Dying for the pleasure of top-down driving but limited by a budget? We've compiled a list of the 10 cheapest convertibles yes, some are family-friendly four-seaters, while others are carefree roadsters, but all have a removable top so that the sun can warm your face and the summer breeze can ruffle your hair. And the first nine cars on this list have MSRPs under 30 grand (and of course, many of them can be purchased much closer to invoice). If your spending limit is a bit more flexible, the high-performance Honda S2000, which took first in the "More than 200 Horsepower" division of our 2000 Roadster Comparison Test, priced at $32,740, is also worthy of consideration.
1. Volkswagen Cabrio, $20,150
The Golf-based Cabrio doesn't get a lot of attention in the U.S. VW sold 14,133 Cabrios in 2000, while almost twice as many Golfs found new homes. But for now, at least, the Cabrio is the most affordable convertible on the market, and it seats four. For your money, it delivers German ride and handling characteristics, clean (if dated) styling and a premium sound system, even in the base GL model. And unlike the BMW Z3 (10th on our list) or the Honda S2000 (didn't make the list), the VW has a glass rear window. The only potential disadvantage to the Cabrio's package is the 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic transmission is optional. In spite of its 122 pound-feet of torque, the engine is no barnstormer and will feel downright sluggish around town if mated to the automatic. Fortunately, the Cabrio feels solid and spry at highway speeds and on winding mountain roads. Three trim levels are available value-packed GL, mid-level GLS and high-end GLX. All three come with air conditioning, ABS, a premium AM/FM stereo with CD changer pre-wiring, a glass rear window with defogger, side airbags and an anti-theft system. The GL has a vinyl top and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, while GLS models add power windows, power mirrors, heated seats, cruise control and a cloth top. The GLX includes all the GLS features plus a power top, leather seating, newly designed 14-inch wheels and foglights. Among four-seat convertibles, the Cabrio offers decent value, provided you don't mind trading off-the-line power for agile handling. However, it's easy to see why Volkswagen doesn't sell as many Cabrios when you examine the rest of the company's lineup the four-door Golf, GTI, Jetta and New Beetle can all be equipped with VW's marvelous 150-horsepower 1.8T powerplant and still come in under 20 grand.
2. Mazda MX-5 Miata, $21,720
If you're a roadster fan, the Cabrio probably doesn't appeal to you. And understandably so. In addition to its topless capability, the rear-wheel-drive Miata is a downright thrilling drive. A sports car. And still the most affordable car of its kind, in spite of the recent heightened interest in roadsters. Unlike some of its high-performance betters, the Miata isn't a serious car, but that's the idea. It's about having fun behind the wheel, about feeling potent and free as the summer nights whiz by. A carefully designed cockpit helps this happen the shifter moves with quick and satisfying precision, and the switchgear is close at hand and easy to use. The Miata is powered by a 1.8-liter inline four good for 142 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque variable valve timing was supposed to bring the horsepower up to 155 in 2001, but alas, emissions control equipment reduced output. Base and LS models come with a five-speed manual transmission, while Special-Edition Miatas get a six-speed gearbox (optional for LS models). Additionally, you can option the base and LS versions with a four-speed automatic. Regardless of your transmission choice, the 1.8-liter does tend to drone on the highway, but once you drop the top (which features a glass rear window) and fire up the Bose sound system (standard in the LS and Special Edition), you won't care. A Sport Suspension package that includes upgraded shock absorbers, a limited-slip differential and 16-inch tires increases the roadster's fitness level, but some fun is lost in not being able to adjust the tail easily via the throttle the package is optional for base and LS models, though the LS already comes with the limited slip and larger tires. Certainly, there are faster, more exciting roadsters you can buy, but they cost more. Further, Miata drivers can harness most of the roadster's abilities under normal driving conditions how many Boxster drivers can say that?
3. Ford Mustang Convertible, $23,140
If V6 power is a minimum requirement for your top-down driving experience, then perhaps the convertible version of Ford's popular Mustang is in your future. The entry-level Mustang comes with a 3.8-liter pushrod V6 that makes 190 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of twist acceleration is fully adequate, especially if you like to shift your own gears (an automatic transmission is optional). Of course, some would argue that you really must have the GT convertible and its 4.6-liter overhead-cam V8 (260 horses and 302 lb-ft of torque) for true pony car thrills, but that raises the MSRP without options to $27,615 still cheaper than the V8-equipped Camaro/Firebird twins (though nowhere close in terms of performance). If the SVT Mustang Cobra convertible and its four-wheel independent suspension and more sophisticated V8 (good for 320 horsepower and 317 pound-feet) is the object of your desire, the price swells to $33,205. Both the V6 and GT ragtops come in Deluxe or Premium trim. Standard Deluxe features include a glass rear window, CD/cassette combo, cruise control, rear spoiler, alloy wheels, anti-theft system and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Options include an automatic transmission, ABS with traction control, leather upholstery and an eight-speaker Mach 460 sound system with a six-disc in-dash changer. Premium buyers get all of the above, plus access to the Mach 1000 sound system; V6 convertibles also get a mandatory automatic transmission in Premium trim. All GT convertibles are equipped with a traction-lock rear axle, dual exhaust, upgraded suspension, 17-inch wheels shod with performance tires (Premium models get a different set of rims), foglights and sport seats. Credit the Mustang's perennially strong sales numbers to its easy-going on-road demeanor it behaves predictably even when pushed and thus caters to a wide range of driving styles. And its steering and braking are impressive. On rough pavement, however, the solid rear axle (Cobra excluded) can make the ride uncomfortable and encumber the handling when turning (that is, the car may side-step). Driving a Mustang is quite different from driving the similarly priced Miata, but there's plenty to be said for off-the-line power, room for four, a generous list of standard features and the allure of American muscle.
4. Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, $23,962
On the basis of price, the second-generation Eclipse Spyder is a chief competitor of the Miata and the Mustang convertible. While the front-wheel-drive Spyder is bereft of their passion, it offers a livable compromise of the two for budget-conscious convertible shoppers more room and power than the Miata, and greater refinement and fuel economy than the Mustang. And, indeed, the Spyder has been received favorably by those seeking a top-down conveyance that's relatively fun to drive and certainly fun to be seen in, thanks to bold "geo-mechanical" styling. The Spyder is available in two versions the GS comes with a 2.4-liter inline four that makes 147 horsepower and 158 lb-ft of torque, and the GT has a 3.0-liter V6 good for 200 horsepower and 205 lb-ft. Both models come standard with a manual gearbox; alternatively, you can have the GS with an automatic or the GT with Mitsubishi's Sportronic automanual. While only $2,000 separates the two models, only the GT can be equipped with ABS and side airbags, and you can only buy them as part of the $2,370 Premium package (which also includes a power driver seat and an Infinity sound system with a four-disc in-dash changer). Moreover, traction control is only available when you equip a GT with the Sportronic and the Premium goodies. Leather, however, is optional for all Spyders. Standard equipment includes a CD player, microfiltered air conditioning, height-adjustable driver seat, auto-off headlights, 16-inch wheels, cruise control, remote keyless entry, anti-theft system and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Besides the V6 engine, the GT adds 17-inch wheels, wider tires and four-wheel disc brakes. The Spyder's suspension and steering are better suited to cruising than spirited runs on curvy roads, which is just fine for lazy Sunday drives to the beach. Interior materials and ergonomics are nothing special, but a power-operated convertible top (with rear glass and defogger) is a nice feature in this price range. Today's Spyder isn't as sporty as its predecessor (1996-1999), but it is attractive, reasonably powerful and affordable with room in the back for your kids.
5. Toyota MR2 Spyder, $24,065
Toyota resurrected the MR2 nameplate in 2000 with the introduction of the Miata-fighting Spyder. The MR2 isn't as practical for weekend getaways as the Miata, given its lack of a real trunk. But for those seeking an inexpensive roadster for autocrossing or curvy back roads, the mid-engine, rear-drive Spyder is a tempting choice. Why? Its sharp, extremely communicative steering, light curb weight and centralized mass make it one of the most entertaining cars at any price to push through the turns. A 1.8-liter inline four aided by Toyota's VVT-i (variable valve timing) makes 138 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. Although this engine isn't as refined as the Miata's, it has a wider torque band and more overall punch and pull. A five-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission choice. Unlike other Toyotas, the MR2 comes with plenty of standard equipment, including a glass rear window (with defroster), ABS, air conditioning, steering wheel tilt adjustment, daytime running lights and power windows, mirrors and door locks. The only options are 17-inch wheels and tires, and leather upholstery. A tiny cubby behind the seats functions as a trunk, providing a mere 2.8 cubic feet of storage space and you have to exit the car and fold back the seat to get at it (Opening and closing the convertible top also necessitates getting out of the car). There's an additional small storage well under the front hood, but this space is shared with the spare tire and is more of an afterthought, so you'll need to reserve the passenger seat for trips to the grocery store. And for some, there is the issue of the Spyder's insectoid styling and all of the attention it's sure to arouse. But for those uninhibited, attention-loving few, who travel light and/or can justify the purchase of an MR2 Spyder as a "second car," much fun awaits.
6. Chrysler Sebring Convertible, $24,995
The Sebring and the Camry Solara are the two family convertibles on the list not only do they have backseats, but each can seat four adult-size passengers in some measure of comfort. A 2.7-liter V6 good for 200 horsepower and 197 lb-ft of torque is the standard powerplant at all three trim levels LX, LXi and Limited. It's easy to see, then, that the Sebring convertible has value on its side. LX and LXi convertibles come with a four-speed automatic transmission, and the Limited gets Chrysler's Autostick automanual shifter. A manual gearbox would allow for livelier times behind the wheel, but none is offered. Standard features in the base LX include a power-operated vinyl top with rear glass and defroster, four-wheel disc brakes, 15-inch wheels, cloth upholstery, six-speaker stereo with cassette player and power windows, door locks and mirrors. LXi trim adds a cloth convertible top, single CD player with Infinity speakers, leather upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, driver information center (compass, miles to empty and the like) vehicle security system, foglights and 16-inch wheels. Limited convertibles attempt to impart a more luxurious feel with the addition of premium leather seats, a four-disc in-dash changer, ABS with traction control and the aforementioned Autostick. LX and LXi buyers can option their vehicles with a CD changer and an ABS/traction control system. You can expect the Sebring convertible to ride and handle much like a midsize sedan. Are there sportier alternatives? Sure, but none so accommodating for a family of four.
7. Toyota Camry Solara Convertible, $25,550
The Camry-based Solara convertible is indeed expensive when compared to the Sebring, but consider what you're buying: Toyota's legendary reputation for build quality and reliability. Does this justify the high price? That's a decision you will have to make. The Solara ragtop comes in SE, SE-V6 and SLE trim. For 2002, the SE comes with a 2.4-liter inline four that makes 157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque (this replaces the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and its 135 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque) this is nice enough, but we would rather have the smooth, creamy 3.0-liter V6 (200 horses and 214 lb-ft) that comes in the SE-V6 and SLE. Of course, opting for the SE-V6 raises the base MSRP to $28,940. As in the Sebring, a four-speed automatic is standard across the line. For handling duty, Toyota increased the damping rates of the Camry's basic suspension and added a brace that joins the front strut towers together; overall body rigidity was increased, as well. And the Solara's steering system is more sport-oriented. Once you're behind the wheel, however, it's immediately apparent that the Solara aspires to provide a comfortable ride, rather than handling excellence. All convertibles come with a power-operated cloth top with rear glass and a defroster. Cloth upholstery is standard fare in both SE models, while the SLE comes with leather. Toyota has the important safety items covered, but the packaging isn't the greatest: Side airbags are optional across the line, traction control is optional for the SLE only and ABS is standard unless you select the four-cylinder SE model (in which case, it's optional). Both SE models include a six-speaker stereo with a CD player, foglights and power windows, door locks and mirrors; a premium 300-watt JBL stereo system is optional (standard in the SLE). As convertibles go, the Solara isn't the most exciting one on the market (in terms of performance or price), but if you've already decided that you want a Camry but a Camry with a bit more whimsy this Toyota is a solid buy.
8. Chevrolet Camaro Convertible, $26,450
If you're at all attracted to GM's ever-virile F-bodies, 2002 is the year to act rumor has it that this is the final year of production for the Camaro and its slightly more expensive twin, the Pontiac Firebird. In V8 form (the 2002 Z28 convertible stickers at $29,965), these cars have out-muscled the Mustang GT since 1993. Yes, blasting down the road in a topless Camaro affords an incomparable high. Unfortunately, the insurance rates often do the same, which is why the "insurance-special" base V6 model is worthy of your consideration. The 3800 Series II V6 convertible makes 200 horsepower and 225 pound-feet and will pack ample punch if you go with the standard five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed automatic is optional). For those with a bit more to spend, the Z28 comes with the brawny 5.7-liter LS1 V8 that churns out 310 horses and 340 lb-ft of twist. And when you option the Z28 with the SS performance package, you create the Camaro SS convertible and its 325-horsepower and 350-lb-ft version of the 5.7. A four-speed autobox is standard in the Z28, though a six-speed manual is a no-cost option (it's included in the SS package). Of course the SS comes with a lot more performance-oriented equipment, but V6 buyers needn't go without an optional performance handling package bundles dual exhaust, tighter steering and a limited-slip differential. Every convertible comes with a generous list of standard features, including an eight-speaker 500-watt Monsoon sound system; power convertible top with rear glass and defroster; four-wheel disc brakes with ABS; remote keyless entry with anti-theft system; and power windows, door locks and mirrors. A 12-disc CD changer, leather upholstery and traction control are optional. Potential disadvantages? In exchange for its low-end thrust, the Camaro demands all of your attention when you're driving it. Additionally, its small backseat is all but useless. And build quality isn't the greatest, either. A small price to pay, perhaps, if you like to drive aggressively (as a torrent of wind tangles your mane).
9. Pontiac Firebird Convertible, $27,005
Virtually everything we said about the Camaro applies to the Firebird, though the Pontiac's styling has a heightened sexual fervor that is sure not to be missed on the highway. The Firebird ragtop is also available as three distinct models: the insurance-saver V6, the 5.7-liter V8-equipped Trans Am and the Firehawk (a Trans Am with the WS6 performance package, which is equivalent to the Camaro's SS package). The V6 and non-Firehawk Trans Ams are available with either a manual or automatic transmission (Firehawks have a mandatory six-speed manual). Interestingly, though, Trans Am buyers who prefer an automatic can still get a performance package (performance tires, 3.23 axle ratio and more). Additionally, the V6 convertible's handling package includes performance-oriented P235/55R16 tires (of course, V6 Camaro buyers end up with performance rubber, as well the tires are a required additional option when you select the Chevy's handling package). Aside from styling, small differences in options packaging are all that separate the Firebird and the Camaro. But even together, their sales can't keep up with the wildly popular Mustang's hence GM's rumored decision to cut loose the slow sellers after the 2002 model year.
10. BMW Z3 Roadster 2.5i, $31,945
While the consensus of our staff is that the Z3, even with the base 2.5-liter inline six engine, is superior to either the Mazda Miata or the Toyota MR2 Spyder, we not sure that this justifies the high price BMW asks for its fun-to-drive roadster. Indeed the 2.5i model starts out under 32 grand, but once you start adding options, it's not hard to push the sticker into the mid to upper 30s. And if you want the even more satisfying 3.0-liter inline six, well, the price starts at $38,545. In any case, the Z3 2.5i makes 184 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque, while the 3.0i makes 225 horsepower and 214 lb-ft. Both roadsters come with a five-speed manual transmission; a five-speed Steptronic automanual is optional. Standard features include four-wheel disc brakes with ABS (though the 3.0i gets larger brakes), traction control, stability control, a limited slip differential, leather upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Options include a CD player, sport seats and a power-operated convertible top. Oh yes the convertible top has a chintzy plastic rear window. Further, while the interior layout is user-friendly and the standard sound system adequate, we wouldn't mind higher-quality plastics. Neither complaint really matters once the top is down and you're out of the road. The Z3's superb steering and brakes, well-managed suspension and stability control system allow for never-ending good times on twisting canyon roads (or wherever you happen to be) provided, of course, you can afford one in the first place.
Five Affordable Topless Sport-Utes
So those were the 10 least expensive topless cars, but if you're desperate for top-down thrills and must keep the out-the-door price under $20,000, consider an SUV. Yes, surprisingly enough, the cheapest "convertibles" are actually trucks. All five sport-utes on the list are available in a two-door removable soft-top configuration and, thus, are essentially convertibles. The Jeep Wrangler is the oldest and the coolest of the group, but it's certainly not your only choice.