Buying a convertible used to mean certain compromises had to be made to allow owners to enjoy the sun on their shoulders and the wind in their hair. Specifically, it meant a soft top that allowed a fair amount of noise into the cabin and a fussy tonneau cover that was a nail-buster to button down.
Today, no such sacrifices need be made -- most modern soft tops have multiple layers of insulation and are automatically covered when lowered. And retractable hardtops, once available only to wealthy sun-worshippers, are now available in most segments, ranging from affordable sports cars to true four-seaters.
As much a fixture in this segment as Britney Spears is in the tabloids, the Mazda MX-5 Miata does pretty much everything well. Razor-sharp steering and handling, a peppy engine that revs gleefully to redline and a comfortable cockpit with simple controls are once again the successful formula for Mazda's rear-drive two-seater. And now, one even has the option of a retractable hardtop version of the Miata, which weighs a mere 70 pounds more than the soft top. Chief competition for the Miata comes from GM's Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky roadster twins. Though the Solstice and Sky offer sexier styling and more thrust (the latter by way of the turbocharged GXP and Redline versions), they lack the Miata's ultracommunicative connection to the road and high-quality interior.
Should you need room for a couple of kids but still want sports car reflexes in your drop top, consider the Mini Cooper convertible. Unlike the Cooper hatchback, the ragtop version hasn't been redesigned, but it still remains a strong choice. Whether one chooses the supercharged S version or less rapid standard Cooper, there's plenty of fun to be had if you enjoy driving a small, responsive car.
At opposite ends of the short-money drop-top spectrum are the Smart Fortwo cabrio and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The former is a tiny, two-seat, 40-plus mpg commuter that's 3 feet shorter than a Mini. The latter offers a roomy four-seater cabin within its compact, retro-themed body, seats four and, with the available turbocharged engine, the PT convertible offers decent performance.
The selections in this segment are quite varied. If an old-school muscle car with retro good looks and the option of blazing acceleration appeals to you, then the Ford Mustang family should have something for you. Whether you choose the V6 cruiser or the supercharged V8-powered Shelby GT500, this stable of steeds offers an agreeable balance between handling and ride as well as a lot of performance for the money. Another sporty ragtop to consider is the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. Not quite as athletic as the Mustang, the Eclipse (in GT form) is comfortable, quick and handles well, though it is saddled with a rather large turning radius and the backseat is essentially an upholstered package shelf.
If a refined, Euro-bred cruiser is more your thing, there is the sophisticated, neatly tailored Volkswagen Eos. Sporting impeccable fit and finish and a retractable hardtop, the Eos is the best of the hard-top four-seat convertibles in this price range. This Vee-Dub also provides respectable performance and is a decent value provided you go easy on the options. If a hardtop isn't a requirement, Toyota's Camry Solara convertible is similarly refined but has more usable rear seats. The Solara makes no sporty claims at all, instead offering a plush ride, an upscale cabin and tight build quality.
Pontiac's G6 retractable hardtop convertible is another alternative for consumers shopping in this price bracket, but its lack of chassis refinement, dearth of luggage capacity and so-so braking performance make it hard to recommend. It's a similar story with Chrysler's redesigned Sebring convertible, which now offers a retractable hardtop option (in addition to less expensive vinyl and cloth soft-top options). Although the Sebring's cockpit is largely free of turbulence with the top down, sloppy handling dynamics and cut-rate interior materials detract from the experience. To make matters worse, you can hear the folded steel top clattering around in the trunk.
Although it's relatively unchanged since its debut eight years ago, the Honda S2000 is still a desirable, elemental sports car. With its high-winding inline-4, close-coupled two-seat roadster design and performance-focused chassis, the rear-drive S2000 is something of a higher-strung Miata.
Shoppers have a number of enticing choices in this segment. If European design and road manners appeal to you, then Audi's TT two-seater is worth a serious look. More of a comfortable grand touring machine than a back-roads burner, the TT roadster impresses with its artful style, finely crafted cockpit, comfortable ride and competent performance. Available Quattro all-wheel drive makes the TT a good choice for enthusiasts who live in inclement parts of the country.
If, on the other hand, all-out performance is the priority, then the Nissan 350Z roadster won't disappoint. A ripping V6 matched to a firmly sprung, well-balanced and communicative chassis is the foundation of the Z. With its impressive driving dynamics and fuss-free soft top, the 350Z roadster presents a value proposition that's hard to ignore.
Four-place convertibles worth considering include the Volvo C70, which features a retractable hardtop as well as superbly comfortable seats and the latest safety features, including head curtain airbags that deploy from the door sills. Be forewarned that this Volvo is a cruiser and not a sporty drop top, and indeed its performance is somewhat tepid compared to the Saab 9-3. The latter Swede boasts sharper steering and a more lively driving experience, though it lacks its compatriot's metal top and exacting build quality.
Be forewarned: The BMW 3 Series convertible can get uncomfortably pricey once you start checking off option packages. However, even at its lowest trim level -- and devoid of options -- this is still one of the best four-place convertibles available at any price. A superbly balanced and flex-free chassis, an enthusiastic family of engines, tight build quality and a well-conceived retractable hardtop are the highlights of the latest 3 Series drop top.
Right up there with the BMW is Audi's A4 Cabriolet family, which includes the high-performance S4 and, new for 2008, the ultrahigh-performance RS 4 variants. Like the Bimmers, these Audis offer plenty of performance (though the A4, at least, has a much softer suspension setup), solid build quality and an impeccably trimmed cabin. They also offer the advantage of all-wheel drive, courtesy of Audi's rally-proven Quattro system.
Although typically more expensive, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class has won many hearts simply on the basis of its elegant styling. It lacks the Bimmer's retracting hardtop, but the four-seat Benz convertible does offer a solid ride and handling balance, a lineup of powerhouse engines and, of course, the prestige that comes with the three-pointed star.
In the roadster category, there are a number of German choices as well as a bargain-priced American. For a purebred roadster, the Porsche Boxster sets the standard. With an energetic midmounted flat-6, an athletic platform and timeless styling that's a nod to the 550 Spyder of old, the Boxster is a sweet confection for serious enthusiasts. Telepathic steering, strong brakes and superb balance make the Boxster a great companion on a sunny day filled with twisting two-laners.
Nearly equal to the Boxster in driving enjoyment, the BMW Z4 is typically thousands less than its chief rival. If you can take a shine to the questionable styling and go easy on the option packages, the Z4 represents a decent value. Completing the German trio is the Mercedes-Benz SLK. In typical Mercedes fashion, the SLK tends to be a bit pricier than its rivals and though it boasts a solid chassis, it doesn't have quite the same level of communication through the steering wheel. It does, however, sport a retractable hardtop, a claim that neither the Boxster nor Z4 can make.
Presenting so much value we're surprised it's not sold at Wal-Mart is the Chevrolet Corvette. Offering exotic car levels of performance at one-third to one-fourth the price, Chevy's icon also makes for a reasonable daily driver thanks to its comfortable ride, generous luggage capacity and impressive (for a 430-hp V8) fuel-efficiency.
Another consideration for sports car fans is the Lotus Elise. A tightly focused track car that just happens to be street-legal, the Elise adheres to the strictest sports car dictums -- light weight, superb balance, a flex-free and communicative chassis and no frills. As much fun as it is, the Elise is best left as a weekend toy, due to its noisy, stiff ride and sparsely outfitted cockpit.
This segment is filled with a number of dream rides. Yet, going into the sixth year of its model cycle, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class still impresses with its abundance of performance, luxury, styling and daily-driver usability. With the base SL now boasting nearly 400 horsepower and handling ability that belies its near two-ton mass, this grand tourer for two has no problem making time, be it on an interstate or a serpentine section of blacktop. The retractable hardtop transforms the car from coupe to roadster in short order. For those whose need for speed borders on the insane, the range-topping SL65 offers over 600 horsepower under its sleek hood.
For consumers seeking a more focused performance car, the Porsche 911 offers incredible communication between its steering wheel and the road, a frisky flat-6 that makes intoxicating music as it sings its way toward redline, and tidy body dimensions wrapped in classic styling that seems to get better year after year. Yes, many of Porsche's options have ridiculous prices, but when you make one of the most desired sports cars on the planet, you can get away with that.
With its low and sleek two-seat architecture, the Cadillac XLR may appear to be a sports car. But in truth this Corvette-derived luxury roadster is more of a grand touring car. A powerful V8 and a retractable hardtop highlight this Caddy's features list, but unfortunately, in this price segment it is outclassed by more athletic and somewhat more refined rivals. In a similar vein, the Lexus SC 430 is more of a cruiser than a luxury roadster, though it boasts faultless build and materials quality. And while its specs list the Lexus as a four-seater, its rear compartment is best left for the Neiman Marcus bags. In this subcategory of essentially two-seat luxury drop tops, the Jaguar XK line makes a strong argument with its solid chassis and mostly sexy styling, though its multifunction touchscreen control can be an exercise in frustration and some may take issue with the Jag's fishlike nose.
Among high-dollar four-seaters, the BMW 6 Series (and its even speedier M6 sibling) is hard to beat. A pleasing blend of performance and comfort, the 6 Series offers a handsome cabin and handling that's more sports car than four-place GT. But as with the coupe, the 6 Series convertible has some odd styling details and a fussy iDrive multifunction control interface.
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