There's something inherently romantic about convertibles. Whether it's the wind in your hair, sun on your face or the panoramic view of the world, a drop top evokes a feeling of freedom usually associated with motorcycling — without the danger, of course. Nowadays, most convertibles feature a quiet, draft-free cabin with many of the creature comforts found in hardtop coupes — a far cry from early ragtops with leaky roofs and cramped quarters.
As much a fixture on this list as Jay Leno on late-night TV, the Mazda Miata provides one of the purest and most enjoyable driving experiences available. Compact and attractively priced, the Miata offers roadster enthusiasts communicative steering, athletic handling, a spirited engine and even the option of a retractable hardtop. A long-standing reputation for rock-solid reliability and low maintenance costs are two more big reasons this little drop top has been super popular since its debut two decades ago.
Many convertible enthusiasts would like more than two seats, however; and the four-passenger Ford Mustang brings added excitement this year in the form of new V6 and V8 engines. Unlike before, the V6 packs plenty of performance, enough that the old 'you should go with the V8' advice no longer applies here. That said, the new V8 is a powerhouse thriller complete with a '60s muscle-car soundtrack. In addition to its strong bang-for-the-buck quotient, the Mustang provides roomy front seating and a respectable trunk capacity. As expected, those rear seats are cramped for bigger adults.
As one moves up higher in the convertible price brackets, more style and luxury is expected along with refined performance. The Audi A5 Cabriolet has the style thing down pat with its elegantly fluid lines, while luxury is amply handled by the finely trimmed cabin, very comfortable seats and available high-end features. Although most rivals are powered by six-cylinder engines, the A5 looks to a turbocharged four for motivation. With its surprisingly brisk acceleration and impressive fuel economy, the 2.0 T's lower cylinder count should be a nonissue for most folks shopping this segment.
The BMW 1 Series may have styling that most folks will agree decidedly pales next to our previous pick. But get them behind the wheel and they'll quickly discover the 1's true beauty. The suspension strikes a nigh-perfect balance between taut handling and a supple ride, while the pair of inline-6 engines provides turbine-smooth thrust, which is amplified in the turbocharged 135i variant. Quiet top-up cruising and ample luxury amenities are other perks in this Bimmer. Though options are typically pricey, we highly recommend the Sport package, which throws in exceptionally comfortable sport seats in addition to a firmer suspension.
More than a decade after its debut, the Porsche Boxster still owns the roadster market. Dollar for dollar, no two-seat convertible matches its agility, razor-sharp feedback and pure driving thrill. A sublime composite of handling, luxury and power, offering 255 horsepower in the base model or 310 hp in the S model, the Boxster long ago shed its "Porsche Lite" perception and took its deserved place among the marque's production classics. Porsche added an automated manual gearbox to the options list two years ago, and offers the leaner, richer Spyder in the 2011 lineup.
The BMW 3 Series doesn't tap our adrenal gland quite like the Boxster, but it's still a perennial favorite. Strong and athletic, 3 Series models grip like a tyrant and offer strong inline-6 engines. However, it's the 3 Series retractable hardtop that may be the most appealing attribute for consumers. While other convertibles offer hardtops, none manage to so elegantly maintain both a coupelike profile and some semblance of top-down trunk space.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class achieves the Edmunds grand slam by being recommended in all four of the categories in which it competes. The E-Class Cabriolet may not have the retractable hardtop of the 3 Series, but its soft top is exquisitely constructed to keep out noise just as well. Besides the peerless engineering that highlights every E-Class, the Cabriolet stands apart thanks to its innovative AirCap system, which uses retractable deflectors to create a cabin virtually unencumbered by wind. Your hair shall never be fussed again.
In this rarefied air, you can pick your poison. Lightning-fast automated manual shifting. Sticky all-wheel drive. Destructive torque. Few top-down experiences, however, rival that of a Porsche 911 Cabriolet. It could have something to do with the 3.6- or 3.8-liter flat-6 engines, good for anywhere from 345 hp in the base Carrera to 500 hp in the Turbo. It could be the soft top that stows in 13 seconds or the snap-shifting seven-speed automated manual transmission. Whatever the reason, though, the Porsche 911 is one of the finest cars on the planet.
Another is the Audi R8 Spyder. With a 525-hp V10 presently on tap and a "base" 430-hp V8 around the corner, the R8 boasts thrilling power. Thanks to Quattro all-wheel drive and brilliant engineering, using all that power around corners has never been easier. The optional R tronic automated manual transmission shifts clumsily, but the six-speed gated manual is sublime. The R8 Spyder is not a car you plan long trips around, however, as luggage space is laughable. But with 525 horsepower on tap, you'll be home well before the need to do laundry.
The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class represents possibly the most classic forging of elegance and brutality. Its present generation may have been around since 2003, but the SL's timeless blend of luxury and performance remains irresistible. Most folks will call it a day with the 382-hp SL550; but those seeking over-the-top performance can opt for the SL63 or SL65 AMG models — the latter offering 604 hp and 738 pound-feet of torque. Besides performance, the SL is known for its retractable hardtop, spacious roadster cabin, AirScarf neck warmers, and of course, that tanklike Mercedes-Benz construction.