Sketchy German Drop-Tops: 1990 VW Cabriolet vs 2004 Audi A4 Cabriolet

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Happy Monday morning to you all! Today we’re going to look at a pair of German convertibles that are either killer deals or wallet-killers, depending on your perspective. But before we get there, let’s see who won Friday’s ute battle:

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Yeah, I think I’m with you. Generally I’d prefer the El Camino, but if it’s that Ranchero versus that El Camino, then the little white truck is the better choice.

Now then: When you think of fun-in-the-sun open-air motoring, I know the first country that comes to mind is Germany. I mean, it never rains there, and the Germans are so well-known for their easygoing carefree spirit that of course convertibles are going to be their car of choice.

OK, yeah, not so much. But they have become adept at lopping the tops off their cars and making them more fun and appealing to us Americans. Today we’re going to look at two of them, one older and one newer. Both of them run, both of them look reasonably watertight, and neither will suffer casual maintenance or lackadaisical owners gladly, but either could be a good source of some cheap open-air thrills. And take it from someone who drove a convertible for eight years: October and May are the best months for top-down motoring, so you’ve still got some time left on the season. Let’s get into them and see what they have to offer.

1990 Volkswagen Cabriolet – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter OHC inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Fairview, OR

Odometer reading: 160,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep!

Volkswagen has a long history of making convertibles from their bread-and-butter cars; the Beetle was offered as a drop-top throughout most of its long run. The Golf was offered as a converible for several generations, but the convertible skipped generations – there never was a Mk2 or Mk4 Golf cabriolet; the Mk1 and Mk3 bodystyles handled convertible duties through the even-numbered runs. That’s why this 1990 model still looks like a Rabbit, even though it was six years into the Mk2 Golf run.

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This car was built by Karmann Coachworks, using mechanical components supplied by Volkswagen. Karmann’s body design isn’t quite a full convertible, retaining the B-pillars and a “basket handle” roll bar to keep some structural rigidity and safety. The top is insulated and has a glass rear window, making the Cabrio a little less “convertible-y” with the top up than some others. It’s manually-operated, so no worries about failing motors.

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Mechanically, this car is standard-issue early watercooled VW, with a 1.8 liter version of VW’s long-lived EA827 engine. It’s fuel-injected, easy to work on, and generally reliable; I’ve always liked this motor. Here it’s backed by a five-speed manual, as it should be.

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This particular Cabrio is a little beat-up, and the seller says the title is lost, so that will have to be sorted out. But it runs and drives well, and the air conditioning works for those summer days when it’s just too hot to have the top down.

2004 Audi A4 Cabriolet – $1,499

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter turbochaged DOHC inline 4, CVT automatic, FWD

Location: Tacoma, WA

Odometer reading: 130,000 miles

Runs/drives? It does indeed!

Audi’s A4 isn’t an uncommon sight at the bottom end of the car market. A combination of high maintenance needs, fragility, and abusive second or third owners makes for a lot of cheap A4s. What isn’t seen very often is the A4 Cabriolet, the two-door drop-top variant. It wasn’t a common car to begin with, and honestly, until I saw this one for sale, I kind of forgot it even existed.

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This A4 is powered by a 1.8 liter turbocharged four, with 5 valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. This engine’s reputation precedes it: Oil sludge problems, coil pack failures, and water pump failures are common issues. But it’s also praised for its power and tuneability. In the front-wheel-drive A4, it sends that power through a continuously-variable transmission. The CVT has its own set of potential pitfalls, mostly electronic issues. The seller says this one runs and drives fine, but the engine has a coolant leak from somewhere.

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Other problems with this car include inoperative air conditioning, something screwy with the top mechanism (it opens fine but need some help to close, it sounds like) and several rips and tears in the leather upholstery, including in the back seat. It looks nice and clean outside though, and the top is said to be leak-free.

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This is one of those cars without a purpose, to some degree: it isn’t luxurious, it isn’t sporty, it isn’t practical, and it isn’t economical. But it is cheap, which counts for a lot around these parts.

I really want to make some sort of “topless German” joke to wrap this up, but I’m just not finding it. So just pretend I wrote something really witty, and if you find the perfect joke that is eluding me, feel free to post it in the comments.


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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64 Responses

  1. Still can’t vote. I must have committed some sort of crime.

    I have a close friend who had one of those VWs when new. It’s one of the slowest cars I can remember. It’s not a slow-car-fast kind of ride, it’s a slow-car-slow ride.

    But, it’s more interesting than the Audi.

    1. “I have a close friend who had one of those VWs when new. It’s one of the slowest cars I can remember. It’s not a slow-car-fast kind of ride, it’s a slow-car-slow ride.”

      Odd since it shares it’s drivetrain with the Mk1 GTI. It’s basically that, a top down GTI which for its time was considered THE hot hatch.

      You could probably swap the engine for a 16V if you wanted more though.

  2. I love that I’ve owned both of these in the same colors as the ones in the article, although my VW was an 89 and the A4 Cabriolet was an 03. I loved the A4 Cabriolet, as I had it when it was still a new model 15+ years ago and I was in undergrad, so it made me look way cooler than I was. The horrible CVT went out the first time when I had less than 30k miles on the car. The radio decided to start showing everything mirrored in reverse and had to be replaced 3 times to fully fix it. The rear window separated from the rest of the top, another known issue, which necessitated a full top replacement. The exhaust hanger welds broke multiple times, making it sound like I was dragging cans behind the car. I finally decided it was time to say goodbye when the transmission started faltering again around 70k. I truly loved that car though, as it was the perfect size to haul my friends around through college and had plenty of space for road trips. The VW Cabriolet was so much fun in an “am I going to get hit by a bicycle and die” kind of way, but I loved the way it felt like I was scooting around the streets in a go cart. If I were to purchase either of them again today, the VW is the easy and obvious choice

  3. You’d be better off burning $1500 instead of buying that Audi. And this is from an Audi guy. Honestly, run away from any front wheel drive CVT, especially an Audi. That said, BaT currently has a very tasty looking B7 cabriolet that I’m keen on, but it has quattro and no gremlins to speak of.

  4. For a while I was thinking of doing a VW Cabrio Diesel swap. While I’m no fan of the extra pollution or the high pressure injection systems diesels have (don’t look up hydraulic injection injuries on google images) I do love the noise they make, their tractor like qualities, and the fact you can run them on waste oil.

    There’s a severe lack of cheap convertibles today and there are no convertible BEVs on the US market. I wish Mini would take their current gen Mini BEV Convertible concept and put it in production. Yeah I know the range is going to be horrible, I don’t care, I want a compact drop top BEV that seats at least 3 and the Mini BEV Convertible concept does that.

    However once Mini moves production to China I will not buy any new Mini. So it is highly unlikely I’ll get the Mini I want :'(

  5. Those Easter basket VW cabriolets will I think always be associated with snooty wannabe cheerleader/sorority girls and flamboyantly gay men. It definitely had a reputation as a “chick’s or hairdresser’s car” and God help you if you were a straight guy seen in one. For straight guys wanting to avoid controversy only a GTI would do. Such was high school in the 80’s SFBA.

    Having owned its stalemate, a Scirocco I can attest the 1.8 is a great engine as long as you can handle the NVH. It’s a shaky engine. Over 15 years of ownership I never had any serious issues with it except the A/C compressor, I went through a couple of those. The rest of the car was another story; the seats ripped just looking at them and the dash cracked like many other 80s cars. The lower steering shaft bearing also worked itself loose causing a rattle that took me a long time to find and lots of intermittent electrical faults kept the ownership experience interesting.

    That said it was one of the best handling cars I’ve ever had. Lots of fun to drive! I imagine for the right person a cabriolet would be a blast too.

  6. VW for me, the A1 platform is the devil I know although Digifant fuel injection is new territory since all of ours were K-Jetronic (2 Scirocco, 1 Jetta and mom’s Rabbit Convertible)
    The Audi looks like expensive trouble and it’s automatic

  7. I feel I’m currently living with a third option on this dichotomy, a £2k 2009 VW Eos 2.0 diesel Individual.

    I’ve had it three weeks. Roof operates perfectly and doesn’t leak. Heated seats are brilliant for autumnal roof down driving.

    However an occasional smoky exhaust has me anxious as to how long it’ll live…

  8. When I look at the Volkswagen all I see is the late sixties Karmann Ghia where Kathy and I squeezed into the back “seat” and shared a bottle of Boones’s Farm Apple Wine. It was her brother’s car, and he drove us around before dropping us at a party.

    Nothing happened with us two teenagers except sitting close and enjoying some cold wine. But it was enough, and I’ve enjoyed this memory since 1971.

    So I pulled the lever on the VW.

  9. As a ex owner of a 90 VW Cabriolet. Buy the VeeDub. They were basically convertible Mk1 GTIs. Mine with 5 spd ripped. In a slow car fast way for sure. Easy to fix. Also they look dope on a good set of wheels. I to this day scrounge Craigslist hoping someone not thinking sells a good condition one by accident. ala Estate sale

  10. Gotta be the VW, the Audi is likely about ten times more complex and ten times costlier to fix. My son had an old Scirocco of similar vintage maybe an ’88). Surprisingly easy to work on, and parts were cheap. The Audi, I like working on cars, but just sounds like a special level of masochism would be needed to enjoy ownership.

  11. I have a soft spot for the A4 cabrio (and the 80 before it), for no other reason than I liked the looks better than the equivalent BMW or Mercedes models. I so very nearly bought an A4 Cab in like 2014 (I believe it was a turbo 4 with a stick, and I can’t remember if it was fwd or quattro) but I figured that even a certified pre owned would break me financially so I got another Miata.

  12. I worked on a fair few Cabrios awhile back. Got *really* good at replacing the power window pulley system ( or some such bookmarked: I was less than 1/2 the price local shops charged)
    Those and plastic shifter bushings were the most common problems once I got a handle on the fuel injection systems. But, I already understood the cis-k in my Rabbit, so not sure how it would go for someone unfamiliar with them.
    Obviously voted chopped rabbit

  13. Neither for me because I don’t like convertibles. As far as the Golf with no title – forget any seller who is too lazy to get a replacement title. In Ontario it’s literally a trip to the license office, tell them you lost the ownership/title and pay $10 for a replacement. Took me all of 15 minutes last time I had to do this. If you can’t do that, I can’t buy your car.

    1. I have an irrational love for convertibles even though I live in Canada. Out of my 4 cars, 3 are convertibles, though my TJ does have a hard top that I put on for the winter, which makes it a lot more livable.

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