They used to call them hairdressers’ cars.
Pretty little convertibles, based on small sedans, that were attractive enough to make a fashion statement but rarely with performance to match the sharp appearance.
Plenty of show, not much go, in other words.
It was a recipe that gave us forgettable soft-top models from the likes of Ford (actually, who could forget the leaky Capri convertible), Holden (with the slightly better Astra convertible) and Toyota (the best-forgotten Celica cabrio).
But the small convertible market has become much more sophisticated in recent years, with some of the world’s biggest and most admired marques diving into this “vanity car” market.
Audi is leading the way with cars like this one – the A3 Cabriolet – that blends Audi’s legendary build quality and sharp driving dynamics in an attractive, affordable package.
But the A3 Cabrio is much more than a superficial “look at me” machine.
Yes, the foldback cloth roof gives it plenty of boulevard appeal. And no doubt you’ll find plenty of them parked around your favourite coffee shop.
But chances are it’s just as likely to be a silver-haired empty-nester at the wheel as it is a young, attention-seeking hairstylist.
And unless you’re committed to lugging around a carload of grandchildren, this would be the ideal car in which to spend your golden years.
It’s compact and nimble enough to be a joy to drive around town; it’s relatively affordable and frugal enough not to erode too much of your holiday budget; and it’s responsive and focused enough to be a very rewarding drive.
It’s in the performance category that this new A3 cabrio really made an impression on us.
The two-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant of our test machine was remarkably punchy, delivering the kind of performance we’re used to getting from more sport-focused models.
This car is one step up from the the entry-level version of the A3 cabrio – the range starts with a 1.4-litre model costing less than 50 grand.
Our mid-range model will set you back a still-accessible $55,000 – or for an additional spend of $17,000 you can enjoy the even more powerful and slightly better-equipped S3 Cabrio.
But this one would do me fine.
The 2.0TFSI delivered a more than useful 140kW and brawny 320Nm, put to the ground via a seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission and front-wheel-drive.
Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system adds $3600 to this model and is standard on the S3.
The model tested here will scamper to the speed limit in a brisk 7.2 seconds while sipping a very reasonable 6L/100km.
This all-new A3 Cabrio arrives as part of an entirely updated A3 range and reflects the same increasingly impressive qualities as the donor A3 hatch and sedan. Those cars have helped bring new levels of technology and finish into this fast-growing premium compact market.
Audi claims that as well as performance and efficiency improvements with the new engine, the A3 offers up to $7000 additional value over the previous model.
That includes the ground-breaking “virtual cockpit” instrument panel (standard on top-spec models) – a wide video screen that replaces conventional dials in a colourful, configurable format that can even project a full-colour navigation map on the panel in front of the driver.
It’s an innovation that’s being picked up by other carmakers now – most notably Volvo in its new XC90 and S90 flagship models – but it still seems like a great value-add in a lower-cost model like the A3.
As much fun as they are, the appeal of convertibles often tends to wear off for me after a few days. But not this one.
Maybe that’s because as well as its engaging, rewarding dynamics, Audi has eliminated some of the cabrio characteristics that tend to grate.
For instance, the A3 impressed us with its quietness, particularly with the cloth roof peeled back. At 100km/h, there’s minimal road or wind noise – and virtually no buffeting inside the cockpit – two factors that are generally a bugbear of convertibles.
And another typical drop-top weakness – the loss of structural rigidity when you remove the bracing of a steel roof – has also been well mitigated by the Audi designers.
The A3 feels sturdy and beautifully grounded – with accurate, direct steering and excellent balance.
Standard features include Matrix LED headlights, autonomous emergency braking up to speeds of 65 km/h and a welter of electronic driver aides including active lane assist, side assist and rear cross traffic assist.
The MMI multimedia system, now featuring Audi’s internet connect system, also delivers Apple Carplay or Android Auto connectivity.
The A3 is not the most spacious car you’ll drive, although we did manage to squeeze our 190cm son into the back seat behind his mother, which is no small achievement.
Cargo space is decent if not anything to write home about. The limited space is reasonably flat and accessible, although the space occupied by the folding roof does compromise that a bit.
Still, I’m yet to drive a convertible that was built with practicality in mind – and this one is hardly the worst on that score.
So, does this car represent the death of the hairdresser’s car or the reinvention of it?
I guess that depends entirely on your perspective – and perhaps your occupation.
Mind you, it does come with a make-up mirror.
Audi A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI
- HOW BIG?
Based on the A3 compact sedan and hatch, it loses some of that space to the dynamics of the folding roof and the inconvenience of two doors only. But the rear seat is still useable – if not useful – and two adults plus a couple of kids isn’t beyond the realms.
- HOW FAST?
Even though we tested the mid-range two-litre, turbocharged model, it impressed with its nippy, responsive performance. So much so that the more expensive, more powerful and all-wheel-drive S3 seems a bit unnecessary. There’s also an entry-level 1.4-litre version of you’re in no hurry.
- HOW THIRSTY?
Recent upgrades to this engine allow it, in combination with the efficient seven-speed auto, to return a frugal thirst of 6L/100km.
- HOW MUCH?
The A3 cabrio can be had for as little as $49,000 plus onroads. Our test machine cost $55,000 plus a few extras that pushed the price to $63,900, plus onroads, which is hardly cheap. Then again, have you seen the price of a haircut lately?