Winter is not the best time to test-drive a cabriolet, but that hasn’t stopped Audi from launching the ragtop version of its latest-generation A3 in South Africa just as frost started biting Johannesburg’s lawns, and rain washed away half of Cape Town.
The A3 Cabriolet happens to be the first convertible based on the VW Group’s MQB platform, which underpins both the A3 and the Golf 7. Judging by the superior road manners of both those cars, this A3 Cabriolet should also be a top-class handler.
Considering we live in a sunshine-drenched country with a mild climate by European standards, you’d expect convertibles to be popular – and they are, although their appeal is perhaps more rooted in their exclusivity, and their reputation for glamour, than their ability to let the sunshine in at the push of a button.
And let’s face it, driving a cabriolet with the top down in summer can be a hot and sticky affair, with sunburn the painful penalty for those who dare brave the elements without hats or sunscreen.
Still, there’s no doubt that there’s a romantic allure to wind-in-the-hair motoring – and besides, Audi’s latest drop-top is a handsome machine.
While the previous A3 Cabriolet retained much of the tin-top’s hatchback profile, this latest version takes its styling cues from the A3 sedan. The result is a car that looks smarter and more grown up than its predecessor.
Topless driving has never been easier. The canvas hood can be electrically raised and lowered on the move at speeds of up to 50 km/h, and features acoustic insulation to keep noise levels down. So, if the rain starts spattering, all it takes is the push of a button and 17 seconds to keep you snug and dry.
The canvas hood is lighter than a metal folding roof, and because it’s less complex, it also takes up less space. The 320-litre boot is only 70 litres smaller than the regular sedan’s, although the loading aperture is rather narrow, especially if the roof is down.
With the roof neatly tucked away out of sight behind the rear seats, the A3 looks the stylish, elegant part. Chrome detailing around the cabin perimeter and a brushed metal windscreen frame add further visual interest.
The waistline is quite high, which assists in protecting the cabriolet’s occupants from the slipstream, although you can expect a fair amount of buffeting at anything above 100 km/h or so. If you’re travelling two up, you can install the supplied wind protector, which reduces turbulence, but isn’t exactly user-friendly.
I’m a big fan of the current A3’s classy cabin. It matches understated style to user-friendly ergonomics, and for all its pared-down elegance, it offers a decent level of standard kit. The Cabriolet is no different, but compared to the sedan, it has less room for rear passengers, while the canvas top’s broader C-pillar also limits visibility.
The interior layout is pure A3 – which means superior materials, close attention to meaningful detail, and an overriding sense of well-being and quality. The standard specification level is comprehensive, but ticking a few option boxes will see the Audi’s price skyrocket.
The MMI navigation system is a R22,200 option, while the Milano leather adds a further R18,770 to the bill. Even worse, cruise control is an added-cost extra, too – despite the car’s R400,000-plus price tag! Surely that should be standard fare?
Under the bonnet, the A3 Cabriolet is offered with a choice of 1.4-litre or 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engines. Under scrutiny here is the 1.4S, which means the four-cylinder engine delivers 92kW of maximum power, together with 200Nm of torque. The gearbox is Audi’s seven-speed S-tronic, but there is also a six-speed manual option.
For those with a hunger for real performance, an S3 Cabriolet will make its appearance here later this year. But frankly, cabriolets like this A3 don’t need a lot of power. They’re best savoured at slower speeds, before the slipstream becomes a hair-ripping tornado.
In fact, anyone in a hurry will soon realise that its best to do any low flying with the roof raised.
AT 1,365 kg, the A3 Cabriolet is no lightweight, but even so, the 1,400 turbo engine makes the most of its modest muscle, and always responds more willingly than expected.
The car feels quicker than the 10,2 second zero to 100 sprint time suggests, while the claimed top speed of 211 km/h feels very attainable. As for the increasingly important fuel consumption, the claimed combined cycle figure is 5,1 litres/100 km, but in real-world conditions, expect a figure of between 7 and 8 litres/100 km.
With the roof raised, refinement levels are good, but not quite as good as the normal sedan. Even with that insulated hood, wind noise is a factor, especially around the soft C-pillars, while overall interior noise levels are higher, too. But the Audi is a star in the handling department.
Almost all cabriolets I’ve driven struggle with so-called scuttle shake, caused by a relative lack of structural rigidity, compared to the tin-top version. But the A3 always feels cohesive and solid, even over bumpy surfaces. For once, the lack of a metal roof doesn’t seem to have compromised overall ride and handling, which remains top class.
The suspension finds a good compromise between taut response and efficient damping, while the steering feels reassuringly positive, allowing crisp turn-in. The optional 17-inch wheels are home to fat-footprint tyres which deliver decent grip, too.
Cabriolets tend to polarise opinion: you either love the notion of open-top driving, or you hate it. For some, wind-in-the-hair motoring is a glamorous pursuit, while others fret about sunstroke (or frostbite!) and security.
But if you’re a ragtop fan, the Audi A3 Cabriolet gets most things right: it’s dynamically competent, seats four in real comfort, and offers a decent boot. It also happens to be a handsome machine – and for many, that’ll be the deciding factor, despite the steep asking price. DM
Audi A3 Cabriolet 1.4S S-tronic
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