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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

Eighty-two thousand dollars. Three hundred cars to be available. No reasonable discussion of the Audi’s new-to-these-shores RS4 Cabriolet is going to be possible without first addressing those rather shocking numbers, so we might as well take care of it right away. The droptop RS4 is going to be a very rare car. Not rare in the Acura RL sense, which is merely another way of saying “unwanted”, but rare in the deliberately-limited-production sense. It will be rarer in the United States than any number of well-known supercars, from the Ferrari 430 to Audi’s own R8. A discreet inquiry to our hometown Audi dealership indicated that there was simply no chance of acquiring one; the allocation had been sold long before the first car was built. Audi’s decision to import this car in these quantities amounts less to a serious assault on the upmarket-convertible segment and more to a friendly tip of the cap to the most fervent members of the marque’s wealthier cognoscenti.

Those three hundred lucky owners will each have to part with $81,900 plus the appropriate taxes and fees to take their cabriolets home. The assembled members of the automotive press at Audi’s “Fall Performance Collection” reveal event seemed to be rather obsessed with this price, with the phrase “Porsche Nine Eleven” seeming to fly from every set of lips after the cigars lit up at the end of the evening. The implication seemed to be that Audi had perhaps Reached A Bit Too Far With This One, and isn’t it true that a new 911 Cabriolet may be had for just two thousand dollars more? Well, yes – but that’s the two-wheel-drive car, don’t you know. The all-wheel-drive 911 Cab costs ninety grand, and it’s not nearly as powerful as the 414-horsepower, V8-equipped RS4. Best, then, to compare it with the Carrera 4S Cabriolet, which evens up the power stakes a bit – but it’s an even one hundred thousand dollars before you do so much as put a navigation system in. Equipped in similar style, the Porsche is really $110K, and suddenly the Audi appears to be a bit of a bargain.

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Mercedes-Benz offers the CLK63 AMG cabriolet for $89,200, and it will undoubtedly smoke the RS4 in a straight line – but with rear-wheel-drive as the only choice and an automatic transmission, it’s likely to find favor with a slightly different buyer. BMW’s M3 cabriolet is on hiatus at the moment, so once again Audi has managed to, as “Wee Willie” Keeler would say, “hit ‘em where they ain’t”. The discussion on money and rarity really boils down to this: the price is market-correct and the cars are mostly already sold. It’s tempting, therefore, to dismiss the RS4 Cabriolet as a mere curiosity along the lines of the infamous 1994 Mercedes-Benz E320 Cabriolet – a eighty-plus-thousand-dollar indulgence mostly owned by very wealthy old people who probably didn’t do so much as look in the direction of a competing brand before putting up a tremendous amount of money to own an extra weekend runabout.

Such a dismissal sells the Cab short, and by a considerable amount. After all, the base version of this car isn’t a tepid old E320 – it’s the formidable RS4 sedan, the car that famously challenged the mighty BMW E46-chassis M3 on its own ground and, by many accounts, beat it fair and square. Both RS4 models are equipped with a direct-injected, 414-horsepower V8, which revs to a thrilling 8250 rpm before stutter-stepping against the limiter. They share a chunky, direct-feeling six-speed manual transmission, precise if not perfectly communicative steering, and no-excuses eight-piston front brakes. The RS4 was the first Audi with a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, which saves the front tires from abuse on-track and makes corner exits disturbingly easy. For most automotive enthusiasts, the RS4 needs little (re)introduction, being one of the most desirable sedans on the planet.

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Unfortunately, the history of modern performance automobiles does not lack for examples of manufacturers who, like Faust, believed they could deal with the devil of convertible conversions and still come out ahead, only to find out that the penalties of increased weight and reduced performance sucked the soul out of the resulting automobiles. The outgoing BMW M3 cabriolet was perhaps the worst offender in recent times; BMW chopped off the top of an authentic performance icon and ended up with a track-allergic Flexi-Flyer seemingly doomed to wander the underworld of shopping mall parking lots, piloted by giggling sorority girls or backwards-baseball-capped drooling morons. Is the RS4 any different?

As fate would have it, the very first freeway on-ramp we encountered provided the answer. Tight, sharply kinked directly before the merge, and feeding right onto a crowded California freeway, it virtually guaranteed that its users would end up attempting to join eighty-mile-per-hour traffic at a terrifying fifty. Trust us: that fate will not befall the Fortunate Three Hundred who have their own RS4 Cab. Pressing the “sport” button on the console to liberate the V8’s stock-car-via-Pavarotti tenor, we hit the kink at max velocity and grabbed third gear on the exit, catapulting into the lane with room and speed to spare. Only in retrospect did it occur to us that the suggested limit for that turn was perhaps a third of our actual rate of travel; the RS4 instills confidence in the driver from the moment it fires up.

Sailing along the highway, top down, with the enormous windblocker preventing much of a disturbance from entering the cabin, and with the relaxed burble of the engine behind us, it occurred to us that the RS4 has many of the characteristics of another eighty-thousand-dollar entry in the luxury-goods market. First-class interior appointments? Check. Majestic V8 power? Absolutely. Open-air fun for a privileged couple and very occasional friends? Without a doubt. The light chop of the freeway’s expansion joints provided the final clue. This RS4 Cabriolet has all the characteristics of a road-going speedboat, a Chris-Craft for the concrete causeway, just like its got new rv marine batteries. The money’s about the same – a top-line small speedboat can cost seventy grand before the options – and the experience isn’t all that different. It’s tough to avoid looking smug in either conveyance, truth be told, and we quickly learned to affect an insouciant, smiling slouch as we passed the pontoon-boat SUVs and the sad rowboat mass-market sedans. Regrettably, the RS4 won’t throw up a wake in its, er, wake – but our swift swanning down Highway 101 did attract the attention of a trailing CHP officer, wandering back and forth behind us like an errant waterskiier and reminding us that a car with this level of capability is best explored, not on a road, but on a road course.

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As in our recent Audi S5 test, the venue for our track testing was Infineon Raceway in northern California. We were permitted only two flying laps at a time, perhaps to calm down the red mist which occasionally affects motoring journalists and also possibly to flatter the stock brake pads fitted to the test cars. Street-spec brake pads and fluid rarely hold up well to the stress of multiple fast laps, even when the caliper hardware involved is as unimpeachably excellent as the RS4’s, so Audi certainly would have been within the bounds of fairness to swap in something a little more track-focused. That they did not, and that the test cars survived a full day of constant driving without a pad change, is a testament to the OEM pad and fluid. This is not to say that we would wait more than a day or two before fitting a set of Pagid Oranges into any RS4 which came into our sole possession – with a hacksaw, if necessary – but the stock hardware is decent enough.

One Lap Of Infineon In the RS4 Cab-

Upon driving the S5 and RS4 Cabriolet back to back, we suspected that the lap times might be approximately equal between the two. The S5 gives up sixty horsepower to the RS4 but is a few hundred pounds lighter and is not troubled by the compromises of a convertible top; it also benefits from Audi’s newest small-sedan platform, while the RS4 is the very last of the old guard, using the “B7” platform which does not have the revised front axle positioning. In the end, however, the RS4 still carried the day by a few seconds, proving measurably faster on the straights and having slightly more absolute grip thanks to its more aggressive tires. The chassis does not have the adjustability and feel of the new-generation S5, and the extra weight of the convertible version does make itself felt. The future RS5, when it arrives, will almost certainly be measurably faster in all situations, even if the power does not improve – but the RS4 Cabriolet acquits itself well enough in the corners.

Still, the real story of the RS4 track experience is in the engine. Audi is not alone in having such a high-revving unit for its performance cars, but the eagerness with which the 4.2-liter V8 races to the limiter in each gear is both special and rare in street-legal vehicles. It is virtually impossible to catch it flat-footed. At low revs, it has the confident twist of a small-block Detroit V8; nearing six thousand RPM, it swells and thrusts forward like a pre-Varioram Porsche 993. Matched against the over-two-ton bulk of a loaded RS4 Cabriolet, there is a slight sense that the irresistible force of the engine has met, if not an immovable object, a difficult-to-move one – but this only truly manifests itself once the speedometer has swept well into the triple digits.

Catching Journalists In an R8, Using the RS4 Cab

Audi’s on-site driver-education operation at Infineon uses the RS4 sedan as its primary training vehicle, and a quick session at the end of the day in a “school car” points out the differences between the RS4 sedan and cabriolet. The sedan is, of course, quicker due to its weight advantage, holding two or three miles per hour extra at the end of the long straights. Driven in absolutely unsympathetic fashion, the sedan also appears to handle the transitions in the back-and-forth Turns 7-8-9 combination more competently, being slightly more willing to change direction and settle down once the steering input is completed. And yet there is no doubt that a friendly race between RS4 sedan and cabriolet would be close enough to be a “driver’s race” – something which cannot be said about the outgoing M3 coupe and cabriolet. The fundamental excellence of the RS4 sedan shines through. Rather than feeling diluted by the convertible conversion, the RS4 appears to benefit from it, trading a minor slice of ability at the limit for an expanded world of real-world enjoyment.

It is hard to imagine that there was a “business case” for bringing three hundred examples of this very special car to the United States. The total revenue for Audi’s North American operations in doing so amounts to barely more than a morning shift’s worth of Camry production at Toyota’s Kentucky plant. There is no future in the model, as the new A4 will be available in this country less than six months from now and the RS4 will soon find itself without platform mates to make additional production feasible. Perhaps it is just another expression of the increasingly close relationship Audi is developing with its resurgent fan base in the United States. More so than its competition, Audi is demonstrating a willingness to bring over cars for very small customer groups – from the A3 hatch to the R8 supercar – and those customer groups are responding to the effort. The customers who asked for, and received, the RS4 cabriolet are likely to be particularly well pleased; this is a swift, satisfying speedboat of a car which delivers more than it promises. At this price, surely more than three hundred could be sold. And if this is the end for the RS4 cabriolet, it is certainly not the end of the concept. The inevitable RS5, which will use the new Audi platform complete with improved axle placement, is likely to spawn a cabriolet of even greater ability. That will not bother the lucky few who took delivery of the RS4, as they will have a superb vehicle to enjoy in the interim… but it should put a chill down the spine of Audi’s competition.

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Jack Baruth

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