Open top cars and diesel engines don't always make a great combination. Audi shows how it's done with the improved A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TDI 184PS quattro. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Audi pairs one of its very best diesel engines with the wholly lovely A3 Cabriolet body. The 184PS diesel unit is now offered only with quattro all-wheel drive, a great package though quite a pricey one. This revised model gets slightly smarter looks and some hi-tech cabin options.
Small convertibles used to be a genre of vehicle that was easy to deride. The were frequently poor, sold to buyers who were merely interested in looks, and as such tended to have a distinctly superficial depth of talent. This was a class of car where tired old chassis and engines went to die. Thngs have improved in recent years though, thanks to drop tops like this second generation Audi A3 Cabriolet, now usefully improved. In truth, the open-topped A3 didn't need to be half this good, but it's looking to appeal to a whole new class of buyer who might not have ever considered a soft top previously. Bolstering the A3 Cabriolet's argument is the inclusion of a rather special 184PS version of the 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine. Here you get ample power and torque, backed up by decent refinement and excellent fuel economy. It makes a compelling case for itself.
The 184PS 2.0 TDI diesel engine that's shoehorned under the bonnet of this A3 Cabriolet is of course the same one used in the A3 hatch and it's a powerplant that doesn't brook too much in the way of complaints. It comes only mated to quattro all-wheel-drive but you can choose between manual or S tronic automatic transmission. Go for the manual variant and 62mph arrives in just 7.9 seconds, while top speed is 150mph. The Audi drive select system lets the driver vary the throttle response, steering weighting and, where the S tronic transmission is present, the gearbox shift points. What's more, it can also be upgraded to manage the optional Audi magnetic ride system with its clever magneto-rheological fluid-filled dampers. So how does it drive? Well, we'd be lying if we said there was no shake or shudder at all with this car over poor road surfaces, but there really isn't very much. Especially if, at point of purchase, you make the right suspension choice between 'firm', 'firmer' or 'firmest' - or to put it in Audi-speak, the 'Standard', 'Sports' or 'S line Sports' suspension set-ups that your dealer will offer you. Get this wrong and you run the risk of spoiling the cossetting, luxurious character of this car in pursuit of dynamic attributes it was never really designed to prioritise. The 'Sports' set-up is lowered by 15mm: the 'S line Sports' by a further 10mm. Neither is a very pleasant companion on a poorly surfaced road, so if you're going for a test drive in this car, make sure you ask the sales person which set-up is fitted to the car you're driving.
Design and Build
Built on a modified version of the A3 Saloon's chassis, the A3 Cabriolet lost its somewhat dumpy, pram-like styling when re-launched in second generation form. Exterior changes to this revised version are slight but the front looks a little more purposeful, courtesy of sharper lines for the familiar and now broader Singleframe grille. The headlights are flatter, with distinctive outer contours and can now be ordered in Matrix LED form, so they are significantly brighter and constantly adapt themselves to avoid dazzling other road users, plus of course they never need to be dipped. Equally subtle changes at the rear aim to accentuate the width of this car - with the horizontal illuminated graphics of the rear lights and the separation edge above the redesigned diffuser. Inside, the 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this one as an option. This displays the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. As before, the soft fabric roof is stretched over a magnesium-steel 'skeleton'. The opens or closes electro-hydraulically in less than 18 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph. When retracted, the top - folded into three layers - rests in a tray that barely affects luggage capacity, which is 287-litres (10.14 cubic ft). There's a proper glass rear window and the roof can be specified in black, grey and brown - while the inner liner is available in black or lunar silver.
Market and Model
The 184PS version of the A3 Cabriolet is offered in two trim variants, 'Sport' and 'S line' and comes only with quattro 4WD. Prices start at just over £34,000 for the 'Sport' variant. There's a premium of around £2,200 more if you want 'S line'. 'Sport' specification elements include 17-inch alloy wheels, plus 15mm lower sports suspension which can be 'de-selected' in favour of a more comfort-oriented standard set-up if required. There's also the 'Audi drive select' vehicle dynamics system, aluminium interior details and front sports seats. Highlight features of the top 'S line' model include distinctive and exclusive 'S line' exterior styling, 18-inch five-spoke alloy wheels and Xenon plus headlights with LED daytime running lights as standard. The key option with this improved model is the clever 'Virtual Cockpit' system replacing the conventional instrument dials with an eye-catching 12.3-inch TFT display. But of course, there's much else to select from. An 'MMI radio plus' set-up with an electrically extending 7-inch diagonal monitor is standard, while the 'MMI navigation' system is fitted from 'Sport' trim upwards. Go further and specify the 'MMI navigation plus with MMI touch in conjunction with the Audi connect' package (what a mouthful!) and you can have many online functions in your A3 at high speed via the super-fast LTE standard. They include, for example, navigation with Google Earth and Google Street View traffic information in real time, as well as practical information on parking, destinations, news or the weather. There's also a free 'Audi MMI connect' app that enables other services, such as online media streaming and transfer of a calendar from a smartphone to the MMI. Mobile phones with iOS and Android operating systems can now be connected with the car via the standard Audi smartphone interface.
Cost of Ownership
For an engine that develops a hefty 380Nm of torque, the 2.0-litre TDI 184PS unit gets some very reasonable economy and emissions figures bearing in mind that this mdel is lugging around a bulky roof mechanism and the weight of quattro 4WD. In manual guise, it'll return an impressive 61.4mpg on the combined cycle, while emitting 122 grams of CO2 per kilometre. Go for the S tronic version and you're looking at 56.5mpg with emissions rated at 132g/km. The A3 Cabriolet's design emphasis on weight reduction is evident right around the car. The bonnet, for example, is all aluminium and further weight has been stripped away from the engines, the seats and the dashboard. All of this has incremental effects on emissions and economy. As you'd expect, the engine employs direct injection and turbocharging and is backed up by a start-stop-system. Residual values are strong.
There's something that's unexpectedly beguiling about combining the solid 2.0 TDI powerplant with a body that smacks of purest indulgence. Call it a way of salving your conscience if you will, assuaging the guilt of possible ostentation maybe, but it's a combination that works, without overloading your palate. The 2.0-litre TDI engine is muscular and economical and you'll appreciate the quattro 4WD system in the winter months. Just about the only caveat that might be mentioned is pricing. This 184PS variant certainly isn't cheap but to be fair, it's in the same costing ballpark as a rival BMW 225d Convertible. Inevitably, buyers cross-shop between these two cars. If so, the Audi's buying proposition stands strong.