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TOP UP OR NOT, VW CABRIO CONVERTIBLE IS JUST TOPS

How about a little sympathy for your auto reviewer? I haven't had a convertible to test since last June (a BMW 325i) and when I finally got another one this week - a 1995 Volkswagen Ca-brio - it's in the middle of Utah's monsoon season.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, too bad, Max." Thanks, I feel better now.Oh well, at least the wet weather gave me the chance to check out VW's claim that its six-layer, PVC-coated fabric top can withstand "extreme heat and cold . . . the abrasive wear exacted by nature . . . (and) a drive-through car wash."

I didn't take the Cabrio through a car wash; I didn't have to. The downpour Wednesday was quite enough to convince me that Volkswagen speaks the truth: Not one drop of water got through the convertible top or any of its window seals.

If you are not familiar with convertibles, that's a remarkable achievement; most of them leak. Also, few ragtops offer much protection from road and wind noise, but the Cabrio has the best soundproofing I've ever experienced in a convertible.

The Cabrio's beige top is also among the most attractive removable roofs I've encountered, beautifully accenting the test car's dark green metallic paint. The final touch is the glass rear window - not plastic that quickly becomes opaque from scratches - complete with built-in defroster.

The VW top is made and hand-fitted to each car in Osnabruck, Germany, by Karmann Coach-works, a firm founded in 1874 to make elegant horse-drawn carriages for rich people. It later moved into horseless carriages.

In 1948, Wilhelm Karmann hand built the first VW "Beetle" convertible by torching the metal top off his own VW sedan. He then convinced VW management to order 1,000 of them, and they sold quickly. VW has been making droptops ever since.

Between rainstorms this week, I took the opportunity to raise and lower the Cabrio top a few times. This task requires you to pop two inside handles, then get out of the car and pull the roof back into its well. It takes less than a minute and can easily be done by one person before the stoplight turns green.

This is not as slick as the BMW 325i's one-button automatic system, which allows you to keep your seat while lowering the top, but it has the virtue of simplicity - no motors and servos to break down - and it has the added advantage of costing thousands less.

The bottom line on the Cabrio is that convertibles don't get any better than this - not in the VW's price range. Its top-up performance is especially suited to Utah where the number of perfect days to go topless - not too hot, not too cold - are limited. And unlike many convertibles, the Cabrio looks as good with its top up as with it down.

Maybe even better. The only downside I can see to the Cabrio is its roll bar, an appendage that wraps around the car's midsection, looking a bit like a basket handle.

On the other hand, it makes the VW safer in event of a rollover and it adds torsional stiffness - cut the steel top off a car and it's like slicing an egg lengthwise. Half an eggshell is pretty flimsy. The roll bar also provides a connecting post for the front seat belts, a place for a hanger hook and positive sealing for the windows.

Life is full of tradeoffs and VW's basket handle is one of them. But considering that convertibles spend most of their time buttoned up, it's not a tough decision. One more thing - the roll bar is more visible from the outside than the inside, so occupants have virtually the same open-air experience as they would if it weren't there.

So much for the Cabrio's convertibility. How does it perform as a car? Very nicely, thanks for asking.

Basically a Volkswagen Golf with a soft top, the Cabrio handles quite well, in a class with that BMW I drove last summer but for half the price. Also, as long as we are comparing it to its upscale German competitor, the VW has more room inside than the 325i. Even the back seat is reasonably roomy.

The VW's acceleration off the line won't win it any trophies at the drag strip, particularly with the 4-speed automatic transmission in my test car, but its 2-liter, 115-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels, is good for a 0-60 mph time of about 12 seconds with the automatic tranny. With the 5-speed manual, that can be cut to about 10 seconds.

In any case, the engine is torquey enough that it feels quite peppy around town

Top speed is a reported 113 mph with the automatic and 113 mph with the stick, but solid citizen that I am, I never topped 55 . . . much.

Gas mileage is rated 22 mph in city driving and 28 highway with the automatic. The tank is a generous 14.5 gallons, which gives the car longer than average range.

As always, looks are subjective, but I really like the cut of the new Cabrio's jib, with its tear-drop halogen headlights, color-keyed grille, mirrors and bumpers, and its rounded, aerodynamic profile and high decklid with just the hint of a spoiler. It's sweet looking and a big improvement on the angular lines of its predecessor.

The trunk is big, 33 percent larger than the previous convertible. Even better, the top does not impinge on the trunk space when it is lowered, as it does on some other convertibles.

My test car's base price was $19,975. Options included seven-spoke alloy wheels ($850), air conditioning ($875), clear coat metallic paint ($175) and destination charge ($390) for a bottom line of $22,850.

I know what you're thinking: "That's a lot to pay for a four-cylinder car, Max." I hear you. But this isn't some cheap commuter four-banger. This is a German convertible that has been lovingly crafted by Old World craftsmen who all wear spotless white smocks and make $65 an hour.

Incidentally, the Cabrio comes with numerous standard features, including dual air bags, an 8-speaker cassette sound system, ABS, power windows/locks, cruise control and full instrumentation, among other goodies.

Leather upholstery is optional but I would stick with the standard cloth found in my test car. It will be cooler in summer with the top down and warmer in winter.

The interior is pure Golf, which is to say very well done. The instrument panel is a model of attractiveness and efficiency and the carpeting is protected by the thickest rubber mats I've ever seen. There is also the obligatory dual cupholder and large map pockets in the doors.

The map pockets are to compensate for the absence of a glove compartment, as that space is taken up by the passenger-side air bag. Other carmakers have managed to include both, so I would hope VW will re-engineer the dash very soon. Not having a glove box is like not having a trunk. People expect to have one.

The Cabrio also comes with antitheft system, always a worry with a car whose top can be opened with nothing more high-tech than a Swiss Army knife.