For some, convertibles are seen as frivolous means of transportation. To others, specifically those who enjoy interaction with the outdoors while piloting a responsive machine, they're the only way to get around. Unlike the drafty, noisy ragtops of years gone by, today's convertibles offer well-sealed tops -- even retractable hardtops, in some cases -- along with features such as all-wheel drive and heated seats that make them just fine for wintertime climes.
Choices here are pretty slim, yet widely varied. For sports car purists -- or for that matter, anybody who gets a kick out of driving -- it doesn't get any better than Mazda's Miata roadster. A peppy engine, well-balanced chassis and highly communicative steering provide driving thrills on the cheap, while the option of a retractable hardtop (in place of the traditional soft top) offers coupelike security and insulation from the elements.
Those who need four-passenger capacity have a couple of choices. If said passengers are Munchkin-size, there is the Mini Cooper, which handles like a sports car but has a pair of small rear seats for the kiddies or your little friends. If you need more room and like the idea of driving a retro-styled American icon, check out the Ford Mustang convertible. The perennial pony car's flavors range from mild (standard V6 'Stang) to wild (supercharged V8-powered Shelby GT500).
Stepping up a price class in this segment means you get to choose among a couple of sophisticated European offerings. The Volkswagen Eos offers crisp styling, top-notch fit and finish and a retractable hardtop. Although a V6 is available, the Eos' base turbocharged inline-4 provides plenty of performance. A refined, if a bit isolated, drive best describes the Eos' personality.
The four-seat sports car of this group is the BMW 1 Series. Although its quirky styling is the subject of much debate, a pair of eager engine choices, a taut suspension and BMW's trademark near-telepathic steering all add up to a drop top that should please the most demanding driver. On the otherwise pricey options list is a flat-out bargain we must recommend -- the Sport package, which provides incredibly supportive seats in addition to the obligatory fancy wheels and firmer suspension tuning.
Those looking for a Euro-flavored roadster with a generous helping of artful styling should look to Audi's TT. More grand-touring machine than canyon carver, the TT pampers its passengers in its first-class cockpit while providing competent road manners and a supple ride. The TT also offers the option of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, making this roadster ideal for those who live where snow and rain are a part of life.
As with its 1 Series sibling, the BMW 3 Series offers an engaging driving experience along with seating for four. But unlike the 1, the 3 also provides a retractable hardtop. Be forewarned: Getting giddy with the options quickly drives up the bottom line on this Bimmer. But the nice thing about the 3 Series is that even in the lowest trim level and devoid of options, it remains one of the most desirable four-place convertibles available anywhere.
If nothing less than a finely focused sports car will do, then there is the Nissan 350Z roadster. A snarling, potent V6 and a taut, communicative chassis are at the core of the Z's appeal. And when you combine the dynamite dynamics with the easy-to-drop top and attractive pricing, the 350Z roadster presents a value that we just can't ignore.
Easily one of the best deals on four wheels, the Chevrolet Corvette convertible offers the performance of cars that are three to four times the price. But it's not just raw power and speed with this American idol; a comfortable ride, abundance of luggage capacity and impressive (for a 430-horsepower V8) fuel-efficiency mean the Corvette is as easy to live with as it is to enjoy.
If a more traditional, pure-bred roadster is more to your liking, we imagine you'd be pleased with the more compact Porsche Boxster, which draws its timeless styling from the 550 Spyder of a half-century ago. A feisty midmounted flat-6 provides the thrust as well as a mechanical symphony that's hard to top, while the finely balanced and athletic chassis, strong brakes and just-right steering make the Boxster a believer out of anyone who questions the allure of a Porsche.
Four-seat options within this class are headed up by two German rivals. From Mercedes-Benz comes the CLK-Class. Elegant styling, an ideal handling and ride balance, a powerhouse engine lineup and, of course, prestige all come with the CLK-Class. Audi offers the S4 cabriolet, which is based on the previous-generation A4 platform. That's not a bad thing, as it means that, in addition to potent V8 power, the S4 cabriolet boasts first-rate build quality, an impeccably trimmed cabin and the advantage of Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive.
Something of an automotive chameleon, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class can be either a comfortable grand tourer or entertaining sports roadster. Even now, essentially in its seventh year of production, this generation of the SL, which sports a retractable hardtop, still impresses with its abundance of performance, luxury, styling and daily-driver usability. With nearly 400 hp and handling that makes the 2-ton roadster feel much lighter, even the "base" SL offers more performance than most folks will ever use. If you won't settle for less than wretched excess, there is the flagship of the line, the SL65 AMG, which offers more than 600 hp under its sleek hood.
Those seeking a more elemental sports car should strongly consider the Porsche 911. You would be hard-pressed to find a roadster that's more involving or rewarding to drive. From its superb steering feel to its frisky flat-6 that thrills the ears with its intoxicating music, the svelte and classically styled 911 just gets better every year. Yes, Porsche's option prices are ridiculous, but when you build some of the best sports cars in the world, you can get away with that.
Within the four-seater category, the BMW 6 Series (and its even speedier M6 sibling) remains a strong choice. Seemingly equal parts performance and comfort, the 6 Series offers a coddling cabin and handling that belies its size. But like its coupe sibling, the 6 Series convertible has styling that won't please everyone and BMW's sometimes annoying iDrive multifunction controller.