From the July 1994 issue of Car and Driver.
Visitors to the Toofar North will tell you that Michigan’s long winters limit us to two seasons—August and Road Closed. But there is an ersatz spring, meaning the first warmth registered by exposed human flesh and thus sufficient for dropping a convertible’s top, presuming the car has a heater hot enough to burst knackwurst.
The new Volkswagen Cabrio possesses such a heater (mind the toes). Thus we hotfooted it down to southeast Ohio, where byways romp through the greening hills, because nothing makes the tootsies warmer and a driver cooler than wheeling a new ragtop.
For the surgically precise roofectomy on the Golf, Volkswagen has called again on the services of Karmann Coachworks in Osnabrock, Germany. Its latest pop-top arrives 39 years after the famed Beetle Convertible and 16 years after VW’s blocky Rabbit Convertible. The Rabbit version was the one known everywhere but here as the Golf Cabriolet, and its towering bustle gave it the look of a hopalong bunny hutch, maybe explaining its American name. The Rabbit and its lookalike successor, eventually called the Cabriolet here, too, produced enough offspring to overrun sunny avenues from West Palm Beach to Waikiki.
The old Golf was not notably willowy, but Volkswagen says the new one is 20-percent more rigid. Its integral “basket-handle” roll bar increases rollover protection and torsional rigidity. Stiffness has also been added to the floor, dash, nose, and tail, improving handling and safety and cutting cabin noise. After pounding at length over lumpy back roads, we heard a buzz in the dash, a hint of resonances more easily drummed loose in early Rabbits and Golfs.
The roll bar anchors three-point belts for the driver and front passenger (the rear seat also offers three-pointers); dual airbags are fitted as well. Volkswagen’s safety features have produced a convertible whose side-impact protection already meets 1997 U.S. safety standards. But the passenger bag eliminates the glovebox and there’s no console for tucking away, say, the Hope Diamond. There is, however, a standard central-locking system with alarm. We never set off the alarm system, which qualifies it as foolproof.
VW says the cabin’s size—enlarged 11 percent—makes the Cabriolet “a true four-passenger vehicle” (accurate if all four are average in size), adding that it provides more legroom and shoulder space, plus more headroom for front-seaters, than BMW’s coveted 3-series softtop. Out back, the new bodywork has been hollowed out for a one-third increase in trunk space. That’s good news considering what an eensy cubbyhole was squeezed into the old Cabrio. The current trunk’s usable eight cubic feet is much more accessible thanks to a bigger lid.
Dropping the top takes less time than eating a burrito (scientifically roadside tested), even without consulting a manual. Although not power-operated, this is one of the easiest-lowering tops we’ve experienced. Inside, above each front side window, is a safety tab that releases a pulldown lever, which can also function as a grab-handle when the top is up. These flip down easily to unlatch the roof. If you’ve cycled a lever-action rifle a thousand times to smooth its action, you’ll find these effortless, and the top drops slick as a greased pig on Teflon (piglets, don’t try this at home). Pull the top back and fold it down into its storage well. Take the vanity booty from the trunk and put the cover over the top. To remove bulges, tuck the cover’s tail behind the rear seatback (which can also be folded to allow long luggage). Two small retaining clips with finger-ring releases, like baby NASCAR hood pins, keep the cover from flapping in the breeze.
Very slick, as expected of Karmann’s fussless tops. This one’s six layers, all hand-fitted, are meant to provide “superior insulation from extreme heat and cold,” and they should. The glass rear window, unlike plastic backlights, provides a clear view and good defrosting. Best of all, Karmann listened when VW said to make this Cabrio’s top so it wouldn’t tower so much like the afterdeck of the USS Constitution over the car’s dinghy dimensions, à la the previous Cabriolet.
Now the Cabrio’s silhouette is lower, wedgier yet rounder, less vertically rectangular. Its stance is broader. Yet even with the top up, you’ll find headroom enough for Montana 12-gallon hats (though the buckaroos won’t be pining for the VW, there being too little room for long guns in the back window). The Golf’s power windows can all be run fully down for open airiness, or up to create, along with the windshield, a flying cubbyhole against the elements.
As mobile havens go, the VW is handsomely designed and beautifully put together. Good looks mark the dash layout and controls—except that the driving position has maybe been laid out for short, wide folks (sorry, persons both vertically and horizontally challenged). The pedals are close, the wheel is somewhat far away, though not off in the north-40 as in pre-airbag Volkswagen Passats. However you set the tilt wheel or seat adjustments (fore, aft, tilt, height, backrest angle), you may not find a really prime fit. If you set the seat for control, you may need to dip your head to see, beyond the wheel, the tops of the speedometer and tach—reported hidden from as much as 40 mph to 100, and 2250 rpm to 5400. And while we all want a cabrio to “bring in the elements,” low sun regularly blazes in past the VW’s tiny visors. (Also, where are our quad visors?) VW’s premium AM/FM/cassette stereo is much better than the company’s once-tinny offerings. It includes CD-ready controls for an optional remote changer.
What we heard too much with top up and stereo off was tire noise from bad roads—no whine but a lot of roar and thump. The suspension is still semi-independent but kitted out with bigger wheels and tires, 6.0-inch rims in Goodyear Eagle GA M+S 195/60HR-14s. They dislike truck ruts, jostling as if to say our roads should be as good as German ones. Handling that feels fine when cruising through farmlands feels squishy and reveals bump-steer when pressed harder through lumpier country. VW may also be using softish suspension to spare the convertible structure in the long run, and the Eagle GAs help the ride. (German car companies tend to poo-poo aggressive tires for America’s cruiser-class drivers.) Even so, the Cabrio deftly carves around the skidpad at 0.81 g, and firm and linear anti-lock brakes easily burn off speed. Lowly rear drums partner the front discs but help stop the Cabrio handily from 70 mph in 182 feet, and without fade.
Major improvements in the clutch, shifter, and five-speed transaxle (electronically controlled four-speed automatic optional) have turned the Golf’s power delivery from balky to silky, especially its appetite for heel-and-toe downshifts. The Golf’s 115-horsepower 2.0-liter engine is a substantially revised design, too, but these days, its single overhead cam makes it something of an “underaspirer.” Yet with just two valves for each of its four cylinders, its torque and smoothness in everyday driving make it feel almost as slick as a six. Credit its long stroke and oodles of engineering in its intake system. It makes 25 hp more than the old 1.8-liter four-cylinder and, despite 400 pounds added to the new Cabrio, cuts the 0-to-60 time from 11.6 seconds to 10.3.
If that doesn’t make today’s Cabrio a barn-burner, its easy running suggests it’s up to more than warming the spirits and toasting a few toes. Its feel improves magically when you put the top down: the wind carries away worries, and your mood soars.
With alloys and A/C for less than 22 grand on the drive-home meter, this is one cab that’s easy to take. With a bit more muscle, it would be hard to catch.
1994 Volkswagen Cabrio
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door convertible
Base/As Tested: $20,365/$21,800
Options: air conditioning, $850; alloy wheels, $585
SOHC inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 121 in3, 1984 cm3
Power: 115 hp @ 5400 rpm
Torque: 122 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 10.1-in vented disc/7.9-in drum
Tires: Goodyear Eagle GA M+S
Wheelbase: 97.4 in
Length: 160.5 in
Width: 66.7 in
Height: 55.1 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 51/30 ft3
Trunk Volume: 8 ft3
Curb Weight: 2790 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.3 sec
1/4-Mile: 17.6 sec @ 77 mph
100 mph: 42.0 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 10.9 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 11.3 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 14.9 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): 109 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 26 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 23/30 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED