy in that, no real opportunity to lower the top and let the wind blow through my curly, salt-and-pepper hair. I could've been driving a dump truck. At least, I
would've gotten respect. No matter the weather, people acknowledge dump trucks. They stay out of the way. But in the cutesy Cabrio, all I got was gruff. People cut me off, sneered, tailgated. One of 'em even laughed: "Ha, ha. Guess you won't be lettin' no
top down in this weather. Ha, ha." Here, things would've been different. Those young waitresses would've smiled and admired my deep, natural tan. They would've celebrated my chutzpah -- a little round-bellied dude driving with top down and collar
open. They would've thought I was cool. That's what I'm thinkin', anyway. Background: The Volkswagen Cabrio is a woman's car. The Cabrio is a woman's car primarily designed for women and bought mostly by women -- over 60 percent of its purchasers. The
women who drive Cabrios here say so, and VW's publicists come pretty close to saying the same thing. So, VW only hints at the woman thing, calling the car "a combination of chic style and effervescent charm," and declaring that the Cabrio proves "that
a German-engineered convertible doesn't always mean serious money, or a serious attitude." Which is not to say that women don't drive serious cars. Oh, no. VW assures us that the Cabrio is a "driver's car," too. Which is true, though not seriously
so. You can take the front-wheel-drive Cabrio around some pretty tight curves without much upsetting its composure. You can zip along straightaways at competent speeds. But there is a discernible difference between this car and, say, its VW Golf
cousin -- the harder-charging, more tightly cornering GTI VR6 which, you guessed it, is bought by more men than women. There are two Cabrios, the base convertible and the tested Highline model. The difference is that the Highline adds more standard
stuff such as anti-lock brakes and cruise control. Both cars come with a 2-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine rated 115 horsepower at 5,400 rpm with torque rated 122 pound feet at 3,200 rpm. Some of my women
friends who race and test-drive cars call this a pretty tame setup. But they said it was just fine for doing what most men and women do -- commute. The Cabrio gets a genuine cloth top -- manual or automatic, your choice. It also gets a standard
five-speed manual transmission, with the electronically controlled four-speed automatic available as an option. The manual is a better match for the engine. Dual front air bags are standard. The car seats four, two of them -- the front passengers --
comfortably. 1997 Volkswagen Cabrio Highline Complaints: Truly compromised rear seating space. I hate the overhead roll bar. I know that it's there for safety purposes -- the Cabrio does feel top-heavy with the top up. But with the top down, that
center-fixed roll bar makes the car look like a basket. Praise: Cute. Fun. Friendly. Would be nice to drive in consistently nice spring weather. Head-turning quotient: Women owners here give their Cabrios raves. A few of
the women back East liked it, but thought it was an odd car to run in the snow. Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of decency. Not exciting. But not the least bit disappointing, either. Good braking -- power front disks/rear drums with
anti-locks. Mileage: About 25 miles per gallon (14.5-gallon tank, estimated 348-mile range on usable volume of recommended unleaded regular gasoline), combined city-highway, running with three occupants and light cargo (itty-bitty 7.8-cubic-foot
trunk). Sound system: Eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Volkswagen Premium II system. Quite nice. Price: Base price on the 1997 Cabrio Highline is $21,675. Dealer invoice on base model is $19,688. Price as tested is $22,600, including
$250 for the cold-weather package (heated front seats and windshield wiper nozzles), $175 extra for the special paint job, and a $500 destination charge ($545 in Hawaii). Purse-strings note: You can get the base Cabrio for about $18,000. Compare with
Honda Civic del Sol and Chrysler Sebring convertibles.