Curbside Classic: 1997 Audi Cabriolet – Ja, We Will Just Call It What It Is

When it comes to naming their passenger car models, American and Asian brands have historically favored actual word names, while European brands predominately stuck with alphanumeric nomenclature — the latter a logical move of simplified standardization given Europe’s many languages clustered so close together. Personally, I’m fine with either, so long as the name makes sense and isn’t confusing (I’m looking at you, Mitsubishi Starion). Now like most European luxury brands, Audi typically uses alphanumeric model names, but here and there over the years it’s thrown in a few word-named models, some of them quite literal like the Audi Cabriolet.

Debuting in Europe as a 1991 model, the Audi Cabriolet marked Audi’s first convertible, as the automaker’s last production drop-top was the 1000 SP roadster, sold under Audi’s preceding Auto Union brand from 1961-1965. More costly to produce and typically selling in smaller numbers than their fixed-roof companions, convertibles, or “cabriolets” as Europe calls them, had not been a priority for most automakers through the 1970s and early-1980s. With the general affluence of the 1980s in developed countries, open air motoring saw a resurgence in popularity, and with Audi seeking more premium aspirations by the late-1980s, a cabriolet offering was in the cards.

Although it was largely based on the B3 generation Audi Coupe, the Cabriolet’s introduction corresponded with the introduction of the heavily-facelifted B3 sedan, which Audi considered a new generation, and thus its internal codename as the B4. For this reason, the revised B3 Coupe and B3 Cabriolet from 1991-onward are often grouped under the B4 designation, while technically they were still internally known as B3 Typ 8B (Coupe) and B3 Typ 8G (Cabriolet) .

To further complicate things, B3 and B4 sedans were sold concurrently during late-1991 to early-1992 in some markets, and whereas the B3 was sold in most markets under both the 80 and upmarket 90 nameplates, all European B4 sedans were sold as the 80, whereas North American-spec B4 sedans were strictly badged as the Audi 90. Additionally, while B4 sedans were last sold in Europe as the 80 as 1994s and in North America as the 90 as 1995s — both replaced by the new B5 Audi A4 — the convertible bodystyle continued largely unchanged for significantly longer. In the interest of avoiding further confusion, perhaps simply calling it “Cabriolet” was a smart move.

Versus its fixed-roof sibling, the B4 Cabriolet’s body was structurally reinforced to extensive lengths, ensuring its rigidity and integrity in both everyday and performance driving, exhibiting no noticeably greater NVH than the Coupe. In fact, its windscreen alone was made strong enough to protect occupants in the event of a rollover without necessitating a roll-over bar.

As for its top, as standard equipment, the Cabriolet featured a manually-operated folding cloth soft top, which stowed neatly underneath a hard tonneau cover over the cargo area. Optional, and equipped on most North American-spec Cabriolets was a power-folding soft top. As with most modern power-folding soft tops, a couple of sometimes cumbersome safety checks needed to be in place to necessitate lowering the top. In the Audi Cabriolet’s case, it required the key to be in the accessory or running position, the transmission be in park or neutral, the trunk not only closed but locked, and the emergency brake applied.

Befitting of its already more premium placement than its 80/90 sedan counterparts, Cabriolets typically included higher specification equipment, especially examples destined for North America. Depending on model year, North American spec Cabriolets almost always featured standard items such as Kodiak leather upholstery, burl walnut interior accents, air conditioning, automatic transmission, V6 power, dual front airbags, and premium audio system, with an optional all-weather package that including heated front seats, heated washer jets, and heated door locks.

Upon its initial introduction in European markets, the Cabriolet’s sole engine was a 2.3-litre petrol I5 (131 hp/137 lb-ft), though over the years engine options would extend to also include a 1.8-litre I4, 1.9-litre turbodiesel I4, 2.6-litre petrol V6, and a 2.8-litre V6 (172 hp/184 lb-ft), the latter North America’s only choice. Unlike other B4 bodystyles, Audi never offered the front-wheel drive Cabriolet with Quattro all-wheel drive, as the Cabriolet already tipped the scales at just under 3,500 lbs., some 300 more than the Coupe. The addition of all-wheel drive mechanics would’ve added another 200 lbs. or so, further limiting the Cabriolet’s performance, and likely requiring further upgraded powertrain.

While Europe first received the Cabriolet as a 1991 model, North American sales did not commence until the 1994 model year, which coincided with the B4 80 sedan’s last model year for the European market. Given Audi’s continued upmarket aspirations, from a mass-market sedan perspective, it was clear that the B4’s upgrades over the B3 simply weren’t enough to maintain long-term competitiveness against newer rivals such as the E36 BMW 3 Series and the W202 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Despite its design and general engineering getting on in age, the Audi Cabriolet was typically praised for its high level of road handling and overall composure for a convertible, as well as its comfort, quietness, and fit-and-finish.

The North American-spec B4 90 sedan soon followed suit, bowing out after the 1995 model year to make way for the all-new and far more head-turning B5-platform Audi A4. Nevertheless, the aging Cabriolet soldiered on in most markets, as Audi planned no direct successor to the Coupe or Cabriolet. Indeed, the rather elderly-looking Cabriolet lasted just four model years in the North American market, and with Audi importing less than 1,400 units per year, total U.S. sales of the Cabriolet amounted to only 5,445 units, making it one of the four rings’ rarest sights on American shores.

What’s even more amazing is that in Europe, Audi continued selling the Cabriolet all the way through the 2001 model year, thereby giving Audi a 4-seat convertible to sell until the first A4 convertible (B6) arrived for the 2002 model year. Despite a very minor visual facelift in 1998, there’s no denying that the Cabriolet was heavily outdated by then, especially next to Audi’s other droptop, the 2-seat TT roadster.

Even when it was being sold here in the U.S. during the mid-1990s, the Cabriolet’s styling already looked somewhat dated, as after all, it did date back to the late-1980s. With its very sobering, late-1980s lines, the Cabriolet looked like the vehicle used to draw as an elementary school-aged child if someone had asked me to simply draw a “convertible”. In this respect, perhaps “Cabriolet” was a very fitting name after all.

Photographed in Falmouth, Massachusetts – September 2019

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