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Longing For The Wind In Your Hair?


Personal Business: Autos

LONGING FOR THE WIND IN YOUR HAIR?

Fess up. When the warm, welcome breath of spring arrives, you yearn to go cruising in a convertible. Well, a new crop of alluring ragtops from Detroit and Europe can make it happen.

The latest generation of open-air wheels is a big improvement over the last one. In the past, convertibles tended to be afterthoughts, thrown together from existing coupe models. Although the result often looked snazzy, performance suffered. With their steel roofs chopped off, their bodies lost crucial rigidity, compromising handling and creating a chorus of squeaks and rattles.

Now, carmakers increasingly plan convertible versions from the get-go. They beef up chassis to compensate for the lack of a hard top. They work the bugs out of their folding-top mechanisms. And they allow extra development time to track down and silence the vibrato from loose parts. All that lends these drop-tops a new level of

refinement.

The results aren't perfect. On bumpy roads, these cars still shake and shimmy more than their hard-top brethren. Their rear seats tend to be so cramped that they're largely decorative. And a hunk of trunk space gets eaten up by stowage for the top. But, hey, such drawbacks are easily overridden by the appeal of open-air motoring.

That's particularly true in the latest versions of two beloved American muscle cars, the Ford Mustang GT and Chevy Camaro Z28. The Mustang, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, boasts a curvy new body. The sculpted interior is pleasingly simple, with controls that are easy to locate and use. Dual air bags are standard.

Under the hood, Ford's venerable five-liter V-8 gives the 'Stang GT plenty of oomph: Zero to 60 takes a shade over six seconds. There's a pleasant, though subdued, roar from the exhaust when you punch it. On smooth pavement, the car has tenacious cornering grip. On bumpy roads, the somewhat primitive suspension falters, and the rear end hops disconcertingly sideways.

The top is a breeze to operate. Release two clamps at the top of the windshield, and it flops back at the push of a button. Once down, a plastic and cloth cover is a hassle to fasten; I just left it off. With the top up, wind noise was more noticeable than in some convertibles. The rear window is glass, which is easier to see through than the plastic alternative, and has a built-in defogger.

The Z28 Camaro is a more brutish ride. Powered by a 275-horsepower version of the Corvette's 5.7-liter V-8, it flashes to 60 in 5.4 seconds. A six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission is available. The exhaust emits a pleasantly throaty rumble at idle and an authoritative roar when you hit the gas. Beefy tires help hold the line in hard corners, although, like the Mustang, the Camaro has a tendency to dance sideways over bumps. The suspension can be harsh over potholed pavement.

With a low, wide stance, the Camaro's exterior is aggressive. The interior has a cockpit-like feel, with the air-bag-equipped dash wrapping around driver and passenger. Gauges are easy to read, and most controls are simple to use. One exception: the turn-signal stalk, cluttered with cruise control and wiper switches. The cramped rear seats fold to create a nice cargo area that extends into the trunk when the roof is up.

The Camaro's top is even slicker than the Mustang's. At cruising speed, there's surprisingly little wind noise. And it has a more finished look, both inside and out. The rear window is defogger-equipped glass, but it's a tad on the small side, which limits visibility. And the cover for the retracted top is awkward to install.

These cars' extra muscle will cost you. The Z28 starts at $22,075, while the Mustang begins at $22,445. Of, course, if looks count more than performance, the base versions of these cars are easier on the pocketbook. The Mustang, with a standard 3.8-liter V-6, sports a $20,635 sticker, while the 3.4-liter V-6 Camaro starts at $18,745.

There's also an attractive bunch of convertibles from across the Atlantic. The most fun to drive is the new, $38,800 BMW 325i. Like a pair of Tommy Moe's downhill skis, it carves neatly through corners at high speed. On straightaways, the 2.5-liter, six-cylinder engine launches the car with a sweet rasp from the exhaust. The five-speed manual transmission is smooth and quick to shift. And four-wheel, antilock disk brakes haul the car to a stop in a hurry. The ride is taut but comfortably fluid, even over nasty bumps.

The Beemer's interior is equally attractive. There's luxurious head- and legroom up front, with seats that are comfy and supportive. Rear seating is cramped, with very little toe-room. Controls fall readily to hand, although the radio and optional trip computer seem needlessly cluttered. The optional traction-control system is handy for slick pavement, but thankfully, it can be turned off for freewheeling romps on curvy roads. One handy feature: You can lower all four power windows with one button. There's even an optional safety system in which the rear headrests automatically pop up to protect passengers in the event of a rollover.

The power top is nicely finished. When up, there's little wind noise. The plastic rear window offers good visibility and uses heater ducts for defogging. At the touch of a button, the roof retracts into a cavity behind the rear seats and a cover automatically latches in place, giving the topless car a neat, finished look. When raising the top again, you have to pull it the final 10 inches by hand, which takes muscle and an awkward twist of the central latching handle.

The Audi Cabriolet, based on the model 90, has more of a touring-car feel. It comes with a 2.8-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic transmission. They launch the car to 60 mph in a shade over 10 seconds--more than two seconds slower than the BMW. The Audi is agile around corners, though, like many front-wheel-drive cars, it tends to plow straight ahead when pushed hard. The ride is quite firm, which makes rough roads tiresome and accentuates squeaks and rattles.

Inside, you find Audi's somewhat quirky controls. The headlight switch, for instance, is on a small stalk on the left side of the steering column. And the radio must be turned off manually, rather than stopping when you shut off the car. The front seats are supportive, with plenty of leg- and headroom; the back is for tiny people.

The Cabriolet's electric top functions much like the BMW's. A cover automatically closes over the retracted roof. To close it takes a similar yank on a T-shaped handle. The plastic rear window is large and provides a broad view. The Audi, with a long list of standard equipment, will set you back $38,950.

The Mercedes E320 Cabriolet is the biggest, most luxurious, and most expensive of the bunch. The sticker starts at $77,300 on this car, which is based on Mercedes' midrange E-series coupe. While no sports car, the six-cylinder E320 has plenty of power for freeway merging and passing. The standard four-speed automatic shifts smoothly and kicks down quickly when you need more oomph. The suspension soaks up bumps. The body leans in hard cornering, but handling is steady.

The Benz has no peer for long road trips. This is a genuine four-seater. Up front is as spacious as the largest sedans. And there's room in the backseat for adults, though clambering in and out of this two-door takes agility. Even the trunk is cavernous by convertible standards.

Little niceties abound. In most convertibles, reaching back to grab the safety belt takes some contorting. Not here: Turn the key and a small lever slides forward to hand you the belt, then retracts once you're buckled in. The rear headrests pop up to act as a roll bar, should the car start to flip. If you want them up full-time, just push a button on the dash.

If none ef these cars catches your fancy, keep an eye out for other convertibles coming later this year. There's the Saab 900 for roughly $32,000 or the Mitsubishi Spyder, starting at $55,000, which will offer the only retractable hard top. The really free-spirited can choose the $30,000, four-wheel-drive Land Rover Defender 90. It may not be sleek and sporty, but this Jeep-like ragtop is sure to turn heads.David Woodruff


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