Motoring: New soft-top's a smooth mover

Why has VW updated the Golf Cabriolet? The answer lies blowing in the wind, says John Simister

SUMMER-TIME, and the living is breezy. That is how it is if you own a convertible, but we Britons do not seem to mind. You will not see many people driving open-top cars in southern Italy because no sun-block cream powerful enough yet exists to stave off permanent skin ruination, but in Britain we try to maximise every sunlit opportunity. And blow the wind.

Now, a little known fact. Some Volkswagens are named after winds (Scirocco, Passat, Corrado), and a Volkswagen Golf also conforms to this logic. The golf-ball gear-lever knob found in sporty versions of early Golfs is but a German pun; the reasoning behind the name is that "Golf" is how the Germans spell "Gulf", as in Gulf Stream. So there you are: a wind-in-the- hair Golf does have a windy name after all.

Why am I telling you this? Because the Golf Cabrio, as the open Golf is correctly known, has just had an update. This has come about because the mainstream hatchback Golfs have recently been relaunched as Mk4s, with an entirely new and bolder-looking body. Volkswagen has not, however, made an open version of the Mk4, merely a visual approximation of one. What you see here is a Golf Mark Three-and-a-half, and a clever bit of cosmetic surgery it is.

The bonnet, the big-eyed headlights and the front bumper with integral grille are all from the Mk4, blended into the existing Mk3 centre section via some new front wings. The boot-lid no longer contains the number plate; this item has been relocated in a new, Mk4-like bumper.

Inside, the architecture is as before but the finishes are new, with pimply-textured surfaces unique to the Cabrio. Mechanically, the new Cabrio is exactly like the old one, which means that the top versions keep the old eight-valve, 2.0-litre engine that powered the Mk3 GTI. These are now the only Golfs so fitted, the Mk4 having a 20-valve 1.8 instead. You might think that the Cabrio would therefore be challenged, engine-wise. You would be wrong, for the old engine, despite being closely related to that of the first Golfs of 1974, works much better than its ageing design suggests it should.

When the open-top Mk3 was launched in 1994, it amazed the car critics with its feeling of solidity and integrity. Most open conversions of hatchback cars suffered from shakes and shudders over bumps, but the Golf, built by the specialist body design company Karmann, was almost immune. Four years and one face-lift on, it is as impressive as ever. The roof- level bar helps greatly here, because it ties the structure together without getting in the way to spoil the open-top experience.

The poshest Golf Cabrios have a power hood, and all of them have a proper glass rear window with heating elements. The downside of this last attribute, though, is that the hood is bulky when folded, and has to sit on top of the rear deck where it obscures the view aft. There is proper space for four people, and the front passengers are not bombarded by excess buffeting. Those in the back have a windier time, but that goes with the convertible territory.

No one buys a convertible for ultimate driving thrills. If you seek these in a windy setting, buy a proper sports car. But there is still something relaxed and carefree about convertible cruising, and the smoother the experience, the better. This is where the Golf scores rather well. It remains the best of its type.

Specifications

Marque: Golf Cabrio Avantgarde. Price: pounds 19,995 (Sirion). Engine: 1,984cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 115bhp at 5,400rpm. Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 118mph, 0-60 in 11.2sec, 29-34mpg.

Rivals

Ford Escort 1.8 Ghia Cabriolet: pounds 17,175. Another Karmann-constructed convertible, but not so solid. Looks and feels dated. Peugeot 306 Cabriolet: pounds 20,445. Looks svelte but, compared with the Golf, an obvious quality shortfall. Lively and fun to drive. Renault Megane 2.0 16V Cabriolet: pounds 19,420. Looks racy but has minimal passenger space. Bridges gap between convertible and sports car.

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