EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

When does a car cross the line from transportation to pure art?

Usually, when it goes topless. That’s certainly true with the Audi A4.

Redesigned for 2002, the Audi A4’s subtle lines spoke of change without shouting it.

But for 2003, the A4 comes as a Cabriolet and it is an absolutely stunning car. The A4 shares its platform with the larger Audi A6 and Volkswagen Passat. The A4 uses a familiar line-up of drivetrains, with a choice of either a 170-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder or a 220-horsepower 3-liter V-6. The four-cylinder is available in front or all-wheel-drive Quattro configuration. A five-speed manual is standard on the four-cylinder and a six-speed manual is standard on 3-liter Quattro models. A five-speed automatic is optional on all models except the front-wheel-drive V-6, which has a Multitronic automatic transmission.

For Cabriolet models, there’s only one driveline choice, the 3-liter front-wheel-drive model with the Multitronic transmission.

It’s Audi’s most interesting drivetrain, one that helps set the A4 Cabriolet apart from the competition. (That would include the BMW 330ci, Saab 9-3 and Mercedes-Benz CLK.)

At 220 horsepower, the 3-liter V-6 which feels merely adequate when used in the A4 Quattro, comes alive when used in the front-wheel-drive Cabriolet. The difference in 0-60 mph times is minimal (7.7 for the Quattro 5-speed automatic vs 7.5 for the Multitronic automatic.)

Fuel economy is superior as well, with the Quattro rated at 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway vs. the Cabriolet’s rating of 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. Most of the difference is the fuel-sucking all-wheel-drive system, which lowers mileage. Still, the Cabriolet is more than 300 pounds heavier and still returns better mileage and acceleration.

Part of the credit goes to the Multitronic transmission, Audi’s name for a Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT.

Rather than having five set gear ratios, as a traditional five-speed automatic would have, the CVT is designed to constantly vary the gear ratio. Therefore, there is no first, second, third or fourth gear. The engine never downshifts for more power or upshifts for better fuel economy. It’s seamlessly smooth. The CVT allows the engine to run at the correct speed. The CVT’s benefits are almost invisible – the driver will not see the tachometer rise when accelerating. It is an odd sensation.

Combined with Audi’s creamy-smooth V-6, the CVT results in a remarkably smooth driving experience. Power is very strong and instantaneous, yet there is no penalty in fuel economy. Despite hard use, the A4 Cabriolet returned 24 mpg in mixed use, beating the EPA’s combined estimate by 1 mpg. The A4 requires premium fuel.

The 17-inch Pirelli P6 tires had tremendous grip, whether cornering on twisting roads or traveling on wet interstates. There’s enough power to spin the front tires in abrupt take-offs, but an electronic stability program helps regain control.

Four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock and brake assist are standard to ensure short, straight, skid-free stops.

As one would expect in an Audi, the ride is European. It is firm, so bumps will be noticed. Body lean is well-controlled. Handling is good, although not as much fun as a BMW 330ci, nor as posh as a Mercedes-Benz CLK. That’s not to say it’s disappointing. Rather, the Audi has excellent balance and refinement.

Part of the refinement comes from the incredibly strong chassis. Part of this vehicle’s extra weight comes from the extra bracing installed to help prevent the car’s body from flexing. The A4’s total lack of flexing or cowl shake is quite remarkable, as is the interior, which is so quiet it could be a library.

The seats feel very firm initially, but prove to be supportive on long trips. It’s a pleasure to get out of the driver’s seat after four hours and not feel tired or achy. But the seats are just one part of a high-quality interior that sets the standard for design in the industry. Wood, leather, brushed metal trim and superior plastics are inviting, yet sleek and functional.

The A4 Cabriolet has a novel dual automatic climate-control system. Driver and passenger can set the temperature to their liking. But put the top down and the car resets the temperature in the cockpit based on the outside temperature. I tested this by lowering the top in 48 degree weather, and a warm blast of air greeted me as the climate control reset to high.

The convertible top is fully automatic – just press a button and wait. The triple-lined top disappears beneath a hard tonneau cover. The top features a glass rear window and rear defogger.

Other standard amenities include power windows, locks and mirrors, heated outside mirrors, 12-way adjustable front seats with adjustable lumbar, heat-insulated glass and driver information display. Options include heated front seats, leather, Xenon self-leveling headlamps and a premium Bose sound system.

The Audi’s Bose audio system features a cassette deck and 6-CD in-dash changer. Sound was superb.

As wonderful as all this is, the styling is as important as the refined driving experience. This car looked good with its top up or down. Its wedge-like lines, TT-inspired front end and chrome trimmed windshield gives it a luxurious air.

The only real nit to pick are the side rear-view mirrors, which are elegantly shaped but too small.

In all, the A4 Cabriolet is much more memorable than the A4 Quattro or previous A4. It strikes a good middle ground in a field where the competition is more extreme. It also features one of the smoothest drivelines you can buy at any price, yet it has enough performance to satisfy any enthusiast.

It’s more than a car. It’s art.

Latest news

cadillac-ct4-v-blackwing-2022-01-exterior-front-angle-overhead-angle-red-sedan
2022 Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing Quick Spin: Saving the Best for Last
honda-ridgeline-2019-12-angle--exterior--rear--silver.jpg
725,000 Honda Passports, Pilots, Ridgelines Recalled for Hoods
lexus-lx600-2022-02-exterior-front-angle-grey-suv
What's New With Lexus for 2022?