Metal-roofed convertibles are sturdier, safer, and offer better handling and a dramatically quieter ride than any ragtop
Some people don't like convertibles.
Some people also don't like fine Burgundies, Miles Davis, and backing the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby. But for those people whose Platonic conception of the perfect automobile includes the ability to race through the countryside with the top down and the wind in your hair, now is the time to start thinking about buying a convertible.
Yet despite the palpable, obvious pleasures of driving a droptop, most people don't. In fact, sales of convertibles only make up a tiny fraction of overall vehicle sales, between 2% and 5% of the nearly 17 million cars sold annually in the U.S., according to Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis at RL Polk, an automotive-marketing firm based in Southfield, Mich.
The reason, of course, is that convertibles are the ultimate impractical car. They are sexy, unsafe, pricey, cramped, and eminently unsuitable for families. As a result, many prospective car buyers just glance at them longingly in the showroom before driving off in a minivan or crossover. But safety is increasingly less of a factor. That's because these days auto makers offer convertibles with the sensuality of a ragtop and the solidity of a hardtop. Best of all, the roofs can be raised and lowered with the touch of a button.
Limited Cargo Room
Unlike old-fashioned ragtops, hardtops offer three distinct advantages: First, because they're automatic, you no longer have to wrestle them up or down at the first sign of good or foul weather; second, they're quieter; and third, because their roofs are reinforced metal or polymers, they offer greater protection in case of accident.
They also offer better handling, thanks to more rigid underlying body structures. But the tradeoff for a sturdier roof and easy open-and-close is severely limited cargo room. With the top stowed, trunk space in most of these models is cut in half, and on most smaller roadsters it's virtually eliminated. That makes certain models inconvenient for trips longer than a weekend, if that.
Moreover, many drivers find themselves caught in a dilemma between having the top down and taking luggage, because they can't do both. In fact, you can't even fit a bag of golf clubs in most convertibles when the roof is lowered. The notable exception is the diminutive Miata—it loses not an inch of cargo room when it goes topless (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/13/06, "Mazda: More Miata for the Money").
Boosting Sex Appeal
And yet, with 2.2 cars now occupying the garage of the average U.S. household, buyers could very well start considering a hardtop convertible as a reasonable choice for a third vehicle, says RL Polk's Miller. "Many say, 'Let's have fun with it,' and buy a third car," he says.
The newest hardtops are also technological wonders. Their tops dance mechanically, folding back onto themselves, drawing stares from passersby, and helping to establish an auto brand's high-tech bona fides. Even the most affordable new models put a premium on sporty performance, which only boosts sex appeal.
Speaking of premium, all this extra gadgetry doesn't come cheap. For example, the Mercedes-Benz CLK350 coupe starts at $46,200 and the cabriolet version rings up at $54,200. Fortunately, not all hardtops are so expensive. At the lower end, the Miata Mx-5's MSRP is just under $25,000.
Revving Up Old Brands
Does the rise of the hardtop mean the death of the ragtop? Tom Plucinsky, a BMW spokesman, says the company is, for now, sticking with a cloth top for its 6 Series, which costs nearly twice as much as its new hardtop 3 Series. The company's über-luxury division, Rolls-Royce, recently rolled out a new version of its Phantom model, the Drophead Coupe, with a soft, not hard, top.
Manufacturers are continuing to deploy new hardtops to achieve varied ends. American brands such as General Motors' (GM) Pontiac and DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Chrysler, are using such models to gin up excitement for nameplates experiencing a lull in popularity (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/15/06, "Pontiac Converts"). Volvo, which is owned by Ford Motor (F), found that it could save on development costs by offering its C70 as both a coupe and a convertible in one, rather than developing two entirely different models. Volkswagen, meanwhile, is using its Eos model to go after coveted female customers (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/07, "Volkswagen Goes Cashmere").
Hopefully, now that the car companies have made convertibles safer, they will go on to improve their trunks. Either that or golf-club makers have to start making smaller nine irons.
Click here for a slideshow sampling of sporty vehicles with power-folding hardtops for just about any budget.