The more things change, the more they stay the same. And to some drivers, one of life’s little joys is one that involves putting down the top, opening up to the sky, and feeling a little wind in your hair—in one of many the many convertibles the market has to offer.
Trouble is, of course, that there are harsh seasons and frigid winter temperatures in some parts of the country; and the wind and road noise that convertible tops can let in, even when closed, isn’t something that a lot of drivers would take in trade for a few days of top-down joys.
That was a core selling point for the retractable hardtop convertibles that surged in popularity beginning in the late 1990s. Starting with the Mercedes-Benz SLK and SL-Class, as well as the Volvo C70—and soon adopted by many more models—retractable hardtops used series of metal or composite panels that folded neatly out of the way and fit snug, weather-tight, and quiet when up in place. In a lot of cases, it sure beat the old-style layered fabric soft tops.
After years of drop-top desire, a market in decline
Now there appears to be a turn in the tide. Two of the three major suppliers of convertible roof systems, Webasto, Magna CTS, and Valmet, have either announced plans to slim down their operations or already done so, due to a drop in demand.
The new 2015 Audi A3 Cabriolet has a soft top, and with the upcoming 2016 replacement for the Volkswagen Eos, VW is expected to introduce a soft-top design in place of a hardtop.
Why? Soft tops have become much better, and with superior body engineering and rigidity there aren’t the body-integrity issues that many uni-body convertibles used to have. And there’s no way around the price advantages; soft tops are generally cheaper to source, install, and replace.
And in the very places that benefit most from four-season retractable hardtops, convertible sales in general are quite tepid. It’s probably no surprise that convertible registrations are highest in California and Florida—and more by those who’d previously lived in a colder clime.
Some popular convertibles on hiatus; others gone completely
There’s plenty of evidence that convertibles in general are in a prolonged market slump. Formerly hot-selling models like the Toyota Solara Convertible and Chrysler 200 Convertible (another one that was offered with a retractable hardtop) have been discontinued, with no high-volume replacements in the works. Volvo has even decided to put convertibles on the back burner for a few years, as it completely updates its model lines of sedans and crossovers.
And there definitely are some signs here in the U.S. that the image-conscious are passing up convertibles in favor of electric cars, or some of the new, standout crossover vehicle designs.
The U.S. market for convertibles has waned a bit in recent years, after waxing over an explosive couple decades of growth. Of course, that period followed, from the mid 1970s well into the 1980s, a period in which the convertible almost became extinct due to a combination of federal regulation and lower demand.
Ragtop romance not translating everywhere
Perhaps the bigger questions rest upon looking at the worldwide demand for convertibles—which, apparently, isn’t exactly burgeoning. In several key global markets in which the demand for luxury and sports-car models is broadening—China and India—there’s no correspondingly high spike in demand for convertibles.
Looking ahead, folding hardtops are by no means headed for extinction; but they’ll likely become more of a niche segment of the market.