Is there a convertible in your future? Car buyers pining for sunshine have more choices than ever.
BELVEDERE, CALIF. — Even here in the land of beautiful people, sunshine, and exotic cars, people still glance up when a convertible drives by.
Test driving a hot red Toyota Solara through the rolling green hills of northern California's Marin County, you feel a cool breeze (or gale, depending on your speed) billow over the windshield. At stop lights, pedestrians and other drivers crane their necks to see.
Even an nonagenarian great grandma, fresh from the hairdresser, grinned while she rode in the passenger seat.
"There's always been a soft spot for convertibles" in America, says David Cole, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
And that perennial demand has brought a drop-top revival in the past decade after near extinction in the late 1970s and a very narrow market in the '80s.
Betty Lou McClanahan, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., traces demand for convertibles back to the days of the horse and buggy, when open-top models outsold closed coaches by more than 2 to 1, she says.
Now almost every full-line carmaker sells at least one type of convertible, and often two.
These cars generally fall into two classes: two-seat sports cars like the Audi TT, and four-passenger sedans that were originally hard tops like the Solara or Chrysler Sebring. Lately nostalgic retro designs like Ford's Thunderbird debuting this fall have been added to the mix.
Prices range from a haughty $335,400 for the Bentley Azure to the pedestrian $18,000 for a VW Golf Cabrio.
No matter what you spend, most convertibles are luxury vehicles and command a big premium over their hard-top cousins.
On top of that, maintenance can be more costly than that of ordinary cars, especially if roof problems arise.
Cut the top off a sedan or coupe, and the body loses much of its strength. The whole car wobbles over bumps. Eventually this leads to rattles, ill fitting parts, and poorer performance. (Still, most two-door sports cars and a few four-seaters lately have been designed from the ground up as convertibles and hold up better.)
The model perhaps most responsible for the convertible boom is the now ubiquitous Mazda Miata, which debuted in 1989. Back then, people paid 50 percent over sticker to get one. Mazda's waiting list stretched to two years.
The public's embrace of the Miata proved to automakers that not only were convertibles profitable, they were no longer fringe purchases for Florida retirees.
"I think, if anything, more people need to drive convertibles," says Ms. McClanahan, "so they can see what fun driving [still] can be."
Her own revelation came while driving a BMW convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway in Monterey four years ago. "I had been driving a [BMW] M3 sports car, and didn't expect to like [the convertible]," she says. The drop-top wasn't as fast, and, perhaps, was too much of a "chick" car. But after three days of driving, she didn't want to give it back: "It was the best time I've ever had behind the wheel."
McClanahan says the BMW and VW Golf aren't the only "chick convertibles." In fact, she says, convertibles are marketed mainly to women.
Again, going back to the days of buggies with horses, women who rode in convertible carriages would wear their finest clothes. A ride into town wasn't about an open-air experience, it was about being seen. Today's convertibles serve much the same purpose, she says.
Even so, modern convertibles have come a long way since the horse and buggy. Most keep out wind and rain almost as well as hard tops.
Nearly all four-seaters have lined, insulated tops. When the sun sets and the air turns chilly, power windows can be raised at the touch of a button. Modern heaters blast enough hot air to keep front passengers warm even with the top down. Some drop tops even come with heated seats.
Many convertibles have front-wheel-drive to help drivers in northern states mush through snow. Glass rear windows even offer defrosters.
But today's convertibles are not without sacrifices. Security is a big issue. Parking with the top down leaves belongings exposed. And few convertibles provide locking cubbies for CDs and sunglasses. Many even have an interior trunk release, making items stored in the back easily accessible for thieves.
Even with the top up, it's easier to break into a convertible than a regular sedan -and the damage can be more expensive than a broken window.
Locking up the car for any length of time is a lot like putting a 3-year-old to bed: Untuck the boot, fold and stow it in the trunk, get in the drivers seat, turn the key, lower the windows, and press the top close button for about 15 seconds. Then raise the windows, remove the key, get out and lock the door. (Reverse this process before driving again.)
But all this matters little when your turn comes to buy a convertible. In "Life's Little Instruction Book," H. Jackson Brown writes: "Once in your life, own a convertible." That's No. 32 on his list of 511 instructions.
So anytime you encounter naysayers, just tell them you're following the instructions.
A cut-down history of top-down driving
1900-1940 "Open" cars are a staple of the auto industry. (Right: Ford Model A Roadster.) Many early autos were built without any roofs.
1948-1968 American G.I.s import tiny sports cars from Europe - MGs and Triumphs - that had won their attention during World War II. GM, Ford, and Chrysler build a series of bigger, more comfortable convertibles with power tops. American classics like the Chevy Corvette and Ford Mustang (1964 model, right) emerge as stars of the American roads.
1968-1976 Pollution controls stifle sports cars, and the threat of Nader-esque federal rollover regulations leads to rumors of the convertible's demise. The 1976 Cadillac Eldorado was considered the "last" convertible that might ever be made, though in fact the Volkswagen Beetle outlasted it by four years. Porsche and others continue to offer "Targas" - not true convertibles - they are more akin to the "T-roof" - but open, with full front and rear window frames and removable hard-top panels that afford some rollover protection.
1979-1982 America is down to just three convertibles, the lowly Volkswagen Rabbit, the high-end Mercedes SL, and the Alfa Romeo Spider from "The Graduate."
1982 The Chrysler LeBaron is the first new convertible since 1973. It wins buyers in Florida and in rental fleets.
1989 The Mazda Miata (above, right) debuts. Americans again go wild for wind in their hair. Buyers pay up to 20 percent over sticker, and the initial waiting list stretches toward two years.
1990-present The Miata inspires a horde of competitors, including other small sports cars. The cars get noticed, and a number of sedans start losing their roofs. Today there are 32 new kinds of convertibles for sale in the US.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor