Motoring: Independent Road Test: Sleek style in the slow lane: Audi's convertible will be coveted for its looks but will disappoint drivers wanting to leave those saloons behind, says Phil Llewellin

THE brochure was watertight: 'One test that all new Audi Cabriolets are put through prior to release from the factory involves a trip through the 'rainhall'. There, water jets pour upwards of 80 gallons of water per minute on to the Cabriolet. Of course, absolutely no leaks are permitted.'

The handbook wasn't so sure: 'Only in extremely adverse weather conditions, such as very heavy or continuous rain, is it possible for droplets of water to form inside the car. This is quite normal and no cause for alarm.'

Test-driving the Audi Cabriolet 2.3E in torrential rain, such equivocation certainly gave me pause for thought. First, was I about to get soaked? Second, anyone shelling out pounds 21,000 on such a convertible would have good cause to be miffed if the hood leaked.

In the event, the interior of the test car remained as dry as a digestive biscuit. The taut, well-insulated hood also proved easy to operate - we are talking about nearer one minute than two, after a bit of practice - and, when folded, disappeared under a neat steel panel, rather than being 'stacked' behind the back seats.

There are gripes with the hood, however. Rearward visibility can be a problem at the start of a journey. The plastic back window has a de-mister, but its waft of warm air is much less efficient than a glass pane's electric heating element. The Audi also lacks the convenience and snob appeal of a power-operated hood. It is not even available as an option.

Weather-proofing aside, attracting the right sort of attention is what convertibles are all about and, in this respect, the Audi Cabriolet scores well with its sleek styling and oodles of class - which is probably just as well since this convertible's 2.3 litres add little to its lean, sporting image. The engine delivers less performance than many 2.0-litre saloons. There is a simple explanation for this. Convertibles weigh a lot more than their saloon counterparts, because of all that extra under- the-skin metal. The Audi is as heavy as a Ford Granada.

The five-cylinder engine, complete with catalytic converter, is flexible enough to permit low- speed pottering in fourth or fifth gear. When the mood changes, it needs to be revved quite hard in the lower gears to overcome the weight penalty. Economy suffers.

Audi's blurbmeisters correctly describe the Cabriolet as a two- plus-two. In other words, the rear compartment is better suited to children than all but the smallest adults. The front seats are comfortable and provide plenty of lateral support when cornering. Leather upholstery at pounds 1,386 is one of several options that can easily add about pounds 3,500 to the price. Another - surprisingly, given Audi's deserved reputation for built-in safety - is headlight washers, which cost an extra pounds 161.

Convertibles are not synonymous with abundant stowage space. Shopping baskets and suitcases are ranked low on the

list of priorities when engineers come to brace the body to compensate for the lack of a steel

roof. The Audi's boot is a strange shape but still holds up to 8.8 cubic feet of luggage, which is an acceptable capacity for a ragtop.

This well-built cabriolet does not set standards for acceleration or top speed, despite coming from a country whose motorway laws still tacitly encourage high-performance motoring. It is, how-

ever, very easy and pleasant to drive.

A further asset is the comforting knowledge that few convertibles will protect you more effectively if an incident becomes an accident.

COMPARISONS

Saab 900 2.0, pounds 18,475. Saab's 900 range is getting long in the tooth, but the cheapest of its three convertibles is good value for money. Acceptable performance and economy from 128bhp engine.

BMW 318i, pounds 19,245. Chic, beautifully built convertible. Slightly slower and more economical than the Audi. BMW has new 3-series ragtops in the pipeline, but the first will not reach Britain until next summer.

Ford Escort XR3i, pounds 16,920. Lacks Audi's snob appeal, but has a lot going for it. This version's 1.8-litre engine produces 130bhp for crisp acceleration. Standard equipment includes a power-operated hood.

Jaguar 4.0 XJS, pounds 39,264. Way out of the Audi's price league as a new car, but worth considering after depreciation has taken its toll. Great status symbol.

SPECIFICATIONS

Audi Cabriolet 2.3E, pounds 21,116. Engine: 2,309cc, five-cylinder, 133bhp at 5,550rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 120mph, 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds.

Fuel consumption 21-27mpg

on unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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