Long Term Test – Audi Cabriolet 2.6E

I’d always liked the Audi Coupes, whilst I had the mk2 GTi it was always in the top handful of cars I’d like as a replacement, built in the time Audi’s were the understated choice. I started looking for a coupe in 2006, didn’t find any to spec, but found an 80k Audi 80E 2.0 saloon freshly MoT’d on eBay, and by the end of the night it was mine for a bargain £590. It might not have been a Coupe, but, it was solid, too good to miss, and at least let me cheaply find out whether I really liked one or not, even if it did have too many doors & too few cylinders.

Spot the difference – Audi Cabriolet & Audi Saloon

It was such a good, cheap runner it was 3 years before I finally got round to thinking it’s about time I had a coupe, and by then the Audi Cabriolet’s had dropped in to budget… So the hunt was on for a 2.6 Cabriolet, 2.8s were out as they need even more expensive Super Unleaded, 2.0s were definitely out as running the 2.0 saloon was slooow compared to the GTi I’d had. Preferably wanted a manual but with around 10-30 Cabs on Auto Trader nationwide (of all variations) it did make picking the perfect spec difficult. So it’s quite an exclusive car, it’s rare to even see another Audi 80 saloon or Coupe, another Cabriolet on the road is quite a very rare spot indeed, I can probably count on both hands the amount of Cabriolets I’ve seen on the road in two years.

Two Audi Cabriolets

Very exclusive, you never see another on the road…

A bit of searching and found a 2.6E down in Ipswich, £2k, bit of laquer peel, recent cambelt and some other expensive bills recently done, 10 months MoT, unfortunately an Auto box, but with a handful of manuals to find there had to be a compromise. Spoke on the phone & a deal was done to collect that weekend.

The first few months unfortunately didn’t go well, the seller neatly didn’t disclose anything about the autobox being temperamental, then a few weeks in it went through about 5 recon power steering pumps in about 4 weeks before I finally got a second hand original fitted instead. To top it off just after I’d got that sorted, it transpired I’d got a blocked radiator too. Luckily managed to drop on a brand new OEM radiator for £42 on eBay, so turning that in to a relatively cheap job with help from a mate.

Fixed, we took the car up on a do or die trip to the lakes, and took it over the challenging HardKnott & Wrynose Pass amongst others. The car passed with flying colours, and roof down you forget about any previous troubles. I eventually got the gearbox sorted too, I put it off & off fearing big bills from the auto box, but eventually booked it in to a specialist at Barnsley, who diagnosed a broken connector inside the box, apparently a common fault. A morning there, box drained, plug fixed, filters renewed & refilled and £150 lighter, I thought not that bad a bill, and the gearbox much improved.

Did have a few other faults with the car over 2 years, the old after market alarm system was causing a hot start issue with it’s old wiring, which once it had left me stranded once too often was sorted by an auto electricians, and the camshaft sensor decided to let me down spectacularly on the December 23rd, that led to a fun 24 hours. I also had to rewire the boot wiring for the roof, there’s a bunch of sensors to stop you opening the roof with the boot open to stop the hitting each other, 7 core wires either side of the boot lid through the tight scissor action eventually fray internally, leading to the roof not working properly & various rear lighting faults… It’d been soldered in the past on the corners, with a tip off audifans.net I grabbed some trailer wire from the local caravan centre, and rewired from plug end to plug end so as to remove as much of the old wire as possible. Problems sorted for £3 and an afternoons work. Bodywork wise though was typically Audi, solid as a rock throughout with hardly any noticeable corrosion on it anywhere, which is one of the reasons I’ve repeatedly bought VAG over the last 10+ years.

The manual roof once you’ve got the knack of the process can be put up & down in sub 30-40 seconds, faster than a lot of electric roofs (especially of that era), and very useful with our temperamental weather and means you can use it roof down even on a short trip to the shops/work. You sit quite low within the car too so roof down there’s little breeze in the cabin below 60mph, so whilst there are wind deflectors available, they’re less required than some other drop tops. There is a touch of scuttle shake noticeable as the rear windows rattle against the fronts, but only on rough roads, but no other shakes or rattles from anything else. The general build quality is superb though, it’s only as I’ve started looking inside comparative E36 BMWs recently that realised what a cut above the Audi is, no wonder been giving other cars a tough time on plastics, the switchgear & plastic quality was evidently built to last, reassuring clicks as push buttons and shares those touches such as the chromed door locks, and the scissor boot lit mechanism that shows Audi were thinking about things.

Roof folding

Looks more complicated than it really is

The handling is pretty good, it does suffer the typical Audi nose heavy as the engine sits way out front (it’s so far front the strut brace crosses behind the longitudinally mounted engine), but push on and it continues to dig in beyond the levels you may expect, giving you the confidence to easily drive it quickly, though the power assisted steering lacks any reel feel. It feels faster than the books suggest, 0-60 in 11 seconds sounds like a lifetime, but it must be something in the auto 1st gear/lazy V6 not suiting drag races, because if you prod the throttle from about 10-20mph+ and it’ll soon start reeling in the horizon with no let off as the gear box slushes up through the range. The Audi Cabriolet does have the downside of being one of the few Audis made in the last 30 years, that isn’t available in quattro form (the other being the A2). If you want a convertible & quattro you need to step up to the A4 which means spending a whole lot more dosh. With reasonable tyres on, it deploys the 150bhp of the 2.6 to the road with little fuss, bit of wheelspin in the wet, but little torque steer. The V6 is super smooth, has plenty of bottom end torque, makes a nice enough noise, but it’s more discreet, not as aurally pleasing as the Audi 5 pot, or the BMW straight 6.

The car’s not about an all out racer though, I have the cabriolet as live on the edge of the peak district, within 5 minutes of home I can be amongst farmer fields, and 10 minutes up in to the hills. Driving through in a tin top, you drive ‘through the peaks’, all feels very soulless, and if you’ve got something quick, you feel the only way to enjoy it is to drive it quick. With a cabriolet you drive ‘in the peaks’, you get full 360º unobstructed views of your surroundings, the smells (maybe not always a good thing), the sounds, you notice a lot more about what is going on around you, so you’re much happier to just drive about soaking in your surroundings, or if the mood takes you can push on and give it some stick.

Audi by the Bay

Some people question the point of a soft top, particularly in the UK, but roof up it feels like a coupe, the lined roof is quiet, buffet free and it only really gets noisy on the motorway, not uncomfortably so, you can still chat fine, it’s just a few db louder than sitting in a tin top, and these 4 seaters feel just as roomy as your typical 3 door hatch/coupes, not so hemmed in as you do in say, an MX5. Practical wise, whilst the boot is smaller than the saloons, and lacks folding seats, it’s still big enough for carrying shopping, or holiday luggage, and if you really go OTT there’s the back seats for extra bits, or even a passenger or two. So day to day it’s not much different to driving a coupe on the road, when when the weathers great you’ve then enjoy the soft top, turning it in to two cars in one. Granted it’s not going to be as sharp as the Coupe, but unless you’re taking your car on track, you can’t really drive them to the limits that find those weaknesses on the road.

The bonus of the one car solution, rather than say a practical hatch & smaller convertible, is that you’re always in ‘the right’ car. You don’t find yourself leaving work on a beautiful day with the cabrio stuck at home in the garage, because of this you get home, leave the roof down, which then encourages you to go out and take it out for another blast. It’s also practical & comfy enough to carry luggage, so you can use it as the holiday car too.

Downsides to the car, the biggest for me has been fuel consumption. 2.6, auto, lots of Derbyshire hills, my average for the past two years has been 19mpg, probably not helped by a non working thermostat. On long runs & around the flats of Norfolk it returned a much more respectable 25-29mpg. It also hasn’t got the chuckable fun of some FWD hatches, nor dor is have the RWD thrills of an MX5, or the raw character, but roof down through some beautiful scenery and you forget about this, kick back and enjoy it, it’s worth every penny. I’m also it has to be said, for the first time in a car conscious of the consequences of rolling it, but that’s only an occasional thought.

Others to consider in this price & size point are the BMW E36, Saab 900, & Volvo C70. To be honest, I disregarded the Saab & Volvo pair immediately as I prefer the styling & image of the Audi, and to me neither Volvo/Saab add anything to the driving dynamics. So for me the fight is down to the Audi & the BMW. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s been a tough call but I’ve bought an E36 convertible to replace her, but purely because of the rear wheel drive aspect, and the belief it should make it the better drivers car…

But I’d still recommend/buy another, looking through Auto Trader after this one had been written off, some very nice final edition Audi Cabriolets were pulling at the heart strings. It’s a quick, rare, comfy, timeless looking, sure to be appreciating future classic.

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