Motoring: Volkswagen's new Golf has a solid centre but is soft on top: The latest Golf Cabriolet proves that it is equal to the British winter, even with the roof down. Phil Llewellin was impressed / Road Test

Gales and torrential rain feature in advertisements for convertibles about as often as the Queen Mother drives a Ferrari F40. The image is St Tropez in June, not Blaenau Ffestiniog in January.

But there were at least two good reasons for testing Volkswagen's new Golf Cabriolet at this time of year. First, it made sense to see how the car fared in conditions that are far more typical of Britain's climate than those in the brochures. Second, believe it or not, January is beaten only by August as Volkswagen's best month for Cabriolet sales. Many are the Christmas presents that arrive in the form of a gift-wrapped ignition key, plus a note explaining that the gift is taxed as from New Year's Day.

The latest Cabriolet's predecessor was launched in 1979 and has attracted 320,000 sales since. There never was a convertible based on the Golf Mark II, so the new arrival has jumped a generation.

One of the most significant improvements is at its rear, where the plump rump conceals a boot with a sensible aperture and 9.5 cubic feet of space. Its predecessor could have been designed to test Postman Pat's initiative, dexterity and patience.

Volkswagen has also made a far more satisfactory job of stowing the hood, which restricted rearward vision and did nothing for the old Golf's appearance. The new version folds almost flat and has a cover that gets top marks for neatness and convenience.

'An exceptionally civilised convertible,' was the note I wrote myself after more than 1,000 mid-winter miles. Assets include a rear window of heated glass - much better than the plastic alternative - and a hood whose several layers of material keep noise levels down and provide plenty of protection.

December's ferocious storms failed to force even a droplet of rain through the hood's seals. But the British press handout's boast about being able to use a car wash 'without any cause for concern' is at odds with the handbook's advice to 'avoid using automatic car washes whenever possible'.

Not noted for masochism, my wife and I covered several hundred miles with the top down and the excellent heater supplementing clothes that were in the 'sensible winter' rather than survival-kit category. This basic 1.8-litre model had a prototype of the draft excluder that is expected to cost about pounds 150 when it becomes available as an option.

The roll-over bar above the seats may not enhance the Golf's appearance, but it is part of a comprehensive safety package that includes airbag protection for the driver and front passenger.

The integrity of the soft top is due, in part, to the body's overall strength and impressive freedom from flexing. This translates into a smooth, comfortable ride with none of the squeaks, creaks and rattles that used to be associated with convertibles. Although the suspension is less sporting than the 2.0-litre version's, it provides handling characteristics that make the Golf fun to drive on interesting roads.

A lot of metal has been welded in to make the Cabriolet's structure stiff enough to satisfy Volkswagen's engineers. The result is a car that weighs much more - the difference is the equivalent of two large adults - than its three-door hatchback counterpart. Performance and economy suffer as a result.

This is a commendably couth convertible, but one whose appearance belies rather sedate performance figures. If you prefer more fizz, the 2.0-litre model provides 27.7 per cent more power, plus a higher level of equipment, in exchange for 12.6 per cent more money.

SPECIFICATIONS

Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, pounds 14,999 Engine: 1.8-litre, four- cylinder producing 90bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox. Top speed 107mph, 0-60mph in 13.3 sec. Fuel: 31mpg.

COMPARISONS

Renault 19 16V, pounds 15,900 Sharp styling and crisp handling complement the 137bhp engine's sizzling performance. Make sure your luggage is compatible with the boot's slot-like lid.

Ford Escort Si, pounds 15,650 Britain's best-selling convertible cannot quite match the Volkswagen's structural integrity and sophistication, but the Ford is much quicker.

Rover 216, pounds 15,725 Lacks character, but earns high marks for build quality, a classy interior, good performance and reasonable economy. The 1.4-litre version packs a lighter punch.

Vauxhall Astra, pounds 15,800 Considerably more expensive than its predecessor. Good performance from 2.0-litre engine.

(Photograph omitted)

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