It's 80 degrees in Miami Beach's Art Deco district, and everyone looks like they live in a Calvin Klein underwear ad. South Beach is the hot spot for Cindy Crawford wanna-bes; the sidewalk is awash with physical beauty, and talent agents (real and otherwise) survey the scene like patient sharks. This sunbaked flesh parade seems the ideal backdrop for a very advance preview of Audi's stunning new convertible.
The 90-based Cabriolet has enjoyed some success in Europe since its introduction in the summer of 1991, but it was available only with Audi's 2.3-liter five-cylinder engine with 133 bhp. Several tuners were quick to recognize the car as a born classic that needed bigger lungs, and companies like Abt in Germany punched out the factory 2.3, added bigger tires and wheels, and cloaked the panels with more aggressive aerodynamics (see european car 9192).
In preparation for the Cabriolet's American debut, Audi has sweetened the deal with its terrific six-cylinder engine, which joins the five in Europe as an option. A11 American-spec Cabriolets will be powered by the VG, which boasts increases in horsepower of 32 percent and torque of 31 percent over the aging five. The silky 172 bhp six propels the car to 62 mph in 9.8 sec and continues on to an estimated 136 mph. In view of this more impressive performance, Audi has enhanced the Cabriolet with both comfort and safety touches that should help it gain a toe-hold in a demanding U.S. market.
Now that Audi's recovery seems to be well underway, projects like the Spyder and aluminum-bodied V8 luxury performance coupes are ever closer to production; and they're indications that Audi is counting on the enthusiast market for part of its growth. Audi hopes to fuel this recovery with a world-leading emphasis on safety and reliability, and the Cabriolet is an attractive example of Audi's rekindled market strength.
From its conception and eventual construction in Ingolstadt, the Cabrio was designed as a luxurious sport/touring vehicle. Its lines were carved by Audi's design group with little outside influence, and to our eyes the result is both pleasing and purposeful.
From the moment the door clicks shut there is an impression of solid engineering. This is due in part to major modification of the doorsills, door pillars, cross members, longitudinal chassis members and windshield frame. A special stiffener between the central tunnel and fascia eliminates virtually all the "scuttle shake" that can plague a convertible. Bracing was also added to the sills and center tunnel, with additional cross members and extra stiffening for the A-pillars. In the event of a side impact, thick extruded beams help protect the occupants.
This reinforcement does cost, however; the Cabrio will probably tip the scales at nearly 3500 lb (an exact weight will be known when the U.S. spec car goes into production in September).
That well-tailored bulk is moved by Audi's wonderful V6 engine, a logical choice for a car of the Cabrio's proportions. The torque-laden motor produces its greatest numbers right around the 3000-rpm mark, its 184 Ib-ft getting the car off the line with respectable brevity. The secret of its strong torque delivery at relatively low engine speed is, among other things, a variable-path intake manifold controlled according to engine rpm: Below 4000 rpm, it employs a long intake tract with a small diameter for high torque; and above 4000 rpm, the incoming air passes through a short manifold with a wide cross section for high rpm power. Engine power is transferred to the transmission through a dual-mass flywheel designed to help smooth out crankshaft oscillations.
Driven through the traction-controlled front wheels, the Cabrio is fitted with sporty 7xl5-in. five-spoke alloy wheels and 195/65-15 Goodyear Eagle all-season tires. The suspension has been stiffened with high-pressure gas shocks and lowered with firmer springs, but the ride remains smooth.
In keeping with its luxury lineage, the Cabrio is equipped with an impressive array of standard features: ABS; driver and passenger air bags; variable assist rack and pinion steering; headlamp washer system; metallic paint; four-speed automatic transmission; fog lamps; electronic/diagnostic instrumentation; theft deterrent system; A/C; cruise control; central locking; power windows; leather upholstery; walnut inlays for dash and doors; and, of course, beverage holders for the center console.
The convertible top itself is beautifully crafted from a heavy, marine-type exterior fabric and seems impervious to anything less than a meteorite. It's also double lined with a fabric headliner but, unfortunately, has a plastic rear window, which already appeared stressed when unfurled. The U.S. spec top will be electronically controlled and is functional only when the handbrake is fully applied and the vehicle is in park. The unit is released through a turn of an aircraft-type release mechanism, then the electro-hydraulics slip the top into its own tray complete with a solid lid. The European-spec cars we drove had manual tops but were very easy to operate, provided you follow exact procedure. The drive from Miami to Key West took us down Highway One, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that is the only overland artery between the Keys and the mainland. Too much driving time was spent overtaking lumbering recreational vehicles, sometimes three or four at a time, but it gave us a chance to exercise the V6. It excelled in this 50-75mph range and was willing to give much more. The windshield deflects a great deal of wind, and there was never an impression of interior buffeting. About the time my map flew out of the car we realized the sunscreen Audi provided in the center console was there for a purpose. It was hot. The top soon came up and the 50 mile duration was spent in relative silence. While not the quietest cabin, wind noise only became apparent at speeds well beyond reason; around 60 mph there is no problem.
Pulling back onto the highway, the transition from crushed coral to pavement can leave you sitting there waiting for the tires to bite. This makes things interesting when 7000 lb of Winnebago are bearing down on you. The Bosch traction control is a wonderful aid in situations like these, transferring drive to the most stable wheel. However, the weight of the Cabrio is imposing, and the V6 has to work hard to get the vehicle to speed.
We make it to Key West in time to see the sun set. It's a big deal here, and people stare at it until it's gone. (There are lots of bars in Key West, so perhaps this behavior is understandable.) I'm sitting about 90 miles north of Cuba, parked behind a cold one in a place Hemingway would have shunned: There's not a dead animal in sight. A couple of DC-3s fly overhead spraying for mosquitoes and I wonder if the top of the car is up. . .it is. Snug in the lot below, surrounded by Mercedes, Porsches and Chrysler LeBarons, the Audi looks quite at home and indeed will be after its formal introduction later this year.