Skip to comments.What's the Best Convertible of All Time?
Posted on 07/18/2002 7:54:37 AM PDT by wallcrawlr
The 1957 Cadillac Convertible Shown Is A Part Of The Imperial Palace Collection Of Antique And Historic Cars Featured At The Imperial Palace Hotel In Las Vegas Nevada.
There's almost nothing as enjoyable as top-down motoring.
Sure, it can also be a drag: It's always a bummer when you have an electronic cloth-top, it starts to rain and only then do you discover that a fuse has blown and the lid won't close. That's a relatively rare thing, but, unfortunately, we have firsthand knowledge. And, most of the time, topless cars remind us of what has always been cool about motoring: You're just cruising, wind in your hair, not going particularly fast, not going anywhere important, just driving in the moment and grinning at life. What could be finer?
Still, there are good convertibles and even top-notch ones--and then there's the dreck. We'd say the Mustang and the soon-to-be-discontinued Camaro convertibles are the latter. And we'd say the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder is a pretty sweet deal by comparison, but not really the same breathtaking drive as the Miata or the Honda S2000 that made the cut.
So we're skipping the merely good and cutting straight to the winners, which we've arranged neatly, not in terms of performance, really, or photon-gathering capabilities, but in slightly more subjective ways that, well, actually matter. Also, we've given you two price options in nearly every category, so budget-minded, SPF-loaded-sunblock appliers can still get the convertible they want.
Four Seats A Must
What kind of person would buy a four-seat convertible in the first place? Well, lots of people. For years, many of the world's finest, most expensive cars were convertibles like Bugatti, Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce and others. Moreover, many cars that were originally conceived as coupes or sedans often made great open cars because of their superior stability.
But as we said in our intro, some four-seat convertibles can be lame road cars, so it's important that your family convertible backs its accommodating innards with decent manners. Herewith, our picks.
2003 Audi A4 Cabrio $35,000-$40,000 (est.)
Alright, we're sort of cheating here. This car isn't for sale yet and won't be until leaves are falling off trees up north. That won't matter in San Diego or Palm Beach, but no matter where you live, the thing that was great about the previous Audi Cabrio and the Saab (below) is that no matter what the weather, these cars work fine as just plain sedans. Then if the weather is nice enough, their well-insulated-against-sound-and-elements tops fold away, and there you are in your four-seater with your bald spot exposed to the sun. Nice.
The new A4 promises to raise the ante on the previous Cabrio by being stiffer and much quicker. (Convertibles can exhibit all sorts of nasty shakes and rattles, because when you cut the top off of a box and then start leaning on it, naturally it isn't going to be as rigid as before.) It gets the standard 3.0-liter V-6, the one to be found in the new A4, but will also be available come next year with the sweet 1.8T. However, this car is heavy--nearly 4,000 pounds, so the lower torque of the smaller, four-cylinder engine probably isn't going to be quite enough oomph to set the proper motoring mood.
No matter the motor, the newest A4 Cabrio will get one-touch opening and closing, a bigger backseat space than in the 9-3 Saab and will be available with a sports suspension. However it doesn't get a manual-shift option or quattro all-wheel drive. Too bad, but such toys would make the little Audi a bit too pricey, so we get the logic.
Saab 9-3 SE Convertible $40,750
This car has seen younger days, and with a new 9-3 coming by 2003, you can bet this convertible will be reworked. In the meantime, we think the 9-3 convertible is a car to work out a deal on, especially come July or so, when dealers will be trying harder to move the metal before the double whammy of summer ending and pending new model arrivals smack them with expensive inventory-carrying costs.
So what can your topless Swede do? Well, it's a pretty quick car, with a 0-60mph time of under seven seconds, and yet one that averages over 20mpg. Not bad. However, we wouldn't opt for the 9-3 Viggen covertible. Not only is it $45,000, which is up there with the BMW 330Ci convertible, against which the Saab can't compete, but the more torque and horsepower you drive through this circa-early-1990s chassis, the more it starts to wobble and bend. Better to keep the going supple, which it will be if you stay down around 200hp with the SE. But just don't bring any big friends--the Audi's got a much roomier back seat.
Red, White And Blue
If to you a convertible is also quintessentially American (we do buy more of them than any other nation, no matter how you total it up), then you're in luck, because we in the U.S.A. do make some darn fine drop-tops. So why prattle on about it? Here are our favorites.
2003 Corvette Convertible $48,175
You've got to hand it to General Motors; it managed to screw a lot of things up over the years, but somehow it's managed to make the Corvette better and better.
True, it's not the Stingray we'd like to see again, but the 2003 cars will get an active dampening system on both convertibles and coupes, a mechanism that will smooth out some of the Corvette's more jarring reactions to the road without compromising performance. As usual, we think this will only improve one of our favorite cars. Why do we like the 'Vette so much? Well, even though you cannot get the convertible with the Z06 package (this gives you 55 more horsepower and brings the total up from 350 to 405 hp), it's still a car that will rip to 60mph in about five seconds--meaning it will run easily with most Porsches and almost anything else on the road. It will also easily go 160mph, should you want to scare the daylights out of your date.
But what we really think makes the Corvette special is that the engine makes big V-8 noises the way only an American power plant can; it still looks great, and, given the performance (Corvettes can still outcorner almost any car on the road, including some Ferraris), it's a rock-bottom bargain. One that can do all that and doesn't even need a roof? Go for it!
Ford Thunderbird $38,995
We give you the price for the T-Bird with the optional hardtop because we know we'd get it this way. It looks beautiful, but also makes the Thunderbird a very practical car for year-round cruising.
And that's what the T-Bird is, by the way, a cruiser. It's not the 'Vette and isn't meant to be. Oh, sure, it'll corner well, and scoots to 60mph in seven seconds flat, but what you have here is a perfectly executed throwback, a car that will make you happy in the right lane, not just the left, because it feels secure, solid, confident and sexy--like we'd all like to be!
There are things we aren't nuts about--the yellow interior is downright obnoxious for instance. But a black T-bird with black interior and turquoise accents is just about as pretty as any car gets these days. So what if it's not a screamer; its Lincoln LS-derived transmission is plenty crisp; the 252chp V-8 it also gets from the LS is likewise potent enough; and the steering and handling are all about as faultless as you'd want from a big American GT. Sure, a Maserati Spyder would be more fun, but you could have two T-Birds and change left over for that Italian speedster.
Just Like The Old Days
Oh, certainly there's an MG or Austin Healy or Alfa Romeo hidden in your past, right? And you've got the scars to prove it now doubt, hence the reason you can't get a new one of those today in America--too many romances gone south.
But you can have the imitations of those cars, and, in fact, one of those fakers is on our top-five list of all-around favorite automobiles ever. Yes, ever! That'd be the Mazda Miata, a little tossable sportster that proves once and for all that you just don't keep adding horsepower to make something fun; occasionally you hold back when you know that balance is everything.
The other car? A total sleeper, a car that nobody ever even thinks about when they think convertibles. It's the sort of bad boy in disguise, the Honda S2000. A road-scorcher that doesn't cost like one. And by the way, there never was one of those in the good old days.
Mazda Miata $21,660
Sure, sure, go ahead and sneer. Go blazing by in a smoky haze of burnt rubber. We couldn't car less. It doesn't matter that it takes a full eight seconds to zip a 138 hp Miata to 60mph. It doesn't matter that a cute little Mazda won't keep up with a blasting Porsche Boxster in a slalom test.
What does matter is that, like the Ford Thunderbird, this car is flat-out fun, even when you're just puttering along. It doesn't break (more than a million have been sold by the way, making the Miata the most successful sports car in history); it corners as handily as anything even remotely close, price-wise; it's a very simple design that's pleasing to the eye, if not as altogether gorgeous as some other, more costly sheetmetal; and it has about the best combination of brakes, transmission, throttle and steering interplay you might ever find. Get the feeling we like this car? We really do. We also fear that Mazda is about to screw up the formula, adding more power by 2004. So don't delay, get a Miata while it's still all grins and no growls. And have a nice day!
Honda S2000 $32,400
It will nearly match the 0-60mph times of a $52,365 Porsche Boxster S (around 5.2 seconds for the Porsche; around 5.5 seconds for the S2000). It also comes near to cornering as sharply. And yet it gives up 10 horsepower to the Porsche and also the more balanced ride of that mid-engined German machine, so you do give up something for your $20,000 saved. Trust us, though, for most people the Honda S2000 is a boatload of fun for a lot less dough.
We do wish it had a more distinctive nose, and the cockpit really could use some slickening, but there's nothing wrong with a motor that will rev to just shy of 9000 rpm, and the car also steers and corners beautifully. Engine noise (did you say something?) is also omnipresent, as you need to keep revving and revving to get results, but the six-speed manual does make it possible to keep the roar at least to a din while at 65mph on the freeway.
But what makes this baby a great summer fun machine: how it stays glued to the pavement (just don't shift at 8,900 rpm mid-turn, or you'll get a not-so-jolly surprise), how nobody knows what it is but always thinks you paid double what you did, and how you can sneak up on anyone who thinks he's faster than you and blow his doors off. A little muscle with your tanning machine, in other words.
Faster Blow Drying
There are some cars, like the Corvette, that are really way more than merely sedans or coupes sans fixed roofs. They are exceedingly high-performance automobiles made even more fun by their ability to shed some layers and reveal you to the wind and sky.
And although the M3 Convertible and the SL500 are actually very different cars (the M3 is about as close to Ferrari thrills (if not precisely the same numbers) as you can get this side of $100,000. But the SL 500 is a GT in a nearly American sense; it's big, it's fast, it can be loud, and it's bold. It makes you look. And boy is it thrilling for all of that.
Mercedes-Benz SL500 $86,655
As we said in our test drive of the SL500, this isn't really what you expect it to be. Like the gullwings that dominated the motorsports scene in the 1950s and later came to consumers, the latest SL500 is a muscle car with smooth edges. It's seriously sexy, but fire up its 302hp V-8, and it doesn't purr quietly in the background--it growls. Then put your foot in it, and the beast wakes fully, roaring around with plenty of bluster and lots of real fight as well.
Handling is pretty tight considering this car is no lightweight at over 4,000 pounds. What you see is a grand tourer in a really retro sense, a car that loves long, sweeping turns, but dislikes flawed blacktop because it upsets its mellow-riding disposition. By the way, it also doesn't like super twisty roads. We took an SL up a course we know, which always seems to us like it was scribbled on the map by some child without enough Ritalin (i.e. it twists a heck of a lot), and the tail of the car could be pushed out at will and sometimes not at all at will.
Still, if you do want a big cruiser, one with a folding metal top that hushes out the whole world when snapped to (and therefore as practical as any closed coupe) and feel that something more exotic like a BMW Z8 or a Maserati Spyder just isn't you, well then get in line for an SL. You won't be disappointed.
BMW M3 Convertible $54,565
This car could just as easily poke its head into the must-have-a-backseat category, but in a way, that'd be too easy. Thing is, it's really expensive, really very fast, and despite being reasonably practical (more than, say, a 911 that has nominal backseats), it's a little too rigid and aggressive to meet family-car requirements.
But if its failing is that it isn't all warm and cuddly, the M3 Convertible will more than win you over with its dazzling performance. It's rocking 333 hp in-line six-cylinder engine (note that this is 31 hp more propulsion than the SL gets out of its larger-by-nearly-two-liters V-8) can be mated to a six-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG for short). This works like similar clutchless manuals from other makers. You shift via two paddles that bracket the wheel, never having to remove your right hand to throw around a stick. Fun stuff.
Likewise fun is the one-touch, up-or-down soft-top. It's very well insulated from outside noises (not like the SL's metal roof, of course), so highway cruising in the rain isn't as noisy as you'd expect. Still, more than for highway use, the M3 is meant for winding up the creamy-smooth engine toward redline and buzzing around hard bends all day long. Like sugar with children, they really shouldn't make cars this much fun for speed-loving adults. But thank heaven for capitalism, they do. And speaking of dollars, you might consider the M3 a bargain: Almost anything else as fast (even the convertible races to 60mph in about five seconds) costs more; only the Corvette is a better deal.
OMIGOSH...that was my first car!!!! A white 65 MGB. It was sooooooooooooo fun...I LOVED driving with the top down. I loved driving Hwy 49 just for the fun of it.
Well, both days it worked, anyway ;-)
Dang, I miss having a convertible. Now that my daugther is older...
Mine looked like this when I got it. It looked much worse 2 years later.
I'll go with the Castro Convertible.
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