Frost-bitten or smitten? We test the Audi S3 Cabriolet top-down in sub-zero temperatures.
This is the first-ever Audi S3 Cabriolet, with German engineers rejoicing that the new platform underpinning the second-generation A3 Cabriolet is rigid enough to create a performance version.
The S3 Cabriolet is expected to cost $75,000 when it arrives locally in October – a premium of $15,000 over the five-door S3 Sportback with which it shares its fundamentals – and is powered by the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the S3 Sportback and sedan.
It produces 221kW of power (although as with all S3s it will be reduced to 206kW for our ‘warm climate’ market) and 380Nm of torque, but unlike the S3 Sportback and sedan the S3 Cabriolet is not available with a manual transmission. Audi says the buyer of a soft-top is more likely to choose the six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic automatic available optionally on the tin-top variants, but which comes standard on the S3 Cabriolet.
Having peeled back the tin lid of the sedan-based S3 Cabriolet, engineers reinforced the underfloor to compensate for lost rigidity. To counterbalance that weight-increasing move, lighter aluminium components in the front suspension were utilised and are specific to the Cabriolet.
The five-piece cloth roof folds each way in 18 seconds at up to 50km/h. While Audi claims there’s lots of lightweight technology in the soft-top, especially compared with heavier hard tops, the S3 Cabriolet is no lightweight overall. At 1620kg, it not only weighs a full 175kg over the S3 Sportback but is only 40kg shy of the size-larger BMW 428i Convertible.
The 5.6-second 0-100km/h claim may be 0.7 seconds slower than its cheaper S3 Sportback sibling, but the all-wheel-drive Audi cabrio is also 0.8 seconds faster than the 428i Convertible. Due to the reduced power for our market, however, the S3 Cabriolet will likely follow the S3 Sportback and be a tenth slower.
At 4.43 metres, the S3 Cabriolet stretches about as far as the S3 sedan and they both share neat proportions. Although the 285-litre cargo capacity of the S3 Cabriolet falls 160L short of the sedan (as you might expect), the volume doesn’t fall dramatically with the roof down, still totalling 245L.
A 428i Convertible may start off with more space for luggage (at 380 litres) but it falls harder with its hard-top stowed away (reduced to just 220L). It will be all eyes on the forthcoming BMW M235i Convertible to see if it can match or eclipse the S3’s figures.
Space for two rear occupants is more than might be expected from a compact drop-top, but less than an average hatchback, while the backrest itself is too upright and headroom marginal for taller adults.
Up front the Audi S3 Cabriolet has the same beautiful interior design as every other A3 but with luxury ramped up to 11. The thin TFT rising centre screen is as elegant, and connects to Audi's excellent MMI system accessed easily via a rotary control knob on the centre console flanked by shortcut menu buttons. All the other switchgear is simple yet not simplistic, easy to use while being a pleasure to use, while softly damped knurled-silver rotary knobs to close the air vents are a tactile highlight.
The leather front seats are supportive, and include a ‘neck scarf’ feature that blows warm air down the necks of occupants (unique to the S3 Cabriolet) in addition to front seat heating.
In the sub-zero temperatures of this Audi’s international launch in northern Sweden, we were grateful to find the heating functions worked very well. Thanks to minimal wind buffeting, the S3 Cabriolet is able to be driven top down in icy conditions – with the climate control air-conditioning on high blowing hard towards the steering wheel – without turning its driver to Frostie.
Driving top down was important for reasons other than an attempt at being hardcore cab-steerers. Chopping the top off a rigid hatchback and sedan often results in wobbly steering and handling characteristics, but the S3 Cabriolet hasn’t suffered much from the conversion.
Lumpy coarse-chip bitumen reveals a slight shiver from the A-pillars, and the steering can suffer from slight shake over larger hits. The word ‘slight’ is important, because with the S3 Cabriolet it isn’t overly intrusive; it is about on par with the much more expensive Jaguar F-Type Convertible.
The steering itself is quick and fluid, and ride comfort on the test car’s optional adaptive suspension (a $1600 option on S3 Sportback locally) is fine even in the hardest Dynamic setting, although Auto presents a better balance. The softest Comfort setting is the exception – it makes the S3 Cabriolet feel wafty and lazy, with some body float and overly light steering larger issues on icy roads than they perhaps would be cruising in Bondi.
Those icy roads also highlighted how well Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system puts power to the ground … and let’s you have a bit of fun. It slides effortlessly on low-grip surfaces, and the stability control’s Sport setting allows some wide-angle movement before subtly tapping a brake or two.
The highlight of the Audi S3 is undoubtedly its engine and transmission combination, which is made even sweeter with the roof down. Where the S3 Sportback is a bit too quiet for a sports-luxury hatch, the S3 Cabriolet allows more of the meaty engine note and exhaust blurts into the cabin. It feels no slower than its siblings; only more delicious.
We’ll have to wait for a local drive for a full handling verdict, but given the excellence of the other S3 models the Cabriolet should follow the same path. A local drive will also reveal whether dropping 15kW of power curbs its enthusiasm.
In addition to the power deficit, as with all Audi A3 models the brand’s brilliant Audi Connect system won’t be available locally. Live traffic updates for the standard satellite navigation system will be included, however internet connectivity access to third-party apps, and the ability to download Google maps, or perform Google or Wikipedia searches will be disabled.
The only real rival for the Audi S3 Cabriolet, the M235i Cabriolet, is expected to cost more than the coupe version that retails at $79,900, leaving the Audi sitting pretty at an expected $75K. A little scuttle shake fails to shake the appeal of this pretty, fast and exquisitely made drop-top.