1993 was nearly Audi’s nadir in the U.S., and for awhile it looked like the brand might not stick it out. At the time, the company was struggling to move 12,000 units a year in the wake of the “unintended acceleration” fiasco (the company was exonerated by NHTSA), a recession, and new competition from Lexus and Infiniti.
At this unhappy hour, Audi showed off a new model – new to the U.S., anyway – at a splashy launch in South Beach, Miami: the Audi Cabriolet.
The droptop had already been on sale in Europe since 1991, and the architecture of the car was even older, with the Type 8C Audi 80/90 being a revision of the circa-1986 Type 89. The Cabriolet wouldn’t be a big seller, but it telegraphed Audi’s commitment to North America and lasted a long, long time – into 2000 in Europe.
The Type 89
The Cabriolet’s story starts out with the Type 89 Coupe Quattro, a short-wheelbase version of the Audi 80/90 platform that replaced the original Quattro coupe and later grew into the original S2.
The Coupe was on sale in Europe from 1988 to 1996, but not long after it arrived a Cabriolet prototype debuted at the 1989 Frankfurt IAA.
Like all Audis of this era, they were designed under Hartmut Warkuß, whose team at that time included future superstars like Erwin Leo Himmell, J Mays, and Peter Schreyer. It was Mays who transformed the Coupe Quattro into the Cabriolet, which immediately made a good impression at Frankfurt.
Around the time the Cabrio came to market in the U.S., American Mays succeeded Warkuß as Audi’s design director.
The Production Cabriolet
The production Cabriolet emerged about two years later, Audi’s first production convertible since the Auto-Union era. To make the convertible drive like the coupe it was related to, it had heavy reinforcement in the sills, floor, cowl, and rear quarters, adding about 200 lbs. of weight but making for a relatively solid drive.
By the time it arrived in the U.S. though, buyers couldn’t directly compare it to the Coupe that had come before, because that car had been dropped from the North American lineup (it was offered only in model years 1990 and 1991 in the U.S.).
The U.S.-model Cabrio was distinctly less “sporty” than the Coupe Quattro (and certainly the S2) however – it was front-drive and Automatic only, and powered only by Audi’s 2.8L V6. As usual, Europeans got a broader array of powertrains and a manual. This might be one reason why these cars have gotten so little attention over the years.
The car was not a big seller – Audi moved about 1,200 a year and the car continued after the A4 replaced the 80/90. Into 1998 (and 2000 in Europe) in fact, built by Karmann. In the U.S., it was not available in all States that final year, and was withdrawn at the end of the year to make way for the TT Roadster.
You’ll notice this is a Canadian car, a market where the sales numbers were much smaller but the cars almost identical. J Mays was made famous by his time at Audi and later Ford, and the Cabriolet, though not a huge seller, was well-liked enough by Audi customers to warrant the later A4 Cabriolet and subsequent A5/S5.