Allow an alliterative assertion: Audis are about art.

That's not to say they are not about performance. Consider the S8 super sedan, S6 Avant (my favorite car last year) or the V-8 version of the A4 that looms.

But as I sit in the driver's seat of the 2003 A4 Cabriolet, I am surrounded by artistic design and subtle luxury that is as palpable as the power of a hissing S6 or the thunder of the S8 Autobahn buster.

Yes, Audi of late has touted itself as a performance car company, but in the meantime, they continue to produce some of the finest exterior lines and most exquisite interiors on the market. I view the Cabriolet, sit in the Cabriolet, and I am reminded of fine Italian leather furniture, exquisite Swiss metalwork, simple yet elegant Scandinavian woodcraft.

The tight leather seats are finely stitched, comfortable and edgy at the same time. The dash and side door panels are textured. Glistening wood bisects the dash. Billet aluminum ovals define the air vents.

Outside, a subtle wedge rises from the pinched chrome twin grille along a nose that is longer than that of the A4 sedan. The wedge rises uninterrupted front-to-rear where it ends in a contoured tail poised above twin chrome exhaust tips. There are no ridges, clefts, or muscular humps. The lines are not even broken for antennae for navigation, radio, or telephone systems (all that has been integrated into the flat rear composite trunk lid).

Separating the seamless, absolutely smooth convertible top and glass from the body is a brushed aluminum strip that flows down the A-pillars beside the windshield and back along the car's waist. One more touch of elegance.

When last we saw an Audi convertible, it seemed more a sedan with its top chopped off. It drove that way, too, with cowl shake and body tremors that reflected its flexible construction. That may be why, between 1994 and 1998, Audi sold only around 7,000 of that model.

Yet Audi is so confident in its new Cabriolet that it is hoping to match that number annually in the United States.

No, Audi has not simply lopped the top off the A4 sedan. Yes, it does share the same engine and other treatments, but it is set apart (to the tune of about 350 extra pounds) by structural bracing up the A-pillars, beneath the engine, around the windshield, and beneath the rear seat. It proves to be enough bracing -- no cowl shake, no body tremor even on pocked country roads -- to deliver a sedan-smooth ride in a ragtop.

Three padded, insulated layers comprise the "rag" in this top. A glass window, with electric defrost, sits at the rear. Aluminum ribs, undetectable from inside or out, hold the roof up in a smooth, curved line. It takes 24 seconds to put the roof up or down using either a single center console button or by inserting a key in the door and turning and holding while the roof does its thing. When stored, it sits tightly beneath a hard lid that forms a flat, undetectab le deck that melds perfectly with the car's body lines.

Perfect from the outside, it is elegant and roomy inside. This is a solid four-seater with excellent legroom front and rear.

It is powered by a 3.0-liter, V-6, DOHC engine with five valves per cylinder. That delivers 220 horsepower and 221 lb.-ft. of torque. It's not a racing machine, but that is plenty of power for most folks who would buy this car -- mainly, those for whom travel need be comfortable, effortless, enjoyable, and quiet. The racer-boy/girl set can opt for peppier Audis, and I'm sure tuners will lay hands on the 1.8 turbo version of this car when it comes out in February.

The Cabriolet moved surely and steadily in highway commuter traffic, with a broad torque band from the low 2,000s to just over 5,000 rpms.

Matching its quiet, subtle style was a quiet, subtle transmission, Audi's Continuously Variable Transmission. This is a shifter that employs two pairs of acing, convex pulleys wit a chain running between them. As power demands change, the pulleys open and close, changing the shape of the chain. Thus, a virtually infinite number of gears are delivered instantaneously with the driver unaware (other than slight changes in rev sounds from the motor) that constant shifting is going on.

For those who prefer a manual feel, six shift "points," reached by manual option, can be used. I preferred the CVT's subtle qualities in a car aimed for the buyer at which this car is pointed. If you want a six-speed manual, buy one in another car. The CVT is the only transmission (as is front-wheel-drive) that comes in the Cabriolet.

Steering was tight in carved, long lane changes or hard corners on back roads. Slight under steer, common to front-wheel-drive, was evident in hard runs into corners. There was no torque steer.

Four-link front suspension and a trapezoidal rear setup are standard on the A4, while a sport package with stiffer shocks, heftier front and rear stabilizer bars, and high-performance tires is available.

ABS, electronic brake distribution, antislip control, and electronic stabilization are standard features.

Luxury standards include dual zone climate control, 12-way height adjustable front seats, four-way electric lumbar adjustments, power windows, electrically adjusted, heated outside mirrors, and a large ski sack that protrudes into the rear from the trunk. Options include a wind deflector for top down riding, Xenon headlamps, a Homelink remote transmitter, dimming exterior mirrors, a Bose 225-watt premium sound system, driver's side memory for seat and mirrors, and a navigation system.

The 2003 Cabriolet puts Audi squarely in competition with the BMW 330ci, Volvo C70, Saab 9.3, and Mercedes-Benz CLK 320.

All of these are fine cars. None of the others has the sense of elegant art and refined interior that the Audi offers.

Base price: $41,500
Price as tested: $42,150 (est.)
Horsepower: 220
Torque: 221 lb.-ft.
Wheelbase: 104.5 inches
Overall length: 180.0 inches
Width: 70.0 inches
Height: 54.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,814 lbs.
Seating: 4 passengers
Fuel economy: 23.4 miles per gallon
Source: Audi of America, Inc.; fuel economy from Globe testing.
Nice touch
The shelf-defined space in the trunk that lets you load while the top is up but prevents you from loading in space that will be needed when you lower the roof, thus either crushing your cargo or jamming the roof partway down.
The seat-forward, seat-down two-step process needed to open a gap to climb into the rear seat. Even then, it's a very tight squeeze to get back to what proves to be ample space.