NEW YORK (MainStreet) – No, driving in warm weather with your car's roof down doesn't have to be a luxury.
At one point in the not-so-distant past, if a car buyer wanted a convertible, he or she had to find either a Chrysler Sebring/200, a Jeep Wrangler or a considerably more expensive vehicle from BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. The convertible is still frivolous, expensive, inefficient and rare — but not that rare anymore.
"The convertible segment as a whole has diminished in recent years, and finding an affordable new model that truly fits your needs has become all but impossible," says Trevor Dorchies, associate editor for Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com. "Even as the automotive industry continues to build up steam after the crisis in 2009, convertibles have occupied a small sliver of market share and as a result, some models like the Volkswagen Eos and Chrysler 200 convertible have been shuttered. Nevertheless, there are still a few good options available to those who prefer open-top fun."
Last year, the folks at TrueCar took a look at convertible buying habits and found that folks in California, Florida, Texas, New York and New Jersey are almost always gearing up to take their cars' tops down. Those are the states that tend to invest in convertibles most, while Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho don't feel it's particularly necessary to own a car that can't keep the breeze or rain out for long stretches at a time.
“Generally, convertibles are awesome, of course,” says Steve Halloran, content and social media manager for automotive review and pricing site CarGurus. “We love them, mostly because they provide an entirely different, more connected-to-the-world-outside driving experience with the top down than any non-convertible can, even with the windows down and a sunroof open.”
If you're in a region with long stretches of warm, sunny weather that justify its premium price and relative inefficiency of a convertible, it's not such a splurge. But its also helps to have an address in one of the nation's richer states if you're considering ditching the day-to-day hard top.
“Finding the ideal drop-top driver can be a difficult choice, however, as the market has a broad variety of offerings, from sporty muscle cars to little two-seat roadsters, with plenty of affordable options that sell below $30,000,” says Brandy Schaffels, contributor at TrueCar and chief editor at AskPatty.com. “Don't forget: As a responsible convertible owner, you must always have sunscreen and baseball caps in the glovebox.”
Still, for car buyers 35 to 54 years old and nearly 40% of the female car-buying public, the convertible is the way to go during the warm months. With help of Schaffels, Halloran and Dorchies, we put together a list of convertibles that can give drivers the feel of the wind in their hair without taking too much more than $30,000 out of their accounts:
Mini Cooper Roadster
Starting price: $26,100
Small cars were once underpowered, cramped and inherently bad vehicles fit only for game show giveaways. As films such as 2002's Austin Powers: Goldmember and 2003's The Italian Job showed U.S. audiences, however, a modernized take on the classic British Mini could not only be fuel-efficient, but fun and fast at the same time.
You could swap out colors, arrange the interior, trick it out with gauges and accessories and use its wide wheel base to hug turns while putting its impressive speed to the test. In the decade after its return to the U.S. market, the Mini sold 2.5 million vehicles and became a cult favorite while the big gas guzzlers faded. Now Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda and several other automakers each have sporty, options-packed subcompacts. Meanwhile, the U.S. market became so open to subcompacts that the Fiat 500 that was banished a generation ago has made a comeback. For a marque called Mini, it's had a major impact.
The Mini convertible comes loaded with its Mini Connected entertainment center featuring a 6.5-inch high-definition display, Apple-designed Bluetooth interface and app for smartphone and iTunes connectivity and optional GPS. While's it's also hooked up with Sirius satellite radio, Pandora and HD radio, the most indulgent item built into the dash is an Openometer whose sole purpose is to count the number of minutes or hours your convertible top is down during your trip.
“The Mini roadster is great fun for the true Cooper enthusiast,” Schaffels says. “Low, firm and loud, its spirited type of performance is not meant for those who seek soft and cushy.”
Smart Fortwo cabriolet
Starting price: $17,930
Hey, it costs that much and gets a combined 36 miles per gallon. That's not terrible.
That said, don't expect a thrill ride. This little two-seater is this efficient not only because of its size, but because it has all of 70 horsepower cranking out of its diminutive three-cylinder engine. Also, when cruise control is part of a $280 option package along with the trip computer, “stripped down” doesn't even begin to describe the Smart driving experience.
Starting price: $20,145
As much as its American cousins at Dodge like to promote the bigger, brawnier Charger and Challenger, Fiat doesn't mind making them feel as if they're overcompensating by giving drivers just as much fun in a smaller package. The cinquecento measures a scant 140 inches long and 64 inches wide, gives parallel parkers a 30.6-inch turning radius for squeezing into tight spots and finds room for 10 cubic feet of trunk space — nearly double that of the Mini.
The retractable, pool-cover-style sunroof, power outlets, five cupholders, cruise control, power windows and 40 miles-per-gallon highway mileage — not to mention 31 mpg in the city — are a whole lot cooler to the post-bailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge muscle cars.
"Gone are the days when you'd have to wrestle with the top to put it up or down," KBB's Dorchies says. "Today, most vehicles can remove or raise the top with a simple push of a button."
Starting price: $29,300
Back in 2005, when the Mustang was redesigned with a “retro-futurist look” that was basically an update of the first generation's classic aesthetic, fans responded instantly. Sales jumped from fewer than 130,000 in 2004 to more than 160,000 in 2005 and 166,500 in 2006. It gave the Mustang line a huge boost just before the Great Recession and prompted Chevy and Dodge to make similar retro tweaks to their Camaro, Charger and Challenger.
Ford's softened up that style a bit and gave the 2015 Mustang an overhaul that looks more like a jacked-up Ford Fusion than anything else. Still, the Mustang is a brawny little pony that lends itself well to a convertible configuration.
Yes, that's 300 horsepower pumping out of that base-level 3.7-liter V6, which makes features such as leather racing seats, leather steering wheels covers and high-powered headlights not at all ridiculous. But that 28 miles per gallon on the highway, six-speaker sound system and 4.2-inch touchscreen entertainment and navigation display give it all great features of a practical midsize without ditching any of the muscle.
“The Mustang and Camaro also have history, but they're bigger and much more powerful, not to mention louder, cars,” Halloran says. “They'll appeal to a different sort of driver generally, and they'll provide a pretty different, much more muscular feel while driving with the top down.”
Starting price: $31,205
This is where “around $30,000” starts to get generous. Sure, the base Camaro convertible edges the Mustang with a 323-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine that still gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway. It also comes with fog lamps, a rear spoiler and a top that drops in 20 seconds.
But it takes more features than that to make up for the price. A color heads-up information display on the windshield, the MyLink app center with 7-inch color touchscreen and Pandora, a rear-vision camera and Apple Siri Eyes Free that lets iPhone users send text messages through voice commands are just some of the perks behind the muscle. With apps for roadside assistance and diagnostics, available navigation and a remote starter, the Camaro's a whole lot more than just looks and a motor.
“Driving with the top down means you get to enjoy all the sights and sounds of the environment around you,” Schaffels says. “If the sound of bird song and rustling leaves isn't exciting enough, then the throaty exhaust note of the Camaro Convertible ought to get your heart beating.”
Mazda MX5 Miata
Starting price: $23,970
OK, so the engine is is a little pokier at 167-horsepower from a 2-liter, 4-cylinder — no matter which trim you pay for. That said, the two cars have similar acceleration (zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds for the Porsche, seven seconds for the Miata), similar ratings from Consumer Reports (90 for Porsche, 89 for Mazda) and similar customer satisfaction. The Miata's available hardtop that kicks the starting price up above $27,000 only closes the gap further.
“I've always been in love with the Mazda Miata,” Schaffels says. “It's the purist's roadster, offering sporty fun and good looks in an affordable package. I was surprised to learn it's been declared the best-selling two-seat sports car in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, having sold more than 940,000 units since it was released 25 years ago.”
Starting price: $27,680
This isn't the convertible you drive to the beach, but the one you drive on it. Chrysler's marketing team will be more than happy to remind you for this on May 16, its eighth annual Jeep Go Topless Day, but Jeep's loud, flapping ragtop appeals to a certain segment of drivers far more than some stodgy convertible sedan.
“Beloved by many for its legendary 'trail-rated' off-road prowess, the Jeep Wrangler serves a specific lifestyle niche: With room for five adults, the Jeep Wrangler is the only two-door four-by-four convertible on the market,” Schaffels says. “It's meant to go off road and get dirty, and your passengers might get dirty too.”
There's no substitute for open-air off-road driving, which is why the Wrangler is more than happy to be the last utility vehicle to offer that feature. Given that it isn't all that comfortable a ride otherwise, though, our experts suggest that more situational convertibles may be in order.
“If I were driving alone on fun, windy backroads, I'd want the Miata. If I had my girlfriend with me and we were going to a wedding or some other kind of celebration, I'd pick the Mustang.” Halloran says. “And if I wanted to explore the woods and maybe go camping after the drive, I'd definitely take a Wrangler.”
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet
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