On paper, the Audi A3 Cabriolet offers a solid case for an affordable German convertible, but it leaves something to be desired once you get behind the wheel.
Buying a new convertible is very much a lifestyle choice that should not be made after a big night out. The fashionable body style brings plenty of compromises, after all, but there are also plenty of highlights. With the 2017 Audi A3 Cabriolet, it’s hard to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons.
With a starting price of $55,000 plus about roughly $5000 of on-road costs depending on which state you live in, the 2.0-litre Audi A3 convertible sits one up from the 1.4-litre ($49,000) base model. The larger engine still powers the front-wheels (as opposed to the $58,600 quattro version of the convertible, which gains Audi’s all-wheel-drive system) with 140kW of power and 320Nm of torque.
It’s a bit of a price jump when compared to the regular sedan or hatch A3, but it competes with the likes of the BMW 2 Series convertible and – if you’re willing to cross shop an Audi with a Ford – the Mustang convertible.
The difference between the Audi and the other two brands is its front-wheel drive configuration, versus a rear-wheel drive setup for the Mustang and 2er. In Audi’s case, this brings a host of additional compromises on top of its already natural disadvantage as a cabriolet.
When we talk about convertibles in a technical sense, there is a term used to describe the lack of structural rigidity that comes with replacing a fixed metal roof with a folding soft-top: scuttle shake.
It describes what happens when a lack of a solid roof leads to the middle section of the chassis flexing when the vehicle goes over uneven surfaces. This causes the bulkhead in front of the passenger compartment to basically shake, or vibrate, making it an uncomfortable experience. The Audi A3 Cabriolet suffers from this. A lot.
The ride in the A3 convertible on the optional 18-inch wheels and sports suspension that form part of the style package ($2400), is extremely firm. On smooth surfaces, such as the highway or new roads, the Audi behaves amicably. But, find yourself any imperfections on the road and the entire chassis will demonstrate the meaning of scuttle shake straight to your spine. Every single time.
It’s here where the dreaded 'shake' is so evident, because every little pothole vibrates the chassis and the movements are clearly felt throughout the cabin. Is it enough to write this car off in total? Probably not, but it’s something that any buyer looking to purchase this as a daily needs to be well aware of. Perhaps it's best to skip the sports suspension and stick with the standard 17-inch wheels and the higher profile tyres.
Once you begin to brace your core and become an expert at spotting and avoiding potholes, you can drop the soft-top roof (roughly 18 seconds at speeds up to 50km/h) and enjoy what a convertible is meant to be: fun.
The open-air A3 is by no means a sports car, though. For that you’ll need to step into its S3 sibling, but it’s still a fun car to drive. Is it worth the extra $3600 to go for a quattro setup with the same drivetrain? Possibly, depending on what roads you frequent. It does present torque-steer when pushed a little but really, it’s unlikely the target market will push hard enough to notice.
The driving experience is certainly more than good enough for a city cruiser (if you can deal with the ride quality), but it’s by no means the refined and resolved experience we have come to love and expect from Audi.
The steering system is surprisingly communicative, almost too much. This likely has something to do with the amount of movement the chassis experiences, but overall, we were pleasantly surprised by how much feedback it provided.
From the outside, the A3 convertible looks pretty much like every other Audi on the market today. Stylish, classy, but a little conservative.
Jump inside and it’s a similar story. The Audi build quality is easy to distinguish and the cabin fit and finish is first-rate, with Audi's virtual cockpit adding a visual appeal that is unrivaled in this class.
Our test car was wearing too much black on the inside, which didn’t really help to visually emphasise the craftsmanship of the cabin. We weren’t big fans of the leather seats either, which felt rather coarse and far too fake to be regarded as luxury, though they were comfortable and supportive.
The two rear seats will accommodate those under 170cm and potentially taller passengers with the roof open. They are not seats you should rely on for permanent use, but they will easily provide quick forms of transport when the call comes. Access is a little tight, but anyone small or brave enough to try the backseat will likely have the acrobatic ability to make it.
There are silver highlights throughout the cabin and the tactile sensation of the button and switchgear, including the air-con vents, is top-notch; although, we felt it could certainly do with some further colour differentiation to make it pop.
The Audi infotainment system is hard to beat in this segment (although BMW did recently load the latest version of its iDrive system into the 2 Series), with excellent navigation, an easy-to-understand interface and Apple CarPlay.
Nonetheless, it is frustratingly buggy when trying to communicate with Apple Music and other music apps, and constantly crashes both the iPhone app and its own system.
We have experienced this now in multiple new virtual cockpit-enabled Audis with multiple iPhone 7s running iOS 10. It appears to be an issue with handling playlists that are not predetermined, e.g. Spotify or Apple Music playlists.
The system continuously tries to read what the next upcoming songs are and eventually crashes or stops playing music. We suspect either Apple or Audi will fix this in the near future. It’s a non-issue if you load a predetermined playlist.
Once the music is sorted, the next step is to go topless. The roof operation is seamless and having it work on the go is super convenient, especially if you’re ever stuck in the rain and need to quickly put the roof on without having to completely stop.
In saying that, we did find it annoying that the roof operation button is identical to, and adjacent to, the electric park brake. Frankly, they either need to be further apart, or the operation of the buttons needs to be different so as to not get the two confused.
With the roof down, music pumping, seat and neck heaters on ($1250) and the air-con set to high, the A3 convertible brings that sense of freedom and joy that only a convertible can offer. It’s a beautiful place to experience driving over a bridge at night, or just experiencing the fresh air that a country road will provide. It’s an experience that is unrivalled by any sedan or coupe. It makes the idea of going for a drive in the right weather for no particular reason a great idea.
For us, the main issue with the Audi A3 Cabriolet, is the existence of the BMW 2 Series convertible, the 220i in particular. Audi's German rival provides a more refined driving experience for roughly $5000 more, with a rear-wheel drive setup that is more willing to be driven hard.
It doesn’t have the same refined cabin as the Audi and is starting to show its age inside, and some could even argue that it doesn’t look as good from the outside either, but it doesn’t suffer the same ride quality issues as the Audi.
The point to emphasise for buying any convertible in this price range, or above, is to make sure an extended test drive (in the exact specification car to be purchased) is undertaken on roads the buyer will frequent, because while the open roof lifestyle experience is unrivalled, the compromises in ride and dynamics can be enough to push you in favour of a different body style.