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New Car Review: 2005 Audi S4 Cabriolet

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How can excellence be improved?
Audi's A4 cabriolet has established a benchmark for structural rigidity among drop-top automobiles.

It is subtly different from its sedan stablemate in styling, with smoother, more rounded lines that show a kinship to the company's TT sports cars. Its three-layer convertible top provides insulation from heat, cold, and noise that compares favorably with any sedan. And, with the no-hands power top down, it provides a pleasant open-air experience that no sedan can approach, no matter how large the sunroof.

Under its smoothly-rounded hood can be found either a 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower turbo four or a 220-horse 3.0-liter V6. Audi's innovative multitronic(r) continuously-variable transmission sends power to the wheels - front in the case of the four, or either front or all now that the quattro(r) all-wheel drive system is available with the V6.

The A4 Cabrio is a wonderful and sporty luxury touring car, but it is not and was never meant to be a sports car. And that's fine, because now there is a seriously high-performance alternative. Meet the recently-introduced 2004 Audi S4 Cabriolet.

Audi's ``S'' cars are the company's performance flagships. Unlike some of their German rivals, they have no pretensions to race-car ambiance - they are designed and built for road use. Fast but safe and secure road use, in luxury comfort, as can best be done on the German Autobahn.

The S4 lineup previously included both sedan and Avant (Audi's term for sport wagon) models. Just in time for summer, they are joined by the S4 Cabrio.

Although it looks little different from the A4 Cabrio, the S4 ragtop has a considerably stronger powertrain, with a 340-horsepower V8 driving all four wheels via Audi's quattro(r) all-wheel drive system.

A six-speed manual gearbox or an optional six-speed automatic with Tiptronic(r) manual mode and steering-wheel mounted shift paddles emphasizes the engine's power.

The suspension is firm enough for serious sport driving, but supple enough for long-distance comfort. And, like its less-powerful brethren, commendable chassis rigidity, the three-layer power top, and typically Audi excellent interior design give it a fine combination of sport handling and luxury comfort.

Audi has built cars that illustrate the old saying ``an iron fist in a velvet glove'' better than any other manufacturer for a while now, and the S4 Cabriolet merely improves that reputation.

APPEARANCE: At a glance, there is very little to tell the S4 Cabrio from its A4 cousin. And why mar the Cabrio's smooth lines with boy-racer wings, spoilers, and add-on fender flares? A discerning eye will note the larger, 18-inch, wheels with ultra-low profile 235/40 ZR18 tires immediately, followed by the extra air inlet in the front bumper fascia that hints at Audi's racing heritage, emulating the look of the Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s. The xenon headlamps have titanium-colored surrounds, and the rearview mirrors are finished in aluminum. At the rear, the A4's single exhaust is replaced by the S4's dual exhausts.

COMFORT: As outside, the S4 Cabrio's interior builds on that of its A4 counterpart. Here this means ``S'' instrumentation with gray-faced dials and unique needles, gray birch or optional carbon fiber trim, and 12-way power adjustment for both front sports seats. Nappa leather adds to their comfort, as can optional heating. The rear seat is one of the roomiest in a contemporary convertible, with ample space for two medium-sized adults. Top-up visibility is better than average for a convertible, helped by the heated glass backlight. Top-down there is just enough wind in the hair for a pleasant experience, but it's never overpowering, especially with the available wind deflector (which does, alas, cover the rear seat, reducing passenger capacity). With the top down, the aluminum trim that surrounds the passenger cabin is readily apparent, and adds considerably to the Cabrio's looks. Top-down luggage capacity is tight, but with the top up there is a touch more. The top goes up or down quickly, at the touch of a button, with no manual latching. There are times when a convertible's top needs to be up, and its three-layer construction ensures quiet, well-insulated comfort in temperature extremes, and, with quattro traction, helps the S4 Cabrio to be an all-season car.

SAFETY: The S4 Cabrio has a strong, rigid body structure with front and rear crumple zones and side impact door beams, front and side head-and-thorax air bags, reinforced windshield pillars, and an automatic rollover protection system that is deployed if the air bag sensors detect potential rollover to help protect its occupants.

ROADABILITY: Bone-jarringly stiff suspensions have their place - on a smooth racetrack. In the real world, even luxury sports cars have to traverse poorly-paved roads. So, while the spring and damping calibration of the S4's Cabrio's fully-independent four-link front / trapezoidal link rear suspension is softer than some of the more hard-core German sports cars, it is still firm enough for excellent handling in real-world driving. Lightweight aluminum suspension components decrease unsprung weight, for faster and more precise response. And, although it has a much firmer ride than the A4 Cabrio, it is compliant enough for fatigue-free long-distance travel. The unibody chassis is one of the most rigid ever for a convertible, due to extra reinforcement to the lower chassis structure and extensive use of high-strength steel. This improves handling and safety, and decreases noise. Even over poor surfaces, there is virtually no cowl shake.

PERFORMANCE: Any power deficiencies of the A4 Cabrio have been addressed in the S4. Even though the reinforced convertible structure makes for a heavier car than the S4 sedan by over 250 lbs, the 4.2-liter, 40-valve twincam V8's 340 horsepower and 302 lb-ft of torque ensure quick acceleration. It's strong off the line, but strongest in the midrange near the 3500 rpm torque peak. It likes to rev - maximum horsepower is developed at 7000 rpm. License preservation is the only real reason to keep the revs down. But it's not high-strung, and can happily loiter in traffic at idle speeds. The six-speed gearbox has quick, smooth linkage, and quattro all-wheel drive sends all that power to the wheels that can best use it. Yes, raw acceleration is slightly less than the S4 sedan - by about half a second to 60 mph - but the view is far better.

CONCLUSIONS: Audi has improved upon its excellent A4 Cabrio by adding serious levels of sports handling and power to make the S4 Cabrio.

SPECIFICATIONS - 2005 Audi S4 Cabrio

Base Price			$ 53,850
Price As Tested			$ 58,595
Engine Type			40-valve dual overhead cam V8
Engine Size			4.2 liters / 254 cu. in.
Horsepower			340 @ 7000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			302 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		104.5 in. / 180.0 in.
Curb Weight			4090 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		12.0
Fuel Capacity			16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P235/40 ZR18 Continental ContiContact 2
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc,
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent four-link / 
				  independent trapezoidal link
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		15 / 21 / 16
0 to 60 mph				5.8  sec

Premium Audio Package - includes:
  Bose(r) premium sound system,
  XM(r) satellite radio				$ 1,000
Premium Package - includes:
  Homelink(r) remote transmitter, auto-dimming
  interior and exterior mirrors, memory for 
  driver-side seat and mirror positions, light
  sensor package, wind deflector		$   875
Heated front seats				$   450
Gas guzzler tax					$ 1,700
Destination charge				$   720