THE THREE HATCHBACK cabriolets you see here all boast some form of forced induction and pack some pretty decent firepower under their bonnets. Compared with their saloon equivalents, they’re structurally more superior, generally offer better handling dynamics due to their shorter wheelbases, and subsequently suffer from less torsional twist. Naturally, they’re a hoot to drive but which of the three assembled here would be the easiest and least impractical to live with every day – the Abarth 500C, the Mini Roadster Cooper S or the Volkswagen Golf TSI? To find out we headed top-down to Camps Bay promenade, home of the cabriolet, to see how many heads we could turn en route to the handling course – Chapman’s Peak Drive.
There’s some debate around which car looks best: the dinky Abarth, the low-riding Mini or the familiar Golf. The Abarth wins this round. Like a ruffled warthog, it looks the most bad-tempered of the three, a fact highlighted by the re-profiled bumpers that feature an enlarged front air intake aperture and extractor vents on each side of the rear bumper for enhanced air flow. These changes, along with numerous Scorpion badges, have given the Abarth a hostile personality. The impressive visual package is rounded off by a black canvas roof, a double-barrel exhaust system, eight-spoke 16-inch Anthracite wheels and cherry-red brake calipers.
The Mini Roadster runs the Abarth close on aesthetics but still looks too friendly to be taken seriously. There are, however, several items that allude to its driving pedigree such as the gloss-black 17-inch wheels, the gunmetal colour scheme complete with double racing stripes, and S badging. Other than that we’ve seen it all before: the centrally-arranged twin exhaust pipes, the trademark headlight formation, tail-light clusters and plastic-wrapped wheelarches. The Mini looks best with the roof tucked away, the solid stainless-steel roll hoops and active roof spoiler bestow it with an aggressive mien, especially from behind.
That leaves the Golf Cabriolet. It’s been shunned somewhat by the team –probably because it looks the most ordinary of the three. In fact, the only thing that’s gained some curiosity from bystanders is the LED-beaded headlamps and red TSI badging plastered on the boot lid. The Golf ultimately lacks the incandescent aura that the Abarth and Mini exude, but the sporty two-door configuration and lowered ride height do lots to boost the somewhat dull façade. Perhaps we’re being too harsh here. Maybe the Golf will surprise us out on the road? We can only hope…
I must admit I like everything about the Abarth, so do Senior Writer Calvin Fisher and Online Editor Ashley Oldfield – I can tell they’re both itching to get behind the wheel, but I have the keys. After driving the Mini, the Abarth’s high-riding seat position feels almost SUV-like. The central cluster triples-up as a speedometer, rev counter and on-board computer while a facia-mounted boost gauge with integrated shift light adds a, dare I say, boy-racer dynamic to the cockpit. A Scorpion-stamped flat-bottom steering wheel, dark brown leather seats and door panels and gloss-grey facia cladding put the finishing touches to arguably the most inspiring cabin here. The only drawbacks are the poor rear visibility with the roof retracted and the uninhabitable rear bench.
By contrast the Mini’s interior is overly designed and generally counter intuitive. The baseball mitt-coloured seats are firmer, the driving position is lower and the large, centrally-arranged speedometer/on-board computer are all a bit overwhelming but form part of the Mini’s eccentric personality. As a genuine two-seater, the only utility offered is the relatively generous boot volume of 240 litres. The biggest irritation lies not only in the manual operation of the fabric roof but also the poorvisibility around the rear quarters and fully astern.
The three-year-old Golf 6 cabin layout has started to show its age but the level of refinement and detailing are still indisputable. It’s also the only car from this contingent that can properly seat four adults. Our test unit is the Highline model, which means items such as full leather trim, sports seats and park distance control are all standard features, but the full-colour touch-screen satellite navigation system is a R28860 optional extra. Volkswagen has eschewed the folding metal roof, as worn by the Eos, in favour of a less complex and lighter fabric top, which takes only 12 seconds to stow away without hindering rear visibility. The only real niggle comes in trying to locate the roof switch that resides under the centre armrest.
For the stretch of Tarmac leading up to Chapman’s Peak Drive, I settle behind the gauge-infested cockpit of the Abarth 500C. The 1.4-litre T-Jet turbocharged motor packs a pretty lethal sting – 99kW and 180Nm of torque (206Nm if Sport is selected) to be exact. But what makes these figures all the more impressive is the meagre 970kg kerb weight. It feels a lot quicker to 100kph than the 8.2 seconds logged by our timing equipment – an opinion shared by both my colleagues. Fold away the roof and you’ll be rewarded by one of the rowdiest-sounding 1.4-litres engines around. The guttural induction growl as the force-fed mill sucks in air belies the Abarth’s miniscule proportions. The sound effects don’t stop here – loud pops and crackles underscore each gear change as unburned fuel meets the piping-hot exhaust plumbing.
Up until now the Mini hasn’t impressed much, but the 135kW and 260Nm generated by the twin-scroll turbocharged 1.6-litre engine puts it back in contention. The Mini has a schizophrenic personality. Don’t be fooled by the bright-eyed smile; turn the key, nail the throttle and it’ll rip your face off. Lift off the throttle mid-acceleration and you’ll be treated to an aural pyrotechnic symphony: pop-pop-pop-pop followed by a BANG! The zero to 100kph time of 7.3 seconds makes it the fastest car here with the only disappointment coming from the tardy six-speed automatic Steptronic transmission. Don’t get me wrong – the autobox is a boon in traffic but the interaction and responsiveness of a manual transmission is sorely lacking from the experience.
And so we come to the Golf Cabriolet. I must admit the entire experience is quite muted. Apart from a faint whine emitted by the supercharger, the twin-charged 1.4-litre engine isn’t as vocal under load as we’d hoped it would be. There’s no DSG fart like with a double-clutch GTI either, which is quite disappointing. The nine-second 0-100kph time puts the Golf stone last in the acceleration tests but fights back with the most impressive braking performance figures. A mere 2.73 seconds/41meters is all it needs to come to a halt from 100kph.
Chapman’s Peak Drive is a perilous piece of Tarmac, but the narrow and circuitous topography is good for highlighting steering and chassis flaws. The red Golf Cabriolet seems like a good place for my initial run up Chappies. It’s quite interesting tailing Ashley Oldfield, who’s in the Abarth, because although the 500C puts several gaps on the Golf through the twisty bits it can’t pull away on the straights. The Golf is the cruiser of this group. There’s a soft feel to the suspension but the impeccable chassis manners and sturdy frame means it suffers from little scuttle shake and handles well for a cabriolet. The overly-assisted steering is off-putting at lower speeds but you soon get a handle on how it behaves as you feed in more power.
After an almost pleasant drive in the Golf the Mini feels like a complete nutter. It’s got the most scuttle shake of the three and is very uncomfortable on undulating surfaces. The suspension is also very hard and abrasive on the body – you bobble around in the cockpit like a marionette controlled by a drunken man. Pressing the Sport button on the base of the gear lever sharpens-up both steering and throttle sensitivity and – thankfully – shortens shift times, too. The Mini delivers kart-like handling and phenomenal front-end grip but the signature torque steer tugging at the steering wheel is alarmingly disconcerting when pushing through a corner. Seagram, our snapper, says he needs to take more pictures so we pull over and admire some of the breathtaking scenery of Hout Bay while he does his thing…
Once the photography is done I climb into the Abarth. The suspension is very firm but not unpleasant. Logically, I expected it to stick to the road like a magnet to a fridge, especially through the tighter confines, but the rear end is surprisingly skittish on turn-in and more so under heavy braking. The steering of the Abarth gets better as you push on. Initially it’s a touch vague but as you pile on the speed the steering wheel starts to communicate all sorts of information about what the front wheels are doing – which is a good thing. Helping the 500C exploit the most of its power and traction is a fancy E-Diff. Activated through the TTC (torque transfer control) button, the brake-based system allows you to power through the corner without the front wheels going into panic attack mode.
On what grounds do you crown a winner from this group? Is it purely about the fun factor or performance or all-round ability? Unfortunately, it’s going to boil down to function over fun. Out of three cars here, the Abarth is the one that puts a smile on my face every time I get behind the chunky steering wheel. I love it, but if I were to choose I’d rather buy the regular and cheaper hardtop Abarth 500 – I don’t see the value in paying R255000 for what is essentially a fabric sunroof. And the Mini? Hmmm… In truth, the Mini feels aloof unless you’re driving the wheels off it – something that becomes very taxing on both body and mind. Yes, it’s the most powerful cabrio here, but at R368435 it’s also the most expensive.
So the Golf wins. There’s very little at fault with it. Of course, the driving experience isn’t as frenetic as with the other two but it quietly goes about doing what cabriolets do best – cruising. Other than the R338500 sticker price and somewhat dull aesthetics, the Golf ticks all the right boxes – it’s got adequate power, excellent fuel economy, uncompromised ride quality and the utility to match.
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