Eye-catching appeal from a topless model

GOOD things come to those who wait, and Hong Kong ''Audi-philes'' have been waiting more than a year for the German manufacturer's new Cabriolet to make a debut in this market.

Since its initial appearance at a special car show held in early July, some 30 orders have been placed, indicating that the topless fraulein is, indeed, a good thing to the wind-in-the-hair crowd and local dealer Harmony Motors alike.

Based on the longer and wider Audi 80 introduced in 1992, the Cabriolet is built on the coupe chassis, which has been substantially stiffened for the convertible application.

As with the coupe, it is powered by a 133-horsepower 2.3 litre five-cylinder injection engine driving the front wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission. To come will be an optional 2.8 litre V6 unit generating 174 horsepower.

The current styling trend at Audi is perhaps best described as pleasantly plump, and those who find the sedan and the coupe to be excessive in that area will be pleased to note the open version goes the other way.

In particular with the roof lowered, the lines of the Cabriolet take on a much leaner look, aided by colour-matched door handles and bumpers. The chassis is, in fact, sitting slightly lower, and low-profile tyres are carried effectively on flashy Italiansport rims.

One of the more appealing aspects of Audi's approach to exterior appearance is understatement. Front and rear, only the trademark four interlocking rings identify the marque with the Audi name itself carried simply on a tiny oval plate behind each front wheel.

Plush and supportive leather seats, wood-grained trim and an all-leather sports steering wheel give a promising introduction to the Cabriolet's interior. Bristling with gadgetry such as a diagnostic engine check system and trip computer with a speed monitor alarm, the Audi also sports some practical and innovative features.

Seven easy-to-read gauges give the basic stats, including engine oil pressure and temperature. In addition to individual power window controls is an unusual feature: a single switch to raise and lower all four windows simultaneously, which makes wonderful sense in a convertible.

Soft-top technology has come out of the dark ages in the past few years, and the powered system by Audi must be considered to be a masterful synthesis of the best of recent developments.

Two simple and physically undemanding manoeuvres are all that are necessary to make the transformation in less than a minute without moving from your seat.

When you reach up and twist the T-shaped release handle, the top's front pops free and all four windows lower by about 15 mm. Then, when a switch in the centre console is activated, the hard cover at the rear opens, the top folds quickly back into the recess, the lid closes smartly and the windows automatically return to the fully up position.

The top is made of a three-layer fabric possessing excellent acoustic and thermal insulation, and from the inside it is hard to tell from a regular roof.

Worth mentioning is the effective tensioning mechanism which seals the rear window and, while there was thankfully no opportunity to test the claim, Audi guarantees the top to be completely waterproof, even in a Hong Kong typhoon.

There was a small, but annoying noise coming from the top's latch mechanism on the test car while underway, but the dealer assured that it could be removed by an adjustment. Given the integrity of the rest of the car, I have no reason to doubt this.

The additional material used to stiffen the chassis takes away any power-to-weight advantage you might expect the Cabriolet to have, so the performance dynamics remain about the same as the coupe. That is, the power from the standard engine is adequate but not overwhelming. The throttle is stiff and a pronounced thump on the pedal is required to engage passing gear.

I found myself in the switchable sports mode most of the time, which livened things up a little. When it comes, the V6 should certainly improve the propulsion.

The suspension could handle the extra power. Fitted with gas-filled shocks and firmly sprung, the Audi is well-tempered in corners and there is a solid, reassuring feeling to the car at speed. Dual-circuit ABS braking and discs all round bring the Audi to quick, fuss-free stops.

The new Cabriolet has been a successful exercise for Audi, and although at $549,000 it is not inexpensive, it is one of the most accomplished open-top vehicles.