- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

The apple-red Audi S4 Cabriolet arrived the day before Thanksgiving — not normally an optimum moment for a New Jersey driver to enjoy top-down driving in one of the more exciting ragtops available to the well-heeled enthusiast.

But thanks to the gods of global warming — or whatever — the day was sunny and breezy, with Spring-like temperatures.

After a quick 25-second push on the power-top button and installation of the handy rear-seat wind blocker, the Audi and I were off for an afternoon get-acquainted tour.

Well, not the whole afternoon. Sixty-five degrees in November isn’t exactly the same as 65 degrees in June. It became apparent that there was more than a hint of late Fall in that breeze as a chill quickly crept into the cabin.

The Audi and I soldiered on for about a half hour before common sense took over. and the top went back up. Too bad, I was thinking, because the open-air experience added an extra dimension to the driving experience and it also gave me the opportunity to enjoy the muscular music played by the Audi’s powerful V-8 engine.

However, I quickly learned that, top up or top down, the S4 rewards its driver in many ways. It has the excitement of a sports car, the practicality of a (small) family car and the amenities of a luxury car.

While the excitement is at its peak with the top down, the S4 convertible loses little when the lid is closed. A well-insulated top that was new for 2007 gives the S4 convertible the quiet, solid feeling of a top-flight sports coupe.

Even at speeds which shall remain my secret, there was not a hint of outside air leaking into the cabin.

The new top, along with the popup rollover protection system, is enough to make one wonder if the complication and expense of the increasingly popular retractable hardtop are with the effort.

The S4 Cabriolet also was given a fresh face for the 2007 model year to bring it in line with the rest of Audi’s family of compact vehicles, but it is not exactly a new car.

The simple but classy lines can be traced all the way back to the 2002 model year. The V-8-powered “S” model first appeared for 2004.

The power source for this road rocket is Audi’s 4.2-liter V-8 engine, which engineers had to redesign and shorten by a couple of inches just so it would fit under the hood of a car originally designed for four- and six-cylinder powerplants.

There was no shortening of power, however. The V-8 cranks out 340 horsepower and 302 pounds-feet of torque, enough to fling it from a stop to 60 mph in a little over five seconds.

A shiftable six-speed automatic transmission is available, but the car I drove had the sportier, short-throw six-speed manual perfectly matched to the engine’s power curve.

Because of the engine’s wonderful flexibility, frequent gear changes are more a matter of want-to than need-to. The S4 cabrio is perfectly happy cursing along at 25 mph in sixth gear and will respond smoothly to a tap on the accelerator at that speed.

Fuel mileage, however, is another story, The EPA estimates it at 14-mpg city/21 mpg highway on the recommended premium fuel — about what I got — and that’s bad enough to tag it with a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax.

All S4 convertibles have standard all-wheel drive, but the Quattro system has been specially modified to give the car a 40/60 torque split.

The increased bias toward rear-wheel drive in dry-road conditions elevates the handling capabilities, but the torque split will automatically change to the wheels with the most traction when the weather is bad.

The independent suspension combines a reasonably compliant ride with tenacious grip in the turns. Brakes are anti-lock discs all around with electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist and stability control. Steering is a communicative, electronically assisted rack-and-pinion unit.

Inside, the S4 is typical Audi, which is to say it is tastefully done with fine leather upholstery and top-quality trim materials.

The back seat is rather tight, as expected, but it will hold two average-size adults on short trips without inflicting pain.

Trunk space is a reasonable 10.2 cubic feet with the top up, about half that with it down.

If there is a reason to complain it is with the Multi Media Interface system. It’s certainly not the most frustrating one on the market, but there has to be a simpler way to coordinate the navigation, audio and climate-control functions.

Base price of the 2008 S4 Cabriolet is a not-for-everyone $56,775. A buyer adding a full complement of options will see a bottom line of $64,575.

There are not many cars that can combine the thrills of sports car motoring with a civility that makes them equally useful for the mundane chores of everyday life.

For those who can afford it, the Audi S4 Cabriolet is one.

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