MOTORING: SUN UP, TOP DOWN

Embracing the summer, John Fordham puts a range of fairweather friends to the test and finds cabriolets a lot more sociable than smaller boy-racing sportsters
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The Independent Culture
About as far as you can get to the opposite end of the motoring galaxy occupied by cabriolets, those giggling flibbertigibbets of the highways, is the Mercedes S-class saloon. This is not simply because the S-class is built like a tank with an executive suite poured into it, while cabriolets are like prams with headlights, but because the S-class is something of an anti-people car.

You might, of course, argue that they all are, but here on the motoring page we naturally take a more charitable view. In an S-class, as I once discovered, the urban world outside looks like a distant movie made by Martin Scorsese, people silently slugging and fondling each other in grainy twilight while you settle back to Handel's Messiah on the autochanger and congratulate yourself on life having been generous to you. In a cabriolet, however flash it is, that's all impossible. You have to face the hurly- burly in a cabriolet.

Even with the hood up, the clamour of the real world is more audible than in a hard-top vehicle. With the roof down, you're amid the rich tapestry of gel-headed smirkers, stone-faced power-dressers, sound-blasters and superbikers at traffic lights. The contradictions of life are inescapably in-your-face. Cabriolets are more sociable and eco-friendly than the kind of boy-racing sportsters that shot across these pages a few weeks ago because firstly, other people don't hate you so much, and secondly, you can get more people into them.

Summer is here, so it's time to turn the mind, the hairstyle or the toupee adhesive to such exhilarating thoughts. The cabriolet market divides into the chopped-off hatchback variety (once dominated by the desirable Volkswagen Golf but now occupied by excellent products from Peugeot, Rover, Ford, Renault and others), and the middle-to-upmarket convertible saloons such as those by Saab, Audi and BMW. Volkswagen brought a sleeker, more contemporary cabriolet to the market when the Series III Golf replaced its much-loved boxy predecessor (a model that in cabriolet form always seemed to resemble a car in a rather chic cap), but in doing so, lost its pre-eminence in the class.

Most cabriolets in the supermini to mid-range class are more or less their tin-roofed siblings in engineering terms, though the increased structural flexibility caused by sawing off the top does change the driving feel; noise levels are higher, and the reaction to uneven road surfaces is usually more pronounced. A cabriolet buyer wants the hood to be manoeuvrable without fuss or embarrassing roadside tuggings and heavings (most power-operated hoods are optional extras, at upwards of pounds 750), the vehicle to be watertight, and also be fun to drive. This last is an important element in cabriolet purchase, because there's more to satisfying this sector of the market than simply letting the sunshine in. Without going all the way towards the driving challenge and the expense of a genuinely fully-functional sports car, owners want liveliness and fluidity at the wheel, or else qualities in the design and atmosphere of the machine that act as a convincing substitute.

Volkswagen's 1.8 cabriolet is, on the face of it, a hot contender, but turns out to lag unexpectedly behind. The Golf is as well-built and meticulously conceived as you'd expect, and the noise levels are lower than for just about any other model in this class (a distinct virtue when you drive a cabriolet on a motorway), but in all but the most expensive avant-garde form it's slow and its handling feels muggy and uninspiring. The engine is smoother and more mellifluous than, say, the Ford Escort's, the ride is good, and the structural rigidity is clearly enhanced by the roll-over hoop, but the interior is dark and rather gloomy with the hood up and even the most hardline of former Golf cabriolet fans might find their allegiances stretched.

Rover's cabriolet looks nice, and its interior is a thing of freshness and curvaceous beauty compared to the cabin of the Golf. It also feels far more chirpy to drive, as the Rover is now fitted with the excellent K-series engine, which delivers a considerably more frisky performance. But throttle response on the automatic version we tried is rather slow in coming and you wonder until you get completely used to it if the car is engaged in drive at all. But it is an elegant and reasonably roomy four-seater, erring toward the faintly bland for a car in this category. Chassis flexing is only marginally more noticeable than in the Golf.

Current pick of the smaller bunch has to be the Peugeot 306. The company is in the process of revamping the line, with a slightly redesigned nose and higher-performance 1.8 and 2.0 litre engines, and the price will go up to pounds 22,000 plus for the 2.0 litre roadster. Pininfarina designed the bodywork and it shows, and Peugeot built the windscreen ruggedly enough for a rollbar to be considered unnecessary - though subjectively some drivers might have a twinge of anxiety over its absence. As a car for brisk driving on twisty roads it's a real joy, its handling feeling as fluent and fleet as when the 306 first shot to the top of the supermini class, with a supple ride over uneven surfaces that seems hard to square with the stability and reassurance of the handling.

Ford's Escort isn't as fluent as the 306, but it has to be one of the most improved cars over its launch model in recent history, with significant improvements to the chassis, better steering feel and considerably better ride quality. Ford engines, though rugged and reliable, are rarely the strong points of the smaller cars, and that remains a drawback of the Escort cabriolet - but though a little coarse and uninspiring to drive, petrol economy isn't at all bad, and the styling has an unexpected flair that doesn't exist on the closed version.

In the next bracket up, with prices from pounds 22,000 to close on pounds 30,000, come the ranks of the Audis, BMWs and Saabs. The Audi cabriolet is famously associated with Lady Di, a factor which might have enhanced the sales figures a little, but the car has exhibited little of the charisma and elegance of recent mid-range saloons such as the delightful Audi A4. Compared to the Saab 900 and the BMW 3-series in this category, the Audi is classy- looking, built well and offers reasonable legroom, but the scuttle-shake is distinctly noticeable, and the car isn't that much fun to drive - although at the end of last year the company took to offering it with a big 12- valve 2.8 litre V6 engine, allowing increased performance but at a considerably increased price.

The Saab 900 looks terrific (it transforms the rather humpy lines of the 900 saloon and would perhaps be the designer's choice out of all of them) but vibrates considerably and suffers from the same limitations of chassis feel and driving responsiveness that the General Motors under- pinnings also imparts to the saloon. BMW's 3-series is the pick of the under pounds 30,000-bunch in the almost luxury cabriolet league, with a rigid chassis, characteristic handling flair, and - in 328 form particularly - an absolutely superb engine. Only one snag. When you're stuck at the traffic-lights with all those smirkers, rude-dudes and those others we mentioned at the start, that BMW badge can be an almost irresistible challenge.

A word of caution about the temptation to open a hood and a chequebook at the same time when the sun comes out. Remember the English winter - the gloom, the grime, the drizzle. Outside of those fleeting months of blue sky, the cabriolet is just another car, and one that's more complicated to clean and live with too. Just a thought. !

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES

PEUGEOT 306: pounds 19,365 / ROVER 1.6: pounds 15,850 / VOLKSWAGEN GOLF 75BHP: pounds 14,700 / FORD ESCORT CALYPSO: pounds 15,270 / AUDI CABRIO 2.0: pounds 22,114 / SAAB 900 2.0: pounds 22,710 / BMW 318I: pounds 24,200

STAYING ALIVE/HANGING OUT

Peugeot 306: nippier engines, handling superb, no rollbar; driver airbag, passenger's optional, anti-lock brakes standard

Rover 1.6: brisk performance, slightly dull handling, driver and passenger airbag, anti-lock brakes extra

VW Golf: unexciting performance, handling dull, very solidly built, twin airbags, anti-lock brakes extra

Ford Escort Calypso: noisy but responsive engine, much improved handling over earlier Escorts, driver airbag, passenger airbag optional and anti- lock brakes optional

Audi Cabrio: stolid but unexciting engine and handling, no passenger airbag, well-built, anti-lock brakes extra

Saab 900: engine and handling as for Audi, twin airbags, anti-lock brakes standard

BMW 318: great handling fluency, engine good (328 better), driver airbag, passenger airbag extra, anti-lock brakes standard

CREATURE COMFORTS

Peugeot 306: power hood standard, adjustable driver's seat-height

Rover 1.6: power hood extra, adjustable driver's seat-height

VW Golf: no power hood, adjustable driver's seat-height

Ford Escort Calypso: power hood standard, no adjustable driver's seat- height

Audi Cabrio: power hood approx pounds 1,500 with adjustable driver's seat-height

Saab 900: power hood standard along with adjustable driver's seat-height

BMW 318: power hood standard with adjustable driver's seat-height

BANGS PER BUCK

Peugeot 306: power hood, electric windows and mirrors, power steering

Rover 1.6: electric windows and mirrors, power-steering

VW Golf: power-steering, electric windows and mirrors

Ford Escort Calypso: power hood with power steering and immobiliser

Audi Cabrio: power steering, alarm/immobiliser, electric windows and mirrors

Saab 900: power hood, power steering, electric windows and mirrors

BMW 328: power hood, power steering, electric windows and mirrors

TURKEY QUOTIENT

Peugeot 306: expensive

Rover 1.6: dull performance

VW Golf: ponderous, dull interior

Ford Escort Calypso: laddish image, noisy

Audi Cabrio: ordinary saloon with the top off

Saab 900: scuttle shake

BMW 328: legroom

STAR QUALITY

Peugeot 306: great handling, class-leading design

Rover 1.6: elegant interior, good engine

VW Golf: build quality, safety

Ford Escort Calypso: fun to drive, good value

Audi Cabrio: quality, classy looks

Saab 900: great appearance

BMW 328: handling, cachet

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