- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

It’s been a decade since Mercedes-Benz introduced the first successful retractable hardtop on its two-seat SLK roadster.

Since then, similar versions of this engineering wizardry have been developed by a variety of other manufactures.

The appeal is undeniable. Who wouldn’t want an automobile for all seasons, a car that can button itself up for the winter and then let the air flow through the cabin when the warm weather returns. Here’s your cake and, yes, you can take a bite out of it anytime you want without penalty!

Still, to me something has always seemed not quite right with these modern marvels, something that seems to approach overkill. That something crept back into my head again as I spent a sun-splashed late summer week tooling around in Audi’s recently refreshed A4 Cabriolet.

Only this time there was a difference. This time I was driving a convertible that still gets by with the traditional soft top. When bad weather forced me to keep the roof closed for a full day, the big question surfaced.

Does anybody really need a retractable hardtop? It’s easy to admire all of the technological wizardry, but a lot tougher to explain why it’s worth the effort.

The Audi is essentially as silent as a metal-roof convertible. No air leaks, no canvas flapping in the wind at highway speeds, no squeaks, no groans, no need to turn up the radio.

And, thanks to another bit of modern technology, it is essentially as safe.

Chalk the quietude up to Audi’s snug-fitting fabric tops. The standard roof is four seasons rugged and comes with thermal insulation and a heatable glass rear window. Most outside noises stay outside the car but customers can choose an even more densely woven acoustic roof, which is part of an options package.

To make the Cabriolet as safe and rigid as its A4 sedans, Audi reinforced the body, strengthened the windshield pillars and installed two protective bars that pop up behind rear-seat passengers in milliseconds to keep the roof from flattening when sensors determine the car is going to roll over.

Yes, there are a couple of disadvantages to the traditional convertible top. One is reduced rear vision, caused by side windows that are necessarily small to allow the top to fit properly. Time will no doubt take its toll on the fabric too, causing it to fade and maybe even stretch a bit. But, these inconveniences seem to be far outweighed by the advantages of the cloth top.

First of all, there simply is no hardtop convertible quite as good looking as its coupe counterpart. The compromises required to install a collapsible metal roof result in a slightly distorted roofline. In addition, wide gaps between the metal roof’s components disrupt the graceful flow of the car’s silhouette.

There are a few more obvious and perhaps more important advantages to the traditional convertible configuration, too. It weighs less, costs less and is less complicated.

So, even if it’s necessary to replace the top during the car’s lifetime, tradition wins out over technology — at least for me.

Visually, the updated A4 convertible (upgraded in 2007 and basically unchanged for 2008) differs from the car introduced in 2003 in one big way. It now has the large-mouth grille that has been standardized throughout the Audi line. Less obvious are the clear-glass headlights and revised tail lamps.

Mechanically, the changes are more significant but they, too, are catch-up additions.

The A4 cabriolet is now powered by direct-injection gasoline engines previously introduced on the A4 sedans and wagons. The two-liter, four-cylinder powerplant produces 200 horsepower and pounds-feet of torque. The 3.2-liter V-6 engine generates 255 horsepower and 243 pounds-feet of torque.

Customers choosing the four-cylinder engine have two choices. They can order a front-wheel-drive model that is paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission or an all-wheel-drive convertible that comes with a six-speed automatic shifter. Those who want the six-cylinder power plant will get standard all-wheel drive and the six-speed transmission.

The suspension has been revised for greater control, steering has been upgraded to offer more precision and feedback, and the anti-lock disc brakes are stronger.

The car provided for my test was a fully optioned V-6 model. Blessed with good weather I enjoyed top-down motoring most of the week. Extra power and sharper handling give the convertible a sports-car-like demeanor, yet the highway ride comfort is essentially unchanged.

Unfortunately for the enthusiast, one feature is missing — a standard transmission. A six-speed manual shifter is offered to U.S. customers only on the much-more expensive, V-8 powered S4 convertible. Installing one on the A4, particularly the four-cylinder model, would really enhance the A4’s upgraded drivability.

One note of caution to the prospective buyer: Audi bills the A4 as a four-seater, but realistically it is only a two-plus-two, as in two adults and two children. As one would expect from a manufacturer of premium German cars, these Audis are not cheap.

The least expensive front-wheel-drive Audi Cabriolet starts at about $40,000. Base price of a 2008 version of the car I drove is $47,900, and it includes one standard item that was optional in 2007: heated front seats. Also included in the base price are dual-zone climate control, leather seats, cruise control, trip computer and 10-speaker sound system with an in-dash 6-cd player and MP3 capability.

Add all of the options, which include an even-more premium sound system, optional Perlnappa leather, special paint, navigation system, Bluetooth phone preparation, rear-parking assist, acoustic roof and delivery charges, and the bottom line jumps all the way up to $55,400.

Yes, the Audi costs a lot but for the well-heeled its limited production numbers give it exclusivity to go along with its cachet and competence.

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