MOTORING / Audi takes the soft option: John Fordham test drives Audi's first convertible and compares it with the latest Saab 900 soft-top, best of the older generation

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The Independent Culture
HOWEVER close we get to the day when Britain is a seamless traffic jam, with people getting around by bouncing from roof to roof on a pogo stick, the romantic appeal of open-top motoring still grows. Sales of cabriolets doubled between 1986 and 1990, and only dropped the following year in line with the decline in new car sales.

Out this month at pounds 22,390 is Audi's first convertible - with its purposeful wedge shape, colour-matched bumpers, wrap-around rear lights, and subtle stylistic touches like a glittering chrome badge and aluminium screen surround. Audi has addressed the main snag of traditional convertible construction: that if the rigidbox body is sacrificed to drop the top, everything shakes like a spin-dryer.

The fine and keenly priced BMWs are the Audi's main rivals, but since Saab is promoting the latest edition of its 900-series cabriolet, we thought we'd compare the best of the new with the best of the old. The Audi sets out to be an open car with a closed-car feel; the Saab quivers perceptibly and is noisier - but more fun, more personable, a genuine four-seater and with a power hood, which makes it a strong contender.

The Audi Cabriolet is an adaptation of several bits of existing Audi technology, deftly spliced together to produce a machine with a distinctly integrated, purpose-built feel. In this car, heavier than the Audi coupe because of the extra stiffening, the five-cylinder 2.3-litre engine gives only average performance for something masquerading as sporty. It does 0-60mph in 11 seconds, with a top speed of 133mph.

This unit is hooked to a five-speed gearbox, marred by odd ratios and an odder gate. There is such a kink travelling from third to fourth that you pause perceptibly when guiding it in. The suspension is the lowered set-up also fitted to the Audi coupe - and a pretty secure arrangement it is, dulling the impact of potholes to an impressive degree. But as is commonly the case with Audis, the steering is too light.

The brakes are superb, though the pedal sensation is on the soft side. With the windows closed, the multilayer hood makes this cabriolet surprisingly quiet.

As a practical vehicle, there are drawbacks. Seating is tight at the rear if the front seats are adjusted for anyone of average height; and though the company has tried to compensate for the hood's invasion of the rear space by making the boot as vertically deep as possible, you have to be frugal with your luggage. Though the hood itself is manual, the procedure for lifting and stowage isn't complicated. Standard fittings include electric windows and mirrors; demisting fans for the rear window; heated mirrors, locks and washer jets; central locking; height-adjustable front seats; first-aid kit; an excellent Blaupunkt stereo with a key-card security system; and, of course, Audi's Procon-Ten safety mechanism (which quickens seatbelt tensioning and pulls the engine away from the cabin in a smash).

With a rare hiccup of taste, Audi tries to convince sporty drivers that they're getting a more unruly machine than they really are by including an array of rather redundant instruments monitoring the oil and electrics - discreetly placed, as if Audi weren't sure about it. With modern engines and management systems, you might as well install dummies.

Driving the Saab 900 convertible is a completely different experience. The Audi is a Nineties car through and through - unfussy, anonymously styled, quiet, subtly sprung. The Saab is more like a late- Seventies car, but as everyone knows that's part of its charm.

This summer's new version of the 900 convertible is fitted with the company's 'light-pressure' turbo engine. It provides a lower output than the full-blown turbo but also sharply reduces turbo-lag, as well as the torque the top-end engine applies to your wallet at the filling stations. It's a more traditionally exciting engine to listen to in action; the Audi emits a musical motor-bike sound under hard acceleration, but in less manic mode the odd beat of the five cylinders makes you wonder if you've got a misfiring plug.

Those who associate value for money with refinement may think there's a mismatch between the Saab 900 convertible's pounds 21,150 price tag and the judder over potholes and dashboard shake; other drawbacks include a narrow cabin and sloppy gearshift. But this is a car of character, with fine performance, agile handling for its size, a firm sensation at the foot-pedal and the status of a modern classic.

Vehicles in this summer's 900S launch range feature wood veneer finish on the dashboard and leather upholstery. Performance is on a par with the Audi in terms of acceleration but not top speed, though fuel consumption is slightly worse the faster you go. Power-operated hoods are standard through the range, which is a big plus. If you want the full 165 bhp 'strap-everything-down' performance, you can opt for the flat-out 16-valve turbo - but your insurers won't let you off lightly.

FOR

Refinement

Elegant styling

High specification

Ride comfort

AGAINST

Unsporty steering

Average performance

No power hood

Limited space

(Photograph omitted)

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