Used car tests

Mercedes CLK v Audi A4 v Volvo C70 v Saab 9-3

If you ignore the new wave of coupé-cabriolets, a traditional soft-top is a great used buy. We pick the best from four...

Want to own a drop-top, but need space as well? The answer is to seek out a four-seater cabrio – and there are plenty around.

The arrival of more convertibles with folding hard-tops has led to traditional fabric-hooded models becoming more affordable than ever. Here, we look at four soft-tops which cost as much as £40,000 when new. Today, they’re avail- able for the price of a three-year-old Ford Mondeo. All have a classy image, room for four and a decent boot – and roof-down motoring is only seconds away. Better still, heavy-duty hoods mean you won’t suffer when the sun isn’t shining.

Our used test pits a pair of Swedish offerings, from Volvo and Saab, against the German might of Audi and Mercedes, in a rematch of the second-round fixture in the recent football World Cup. Here’s how the sides line up. Swe-den is well represented, with the Saab 9-3 Convertible first up. It has solid build, distinctive looks and a classy image, while powerful turbo versions with up to 230bhp provide serious pace. Volvo‘s long-serving C70 arrived in 1997, and has only just been replaced. It boasts smart looks and a spacious cabin.

Up against the Scandinavian duo are two classy Germans. Audi’s Cabriolet is arguably the most dated here to drive, but its refined styling and quality still command attention. The more youthful Mercedes CLK dates from 1997, and has a broad engine line-up and decent build. All have been a huge success, but finding a good one still requires more care than for a conventional tin-top, because complicated soft-top seals and motors can cost hundreds to replace.

Also remember that early examples of our four are approaching 10 years old, and are likely to have had plenty of owners. Traditionally, cabrios do lower mileages than hard-tops, which means finding a reasonably youthful engine shouldn’t be difficult. However, condition is more important than age.

None of these represents the last word in dynamics or rigidity. A flexing chassis and scuttle shake will come as standard, so if you’re after a sports car, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you want an everyday model that can hack it rain or shine, look no further.

VERDICT 1st Mercedes CLK Although it’s the most expensive here, the Mercedes CLK looks every bit the modern cabrio. The rear seats offer adequate space, and if you buy a car with a decent service history, you should avoid major financial upheaval. However, running costs will be higher than for either of its Swedish rivals.

2nd Audi A4 Ageless looks make this a popular choice with second-hand buyers, although the new corporate grille of the current machine has finally dated this handsome car. Still, bulletproof reliability and solid build mean the Cabriolet should age well, while running costs won’t break the bank.

3rd Volvo C70 Available for anywhere between £6,000 and nearly £20,000, the Volvo has enjoyed the longest production run of our foursome. However, when buying post-2002 examples, bear in mind that the rival models from Audi, Saab and Mercedes feature next-generation technology.

4th Saab 9-3 Dated styling and unusual interior will put off many buyers, but forgive the looks and you’ll get a spacious and sturdy cabriolet. Turbo and V6 versions offer decent pace, although late Aero examples are unruly and highlight handling deficiencies. Stick to lesser models to avoid disappointment.


Saab 9-3 (1998-2002) The Saab is one of the sector’s elder statesmen, and that shows up in the car’s stodgy road manners and flex-prone chassis. Performance on most variants is modest. Exceptions are the 154bhp 2.0-litre light-pressure turbo and 185bhp turbo models, which give durable, fast and reasonably economical power.

Flies in the ointment include expensive running costs and an appetite for front tyres on turbo versions. Prices start at £6,000 for a 2.0i, although a 1999 V-reg example of the fire-breathing Aero can be yours for about £9,000.

Volvo C70 (1999-2005) It's the best-looking car here, but the Volvo is let down by its dated dash. Choose from a range of engines, including a 163bhp 2.0T turbo, 193bhp 2.4-litre petrol and 240bhp 2.4 T5 range-topper. A 2002 revamp brought a fresh grille and lights, and boosted the flagship’s power to 245bhp.

Autos are popular, and a five-speed self-shifter replaced the original four-ratio box in 2001. Budget on £6,000 for a 1999 2.0T with 65,000 miles, while an auto adds £500-£600. Late 55-reg cars fetch as much as £19,000, and are still available within the franchised dealer network.

Mercedes CLK (1997-2002) The lure of the three-pointed star is naturally strong on used forecourts. There’s a fine engine line-up, and enough supply to be choosy. The CLK 230 Kompressor boasts a 193bhp 2.3-litre unit, and starts from around £12,000 for an R-reg model with 77,000 miles on the clock.

The CLK 320 has a 218bhp 3.2-litre V6, and a 1997 version should cost £8,000 and up. From 1999, there’s also a 275bhp 4.3 V8 CLK 430. In mid-2000, the CLK 200 Kompressor arrived, offering a 163bhp 2.0 supercharged unit with a six-speed manual or five-ratio auto.

Audi Cabriolet (1996-2002) While the oldest car here is showing its age, it was the class of the field when new. You can pick up 1.8-litre examples for around £5,000, but go for only well specced and cared-for models. Engine options include a fast 2.8-litre petrol, and post-1997 cars boast sportier suspension.

Mechanically, the Audi is remarkably robust. Clatter-prone engines aside, look out for the usual problems that afflict cars of this vintage – notably shot dampers and brakes. Lifeless steering and an uninspiring drive also mean it’s not one for enthusiastic motorists.

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