Motoring: Auto Biography: The Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
THE GREAT thing for British motorists about electrically operated hoods on cabriolets is that they give you that split-second reaction time in the event of a hit- and-run appearance by the sun. Feel your eyelids narrow just a fraction as the gloom lifts by a millilambert or two, slam the classy new open-top VW Golf into the kerb, switch off the engine (the soft top doesn't work otherwise so none of that casual throwing back the covers while cruising past the Bar Italia) and let the infra-red bombard the epidermis. Come to think of it, since VW is pretty good on environmental politics by the reluctant standards of the motor trade, it's perhaps surprising that the hood doesn't open and close automatically at medically prescribed intervals to stop you overdoing it. Maybe on UK models it knows it wouldn't make much difference. You do, however, get various unscheduled alterations to the light- resistance if you park a desirable- looking cabrio anywhere these days. Some wag skewered the roof of my nice metallic blue job on Day One, so maybe featuring designer rips as standard is the only way to salvage something from the cabrio's touchy identification with the competitive era.

Golf cabrios probably attract this attention because they've always been high in the fashion-accessory stakes, being neat, chic and practical. The Mark III series, launched in 1992, disappointed some fans because the extra weight of their safety features resulted in dull handling on the cheaper versions, and their thick rear pillars gave a once-elegant car a van-like slabbiness at the back. But convertibility has made the third-generation Golf a much prettier car, and though the company has not made anything sensational out of the performance (it's no Golf GTi), the safety features and quietness are highly saleable virtues. The Golf cabrio sports a roll-over bar to counter one of the biggest anxieties of soft-top driving, it has a driver's and passenger's airbag as standard fittings and the rigid upper construction even enables the car to escape a convertible's tendency to cockpit shake. Luggage space is good, and the standard equipment specification is high; all the more so in the case of the two-litre Avantgarde model, which has fancy alloy wheels and sportier suspension.

The strong features of the MkIII Golfs - interior space, good ride, construction quality, safety - are maintained on this car, and the suspension anti-roll bars fitted at each end (only at the front on the basic 1.8-litre version) go a long way towards enlivening cornering that seemed so lethargic on the 1.8 hatches. With the top raised, it's still a gloomy car inside; looking into the instrument binnacle still resembles a view down the wrong end of a telescope. At pounds 16,898 it isn't cheap and, most significantly, the ecstatically acclaimed Peugeot 306 will hit Britain in May. But it's attractive, well made and a Golf through and through - and the marque has a lot of loyal fans.

GOING PLACES: Perky and torquey (if old-fashioned sounding) two-litre four-cylinder engine, giving 0-60mph in 11 seconds. Gearshift movement long and notchy, but ratios well spaced.

STAYING ALIVE: Much better handler than entry-level Golfs, with anti-roll bars at each end. Lower suspension on Avantgarde model, with little sacrifice in comfort. Disc brakes all round on 2.0 litre, anti-lock optional. Excellent crash protection, including rigid roof bar, twin airbags and the celebrated Mk III Golf body construction.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Good seating with height-adjustable driving position; optional mesh-screen on rollbar available to cut draughts in open mode; 'roof-rack' option for load-carrying. Large boot, folding rear seat and vibration-damping system to reduce noise on fast runs. The hood construction is carwash proof, the hood electric on 2.0- litre models.

BANGS PER BUCK: Central locking with VW security features, electric windows and mirrors, electric hood, sports seats, stereo with detachable front

panel, alloy wheels and multi- function journey computer. Price: pounds 16,898. STAR QUALITY: Pretty, distinctive and rugged soft-top, very strong on safety features.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Expensive, moderate performance, drab interior.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Audi 80 2.0 Cabrio ( pounds 19,245): modest performance, manual hood, good ride, light steering, expensive. Ford Escort Cabrio ( pounds 15,275): briskish and much improved but still anonymous. Peugeot 306 Cabrio (available May, likely to be around pounds 17,000): glamorous, better performing and more fun to drive, by early accounts.

(Photograph omitted)