There was a time when just about every car was a convertible, or at least an open car. Back in 1909, no one wanted a closed-up Model T in an era before air-conditioning or effective ventilation. Convertibles weren't indulgences. They were necessities.
Today any convertible is a pleasure craft. It can be used to commute in and haul home groceries, but so what? Buying a drop top on a rational, utilitarian basis is ridiculous. What matters is how a convertible makes you feel. Put the top down and the ordinary world ought to fade away — traffic parts, the roads grow sensuous, the sun burns away the clouds and the person sitting next to you suddenly looks like a supermodel.
The normal rules don't apply. Convertibles need to be judged on their own transcendent standards.
So this list of the 10 best convertibles for summer and fall 2012 isn't about the fastest, the stickiest handling or the roomiest trunk. It's about excitement, passion and unbridled sexiness. The 10 best featured here are at distinct price points and were arrived at only after much wrangling, fussing, feuding and gunplay among the Edmunds.com staff and freelance hangers-on. Several were wounded, but all lived.
Let's start at under a $20,000 base price and climb the convertibility ladder in $10,000 steps (all prices include destination unless otherwise noted.). Then take a leap off the top.
2012 Fiat 500C Pop
Base Price: $19,500
The Fiat 500C sneaks in at under $20K only if the mandatory $700 destination charge is omitted from the cheapest "Pop" entry-level model. That noted, anyone with regular respiration can beat a Fiat dealer down for a $200 discount. And the only competition at this low, low price point is the Smart Fortwo convertible, and compared to the lackluster Smart, the Fiat may as well be a Duesenberg.
There's not a lot to love about the 500C Pop in terms of performance, but at least there is the sweet styling and the soft roof that can be left in three positions: closed, open over the front seats and fully retracted. Fiat even claims that the roof can be operated at speeds up to 60 mph. Such are the advantages of leaving the hardtop 500's door rings and side glass intact.
2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base Price: $24,265
This price hammock is crammed full of excellent convertible machinery including the Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper Roadster, VW's new Beetle and even the base 2013 V6 Mustang at a tempting $27,200. But the Miata remains singular, iconic and wicked super fun. After all, most of the others are front-drivers and you can always rent a Mustang convertible at the Avis counter the next time you're in San Diego. And only the Miata has its own road racing series.
Incidentally, while that $24,265 price is for the base soft vinyl top MX-5 Sport, the cheapest power-retractable hardtop version also slots in well under $30K at $28,335. In fact, the only Miata model that rises above a $30K base price is the line-topping Grand Touring with both the retractable top and an automatic transmission.
The base MX-5 Sport is a bargain, but the best value is one step up in the $26,625 MX-5 Touring. There are some significant trim differences between the Sport and Touring (the Touring has a better radio, power door locks and foglamps), and the Touring has a strut tower brace that the Sport lacks, but the clincher is the six-speed manual transmission the Touring gets in place of the Sport's five gears. It's the best way to get the most from the 167-horsepower, 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder that powers all new Miatas.
That power rating drops to 158 hp when the optional six-speed automatic is ordered. So... Don't. Buy. The. Automatic.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible
Base Price: $31,080
There's a surprising dearth of contenders in this price range. The $37,795 BMW 1 Series is a good choice for anyone who worships in the High Church of the Roundel, but the VW Eos is overpriced at $35,120. In this category, it's the Chevrolet Camaro that's the overwhelming superstar.
The Camaro Convertible at any trim level looks as if it descended intact from Concept Car Heaven. And even with the base 323-hp, 3.6-liter V6 it's athletic despite its thick tonnage. But even better, it's possible to sneak out of a Chevy dealer with a Camaro SS Convertible that carries both a V8 and a sticker price under $40K. The Camaro SS Convertible, with its booming 426-hp, 6.2-liter LS3 V8 starts at $39,230.
Yeah, OK, it's nearly impossible to resist all the temptations of the Camaro options list, so virtually every Camaro SS Convertible will carry a price past $40K. But it's there and it is good if you can find one.
2012 Audi A5 Cabriolet
Base Price: $44,245
At $40K the choices broaden radically. There are two-seaters like the Audi TT, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Nissan 370Z and the new Porsche Boxster. Lexus and Infiniti are in the four-seat game with their IS and G models respectively, and those two have to face off against that perpetual titan, the BMW 3 Series. But right now, the class of this price cohort is the Audi A5 Cabriolet.
The A5 has Minka Kelly curves, a perfectly drawn face and the best tail end this side of a professional beach volleyball match. Looks count in convertibles, and the A5 is one of the best-looking convertibles at any price. Throw in the A5's supple chassis, solid handling and an interior better detailed than most doctoral theses and the A5 is practically irresistible.
It's worth spending the extra bucks (starting at $46,345) to get Quattro all-wheel drive and the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. The base A5 Premium only has front-drive and an icky continuously variable automatic.
If anything holds the A5 back, it's the modest 211-hp output of its 2.0-liter, direct-injected, DOHC four-cylinder engine. It has a chunky torque curve, but the A5 Cabriolet itself is pretty chunky, with Audi claiming that the lightest Tiptronic model weighs in at 4,045 pounds. Better to just sit back and enjoy the ride anyway.
2013 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet
Base Price: $58,595
Here it's Mercedes-Benz and the lovely and subdued E-Class convertible that gets the nod over the only other two players in the arena: the narrowly focused Audi TTS and aging Chevrolet Corvette. The E350 drop top pushes the limits of this category, as it'll run you $58,595 before hitting the options list.
What the E350 Cabriolet has going for it, beyond looks, are true accommodations for four people, the structural integrity of a beryllium atom and a power top that could keep water out if the car were sunk to 30 fathoms. Mercedes has also engineered an ingenious airflow system that allows for onboard conversations at normal levels with the top down.
Producing 302-hp, the 3.5-liter, direct-injection V6 in the E350 Cabriolet is drama-free but light on entertainment. It's backed by Mercedes' excellent seven-speed automatic transmission, though, so mileage is decent for such a sizable car.
And watch out for that options list. Even with its dang-near $60K sticker, Mercedes asks the E350 Cabriolet buyer to hack up things like another $650 for keyless entry and $420 for rear side impact airbags. An E350 Cabriolet's total price can bounce well beyond $70,000 with just a little injudicious optioning.
2013 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible
Base Price: $60,575
The sixth-generation "C6" Corvette will soon pass into history. But it's not leaving without a thunderous convertible bang. For one, there's the new 427 Convertible at $75,925 that, thanks to its 505-hp 7.0-liter V8 swiped from the Z06, promises to be ludicrously entertaining. But also because of this car, the Grand Sport Convertible, one of the best-balanced and most engaging Corvettes ever made.
The Grand Sport, with its 430-hp, 6.2-liter LS3 small-block V8 isn't the fastest or quickest Corvette. That, however, doesn't mean it isn't both fast and quick. Back in 2010 Edmunds.com tested a Grand Sport Coupe and spurred it on from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds (4.2 ticks with rollout) and through the quarter-mile in 12.5 seconds at 115.1 mph. There's every reason to believe the 2013 drop-top version should equal that.
The Corvette has been the ultimate American sports convertible since 1953 — and it's still one of the few sports cars to mix everyday usability with the intoxicating gut-punch of V8 torque. The C7 is coming, but the old C6 in Grand Sport form is still spectacular.
2012 BMW M3 Convertible
Base Price: $68,750
The current, high-revving V8-powered M3 is on its way out in favor of an all-new turbocharged six-cylinder M3 (or M4) next year. So if you love the wail of the M3's 414-hp 4.0-liter V8 with its 8,300 rpm redline, here is your last chance to get one new. And it's easier to hear that engine's legendary voice with the top down on the M3 Convertible.
BMW says the base price of an M3 convertible is $68,750... but that's just a start. The V8-powered M3 Convertible slurps fuel to the tune of an EPA-rated 13 mpg in the city and a bare 20 mpg on the highway. That means the 4,135-pound M3 Convertible carries a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax — and that pushes the price to $70,450 before mixing in the $895 destination charge. So the lowest bottom line on any new 2012 BMW M3 Convertible is $71,345. Using BMW's long options list, that can easily be pushed up over $80K.
The V8-powered M3 is a deservedly well-loved car. And there's no guarantee that any six-cylinder engine can duplicate its transcendent road manners or its amazing sounds.
2012 BMW 6 Series Convertible
Base Price: $82,795
Of the 62 convertible cars in the United States, only one carries a base sticker price between $80,000 and $90,000: the BMW 6 Series in the form of the 640i.
The 640i is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 315 hp and a luscious, unbroken ribbon of 322 pound-feet of torque between 1,400 and 4,500 rpm. And it's mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that gets the most out of it. However, BMW claims a curb weight of 4,255 pounds for the 640i convertible, and that tempers performance in virtually every way.
Of course the 640i drives like a BMW. That means a solid structure, precise ride and great handling. The new 6 Series gets deserved criticism for being a more remote driving experience than previous generations, but it's still an amazingly capable and beautiful car.
Even if the rear seat is useless.
2013 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet
Base Price: $94,650
It's a two-car shoot-out at this price corral: Porsche 911 or Jaguar XK. The survivor is the new 991-series 911 Carrera Cabriolet: a brilliant, evolutionary step forward for one of the most storied and greatest sports cars ever built.
To stay under $100K means skipping the more powerful Carrera S Cabriolet version of the 991 — that carries a $108,000 base price. But the narrow-hipped, plain old 911 Carrera is still a real Porsche in all the old-school ways a Porsche should be a Porsche. There's a 3.4-liter flat-6 hung out way in back that makes a respectable 350 hp. The transmission has seven forward gears whether it's a manual or the automated PDK. The electrically assisted power steering is the best of its breed. Trounce on the brake pedal and it feels as if the expansion of the universe has been halted. And the whole structure of the car seems machined from a single ingot of super-studliness.
But the best things about any 911 are that you never have to explain to anyone what it is, and that it's so docile and reliable that you can drive it every day for 30 years like it's a real car.
2012 Audi R8 Spyder 4.2
Base Price: $131,950
At this price level we loosen up our criteria to encompass all the convertibles between $100,000 and $200,000 based on the reasonable assumption that if you can afford a six-figure car, you've got the financial heft to handle pretty much anything.
So this nose-bleed stratosphere includes everything from the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class to Aston Martins, Maseratis, Bentleys and even the $195,840 Ferrari California. Yet the decision here was easy. The Audi R8 Spyder 4.2 isn't solely a great two-seat sports car, it's an actual bargain at $131,950. You simply can't get a better convertible than the R8 Spyder for less than $200K.
Everything about the Spyder 4.2 is leading edge, from its aluminum monococque construction to the Quattro all-wheel-drive system and the bewitching sound of the 430-hp 4.2-liter V8 mounted right behind the driver's ear. Even though the R8 has been around for six model years and the Spyder for four, it still looks and performs like pure sexy science fiction. It's Barbarella rendered in automotive form.
$200,000 and Beyond
2013 Ferrari 458 Spider
Base Price: $275,000 Approximate
When the money is unlimited, the choices are limitless. So we pity the wealthy. Imagine the agony of deciding between a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead and a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport. How about the sheer joyless drudgery of deciding whether to buy a Mercedes SLS Convertible or a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder? That's why so many of the super rich just take the Kardashian way out and buy one of everything.
Yet if you could have only one new convertible from the unlimited class, that's got to be the Ferrari 458 Spider. With its power-folding hardtop down and the 562-hp 4.5-liter V8 rabidly reaching its 9,000 rpm redline, the 458 Spider is a full-immersion automobile. The acceleration will crack open your eyeballs and you could drown in the sound. The handling transcends any understanding of physics or witchcraft. Then there's the simple fact that this car looks like a billion bucks, but only costs about $275,000. Bargain City, your new name is Maranello.
Yes, too many Ferraris wind up in the hands of guys barely literate enough to sign their NHL contracts or celebrity ditwads so vacuous you could store fur coats in their cold, empty brainpans. But that doesn't diminish the fact that the 458 Spider is the most desirable convertible in the world.
At least until we drive the new McLaren MP4-12C Spider.