TCC’s Top Picks: Convertibles

Convertible ownership used to involve some not-so-pleasant compromises. You simply accepted a drafty (and sometimes leaky) cabin barely protected from the elements by a poorly fitted top, a chintzy plastic back window that fogged up in the winter and often-vicious cowl shake as the price you had to pay for the pleasure of drop-top motoring on sunny summer days.

Many of these problems stemmed from turning hardtop coupes into convertibles after the fact — by hamfistedly lopping off the roof and then trying to graft on a convertible top — instead of designing the car as a convertible from the ground-up, as is common practice today.

Not only have automakers addressed soft-top issues, they’ve gone overboard with retractable hardtops that double both as coupe and convertible. With the top up, the car looks and feels like a conventional hardtop coupe. But with the hardtop retracted, the car becomes a convertible with the same open-air driving enjoyment one gets with a traditional convertible — albeit one less vulnerable to thieves or damage or the elements.

Among new or coming-soon convertibles, these are the ones that won’t wear on you even in the winter months:

About $20,000

2006 Pontiac Solstice2006 Pontiac Solstice (base price $19,420): This new rear-wheel-drive high-performance roadster may just save Pontiac from the fate that befell Oldsmobile. The two-seat roadster will undercut the new Mazda Miata by a few hundred bucks and could match or beat them for in-the-wind driving fun. It comes standard with 18-inch wheels and a 170-hp 2.4-liter engine mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. Like the Chevy Corvette, the Solstice is built on a hydroformed chassis. An especially interesting feature is the clamshell trunk, which completely hides the convertible top when it’s down, giving the car an exceptionally smooth look that no other roadster on the market can equal.

Future Cars: General Motors (5/16/2005)

2005 Jeep Wrangler ($17,970): The least expensive ’05 convertible you can buy also happens to have standard four-wheel drive and can go places few other convertibles can.

2006 Mazda Miata (base price $20,345): The third-generation roadster sticks to the successful formula 2006 Mazda Miata that has made Miata the world's most popular car in its class since 1989. Though a bit more expensive than the new Pontiac Solstice, even the base Miata is better equipped, with such niceties as power windows and mirrors, ABS brakes, and side impact airbags. There's also a new 2.0-liter I-4 that bumps up power and performance quite nicely. The 170-hp engine can be mated to a 5- or 6-speed manual, or (detuned to 166-hp) a 6-speed automatic. The body bears a subtle resemblance to the edgy Ibuki concept car shown in Tokyo two years ago, but the production car is a bit bigger -- indeed, more than an inch wider than the old Miata -- and more curvaceous. Visibility is improved, one of the few nagging complaints, especially among taller drivers. And the soft top is even easier to use, with a new, single-latch tie-down. While Miata may not be quite as edgy as the new Solstice, it won't give up its leadership position without a fight.

2006 Mazda Miata by TCC Team (6/28/05)
Raising the benchmark, one sunny day at a time.

2006 MINI Cooper convertible (base price $21,450): This cute little four-seat runabout is the ideal car for playing Frogger in heavy city traffic. It can squeeze past obstacles (such as a double-parked Metro bus) and snug itself into tight parking spots most other cars have to pass by. It’s also easy on gas, with an EPA city/highway rating of 27/35 mpg.

2005 MINI Cooper S Convertible by TCC Team (9/6/2004)
You have to put the top down. It says so right here.

2005 VW New Beetle diesel convertible (base price $21,290): Though largely unchanged since its mid-1990s revival, the New Beetle, like the original, has its charms. For fuel-saving mavens these charms include an available 1.9-liter turbo direct injection (TDI) diesel engine capable of returning 50 mpg on the open road. For the new model year, VW has improved the already excellent performance of the 100-hp TDI by teaming it with a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) with clutch chores handled by a computer for best-possible performance and economy, with never a missed shift or stalled engine.

Under $30,000

2005 Ford Mustang Convertible2005 Ford Mustang V-6 convertible (base price $23,890): Armed with a standard 210-hp 4.0-liter V-6 engine, the restyled ’05 Mustang not only looks great, it has almost as much power in base model form as the top-of-the-line V-8-powered GT of previous years and offers some of the best bang-for-the-buck drop-top motoring you can buy today. Four-wheel-disc brakes and 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels are also among the standard sport-oriented features that come in every new Mustang. Like the hardtop coupe, the convertible features a retro-themed interior with very comfortable ’60s-style bucket seats and “ball” air vents, plus neat touches such as instrument panel lighting that can be changed from blue to orange to green to off-white. Air conditioning, power windows, door locks, and remote keyless entry are all standard. Great style, great power, and great value.

2005 Ford Mustang Convertible by TCC Team (1/10/2005)
Sunny times ahead for the Mustang and Ford, too.

2006 Toyota Camry Solara convertible (base price $26,450): This large four-seat convertible has the spreadin’-out room of a mid-size sedan, for both front and rear seat passengers. Another nice feature of the Solara convertible is its standard 225-hp 3.3-liter V-6. This is an extra-cost feature on the hardtop coupes, which come standard with a smaller, less powerful 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

2006 Chrysler GT Cruiser convertible (base price $27,930): This two-door, open-roof version of the five-door PT Cruiser packs a slightly detuned, 230-hp version of the turbocharged, 2.4-liter engine used in the ferocious Neon SRT-4 and is thus a formidable performer. But the GT Cruiser is free of the juvenile-looking oversized trunk wing and other boy-racer gear that can make the Neon SRT-4 a hard choice for anyone over 30. The taller roofline of the GT Cruiser also provides a more spacious interior that drivers and passengers over six feet will find much more comfortable than the often-cramped confines of a compact sedan like the Neon.

2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible by Bob Hall (2/2/2004)
As the PT Cruiser drops its top, will sales go up?

Under $45,000

2005 Chrysler Crossfire convertible (base price $34,805): Like the well-received 300 sedan, the stylish Crossfire also springs from German DNA — in this case, the Mercedes SLK retractable hardtop roadster. It shares a basically identical chassis and suspension system and is powered by a Mercedes-built 215-hp 3.2-liter V-6 engine. A Getrag six-speed manual transmission is standard. But aside from being drop-dead gorgeous, the Crossfire’s base price is a stupendous $12,000 lower than the base price of the new $46,210 (to start) SLK350.

2005 Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6 by Henny Hemmes (7/19/2004)
The initials say it all.

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible2005 Saab 9-3 convertible (base price $37,100): Like the Camry Solara, the 9-3 convertible is a legitimate four-seater that can actually seat four adults with the added bonus of a class-leading trunk that offers nearly 15 cubic feet of storage space. Saab’s 9-3 convertibles are also equipped with a DynaCage rollover protection system that includes a pop-up roll bar that deploys automatically if sensors detect a possible rollover situation, plus seatbelt pretensioners and structurally reinforced A-pillars designed to be able to support the car’s weight if it turns upside down.

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible by Marty Padgett (8/11/2003)
The latest gossip? Saab had sun implants.

2005 Chevy SSR (base price $42,555): Though it looks less than practical, the SSR sport truck has a surprisingly useable 23 cubic foot bed that will accommodate a full load of luggage, stuff you might pick up at a swap meet, several bags of groceries — and will pull up to 2500 lb. The auto-folding retractable hardtop is a marvel of engineering, and never fails to turn heads when being lowered or raised. Power is up to 390 hp, fixing the main complaint leveled at the first-year SSR.

2005 Chevrolet SSR by Eric Peters (12/20/2004)
More power makes a welcome addition to the all-American muscletruck.

$50,000 and up

2005 Chevy Corvette roadster (base price $51,495): Third gear is good for 120-plus — and you’ve still got three more to go. The ’05 Corvette delivers one of the most satisfying driving experiences an enthusiast could want and will test your abilities as a driver long before you come close to testing its limits. It is a 400-hp supercar that can be driven comfortably anytime, anywhere. And given its straightforward, two-valve pushrod V-8, will probably never require more in the way of routine service and maintenance than your typical family sedan, as opposed to the mechanical hand-holding you can expect as part of the natural order of things when you hold the keys to an “exotic” from Italy or Germany.

2005 Chevy Corvette Convertible by Eric Peters (6/6/2005)
The irony of the feat.

2006 BMW 645 Ci (base price $76,900): A worthy successor to the much-loved 633 and 635 CSi coupes of the 1980s, the 645Ci also comes with the added attraction of a power-folding top and an extremely powerful V-8 engine, two features the original 6-Series coupes never offered. The notorious iDrive “mouse” still controls audio, GPS, and climate functions, but BMW has made some discreet changes to the system to make it easier and more intuitive to use.

2005 BMW 645Ci by TCC Team (3/15/2004)
The legend returns — and brings some controversy with it.

2004 Cadillac XLR2006 Cadillac XLR (base price $75,835): For the first time since the late 1960s, when a low-slung Eldorado was the definition of high-end suave, Cadillac has produced a machine your grandfather wouldn’t want but which you can’t take your eyes off of. Amenities include heated and air conditioned seats, a seven-inch touchscreen LCD display with voice-activated GPS navigation and Heads-Up Display (HUD). The only extra-cost option, in fact, is XM satellite radio, which adds another $325 to the bottom line.

2004 Cadillac XLR by TCC Team (5/26/2003)
A new lease on sportscar life for GM’s rapid social climber.

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