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by Tim Beissmann

With the sunlight hours diminishing by the day, the Audi A3 Cabriolet and the BMW 2 Series Convertible may not be at the top of your automotive wish list.

Ironically, however, as we’re busy digging out our trackies and Uggs in preparation for circa-20-degree days, our friends in parts of Europe are doing the same – though they’re stripping off snow jackets and boots (in place of our footy shorts and thongs) in anticipation of what they depressingly label ‘summer’.

The reality is that Australia’s mild winters make the lucky country one of the best places in the world to own a convertible, and drop-tops are arguably best enjoyed in these months when the sun won’t lobster your skin after five minutes with the top down.

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Touching down just days after the end of summer last month was the BMW, which completes the brand’s the transition from the old 1 Series nomenclature. The entry point to the 2 Series Convertible range is the 220i, which starts at $54,900 before on-road costs.

Conveniently for us, its closest rival is the $52,200 Audi A3 Cabriolet 1.8 TFSI Ambition, which has been part of CarAdvice’s long-term garage since December.

Conveniently for both Audi and BMW, the premium compact convertible segment is one of the few where they don’t have to fight a three-way battle with Mercedes-Benz.

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Plucked straight off the rack, both come standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, auto headlights and wipers, foglights, rear sensors, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, drive mode selector, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, leather upholstery (man-made in the case of the BMW) and floor mats.

The Audi uniquely gains front sensors (a $269 option in the BMW), steering wheel paddleshifters, an SD card reader and an eight-speaker audio system (to the BMW’s six), though the 2 Series counters with a reverse-view camera, push-button start, a larger centre screen (6.5 inches versus 5.8 inches), satellite navigation, an automatic emergency call function in the event of a serious crash, and a proper USB port in place of the A3’s annoying music interface system that requires you to purchase an accessory cable from Audi to connect and charge your phone.

On the surface, it’s the more expensive but better-equipped BMW that takes the points in standard form, though optioning in Audi’s $2000 Technik package – which upgrades to a 7.0-inch screen and adds navigation, a second SD card reader, DVD player, 20GB media storage and a touch-sensitive rotary controller, as well as a reverse-view camera, semi-automated parking, a colour instrument cluster screen and an enhanced 10-speaker audio system – effectively gaps the $2700 difference.

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As is the way with both brands at this end of the market, you need to tick a few options boxes to get a truly ‘premium’ experience from either model.

As tested, our A3 costs $58,150, while the 220i is packed with more than $8000 of options, taking it to $62,980.

The A3’s $1350 Style package (with xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights, choice of 18-inch alloy wheels, and sports suspension) is a worthy investment, while other options fitted to our car include front seat and neck heaters for $1250, and the $1350 Launch package, which adds Milano leather, acoustic fabric roof, and an LED interior lighting package.

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The BMW’s $2500 Visibility package goes a step further than Audi with adaptive xenon headlights with cornering lights, anti-glare high-beam assist, LED DRLs, and anti-dazzle side mirrors with auto-dipping and -folding functions.

The $1000 Luxury line adds real leather and customisable ambient lighting, among a host of other trim tweaks, though forces you to spend $769 to add in the sports seats that are standard but deleted when the Luxury line is optioned.

Another $923 adds ConnectedDrive Freedom, which features a host of internet-based services unavailable in the Audi, including remote vehicle locking/unlocking, ventilation control and vehicle finder, and as part of a three-year subscription the use of news, weather and Google search functions, office and apps programs, real-time traffic information, and 24-hour access to the ConnectedDrive call centre for a range of concierge services.

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Seat heaters ($577) and a wind deflector ($438) are other useful add-ons in the 220i, while metallic paint is a $1142 option from BMW and $1150 from Audi.

Put simply, Audi’s option packs make it easier and cheaper to add in the features most buyers will want plus a few other niceties, while BMW’s options list is longer and more expensive but gives you more scope to create a high-tech, highly specced luxury car.

The A3’s dash layout has a slick, technical look that serves to highlight the lack of character inside the slabby, conservative 2 Series. Elements such as the electric park brake, digital speedometer, and brushed metal trim inserts accentuate this point.

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BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is more intuitive, however, and the 220i also offers more comfortable and supportive seats, more headroom for the driver and front passenger, and slightly more front storage space.

Both are compromised in the second row, though it’s the Audi that’s the more liveable of the two.

A wider aperture makes it easier to get into (or perhaps more pertinently out of) the second row of the 2 Series. Its back seats force you to sit very upright and intrusive side panels squish your shoulders and twist your body. By contrast, the Audi feels less cramped, and has more padded and sculpted (and ultimately more comfortable) seats.

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Both offer similar headroom (adequate for passengers up to about 170cm tall), though it’s the Audi that causes rear-riders to suffer in terms of leg space, with much less kneeroom and poorly designed front seatbacks that dig into shins.

The A3 is the only one to offer 50:50 split folding back seats to expand its effective boot space, which even in unexpanded form boasts a 40-litre advantage over the 2 Series (320L vs 280L). Clever quick release levers in the boot make dropping the Audi’s seats a breeze.

Opening the roof doesn’t impede storage space in either, as in both cases the fabric cover concertinas behind the second-row headrests. The race to raise and lower the roofs is almost a dead heat – the Audi finishing a raindrop or two ahead of the BMW at a little over 20 seconds.

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With the lid in place, the A3 Cabriolet’s roofline is far sleeker and lower-profile than the BMW’s bumpy tent top, though rear visibility is tighter due to its small rear window and tiny rear-view mirror.

There’s little difference in road or ambient noise between the two with the roofs up, but photographer Glen agrees the BMW does a better job of protecting front-seat occupants from air turbulence with the top down.

Two different philosophies for producing power and getting it to the ground result in two capable and mostly refined drivetrains.

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The BMW’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine has a slight power and torque edge over rival Audi’s 1.8-litre turbo. The former produces 135kW at 6250rpm and 270Nm between 1250-4500rpm, the latter 132kW at 6200rpm and 250Nm between 1250-5000rpm.

An eight-speed automatic transmission sends the BMW’s extra 3kW/20Nm to the rear wheels, while the Audi’s drive conversely goes to the front axle via a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic.

Despite the BMW’s more ‘traditional sports car’ layout, the Audi keeps up in the 0-100km/h sprint, stopping the clock just two tenths of a second after the 2 Series (7.8sec vs 7.6).

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And it’s the smaller-engined and lighter (by 25kg) Audi that’s almost 10 per cent more fuel efficient on official combined cycle, using 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres compared with the BMW’s 6.4L/100km. Our test showed the 220i to be slightly more frugal, however, burning through 11.2L/100km to the A3’s 11.6L/100km across a mix of urban, twisty mountain and highway driving.

Neither engine delivers explosive performance, but both accelerate with reasonable urgency and have similarly broad torque bands to pull confidently from low in their respective rev ranges. The BMW has the aural edge, producing the sportier note of the two, though its conventional torque-converter automatic can’t match the S tronic for smoothness and speed of shifts when on the go.

It’s a different story at crawling speeds, however, where the dual-clutch causes the Audi to lurch under zero to light throttle, making it a handful in traffic. There’s also no auto hold function like you get in the A3’s cheaper cousin, the Volkswagen Golf, to remove the risk of rolling when you’re parking on a hill. The BMW, by contrast, is well behaved at low speeds.

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The 220i stretches its advantage in urban conditions, where its ride quality and overall solidity stand head and shoulders above the A3. The BMW feels tightly screwed together, exhibiting few signs of flex or flimsiness through its body and only small vibrations through its steering rack. Its suspension is firm but not uncomfortable, and quick to react to imperfections in the road. There’s a lot more vibration through the steering and flex in the Audi, and its softer suspension setup feels sloppier rather than smoother than the 2 Series. It falls more heavily into potholes and bounces over bumps where the BMW remains composed.

The refinement and poise of the BMW is emphasised at higher speeds on flowing country roads where again there’s less shake through the body and steering, more ride composure and better balance – you can feel more weight at the back of the rear-driver than in the front-drive Audi.

It’s the A3 that has the better steering, though, being well weighted, precise and consistent. The 2 Series’ steering has more play around the straight-ahead position, but becomes more predictable as lock is applied.

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From behind the wheel, then, it’s a solid win to the model from the Ultimate Driving Machine brand.

Both the A3 and 2 Series are covered by three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranties and matching roadside assistance. Both brands also offer corporate-style servicing plans.

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Whatever the weather, the Audi A3 Cabriolet and the BMW 2 Series Convertible offer two distinct choices to those in the market for a premium compact drop-top.

The Audi is more affordable pre-options, has neat steering and a great engine and transmission combo once on the go, and is more visually appealing inside and out.

It’s the BMW, however, that has more technology and connectivity options, is far more comfortable both in traffic and on the open road, feels much more tightly screwed together, and is better balanced and more enjoyable to drive – and therefore the pick of this unseasonal bunch.

Click the photos tab for more images by Glen Sullivan.



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