BOSTON — There's nothing quite like driving a convertible to bring on the free and easy feeling of summertime.
With the top down, nature and the world feel close at hand. At 55 miles an hour, a "stroll" through woods, hills, and fields can go on for a hundred miles. And at night the moon and stars shine brightly.
Convertibles do require a little extra care, but they reward you with fun in the sun, wind in your hair, and onlookers' admiration.
How the cars were judged
This reviewer tested seven convertibles that cost less than $30,000. Two ragtops in that price range - the Volkswagen Cabrio and the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder - were not available in time for testing.
The cars are discussed individually below. Prices reflect the window sticker on the tested car. All but the BMW Z3 and the Pontiac Sunfire were loaded with all available options. Mileage ratings are Environmental Protection Agency city and highway estimates.
Review highlights, appearing under each car's photo, include:
Head-turning index. Does the car's style make an instant fan of anyone who walks by it in a parking lot?
Lockable storage. If you have to stop at the hardware store, the grocery, and the dry cleaner on the way home, it can be a chore to have to close the top and roll up all the windows every time. Yet few of these cars provide for securing the trunk with the top open.
Top boot convenience. When you put the top down, the cover (boot) that fits over the top-storage bay is often a chore to put on; and it's bulky to stow when the top is up. (Many owners just skip it.) Difficulty varies by car.
Trunk size. Most convertibles don't have much room, but again some score better than others.
Also, be aware that most of these cars are not practical for winter in northern climes: Four are rear-wheel-drive with big sporty tires and relatively light weight. The three front-drive cars that will pull through snow are the Sebring, Sunfire, and Celica.
Another key issue with convertibles is body flex, called "cowl shake," that occurs when you hit bumps. Many convertibles have extra bracing welded in (thus extra weight), but it never really makes up for the structure that a hard top provides. The bumps are absorbed by flex in the chassis, rather than by the suspension. From the driver's seat, this looks like the windshield and dashboard - or the trunk and rear window - wobbling side to side disconcertingly over bumps. Such flex can cause poor handling, excessive rattles, and ill-fitting doors and trim.
19/28 m.p.g. (4-cylinder engine)
The Z3 looks James Bond cool. Its radical styling and its role in the latest Bond movie helped it get noticed. A base Z3 sells for just over $28,000, about the price of the Mustang GT or the Celica. It's a two-seater with a tiny trunk but has more room to stretch out than a Miata has. Tall drivers don't have to scrunch to see under the windshield's top. Its appearance drew the biggest raves, though a surprising number of people looked right past it.
BMW has brought back the grand tourer of European tradition. In any kind of driving, the car is fast, comfortable, and extremely nimble. Critics complain that the four-cylinder Z3 is slow, and BMW is expected to introduce a six-cylinder model next year. But the current Z3 has plenty of power for anything short of a racetrack, and the six-cylinder is likely to cost more. At the current price, BMW is apt to sell every one of these it can build.
No. 1, hands down. Some passersby overlooked it, but the styling is so original, they shouldn't have.
lockable storage: Good. Trunk plus the glovebox and two small bins are lockable.
top boot convenience: Average. A snug fit with two awkward snaps, but the boot is small, so doesn't take up the whole trunk.
trunk size: Tiny. Three small duffels, max.
likes: Handling, comfort, looks, performance, value.
dislikes: Small trunk. Old-fashioned plastic "isinglass" rear window that will fog over with age. Controls require the owner's manual to figure out. Once you've learned them, though, they make sense and are convenient.
overall reaction: An exotic car at an affordable, if luxurious, price. This is the car that could make Americans enjoy driving again.
Ford Mustang GT
17/24 m.p.g. (V-8 engine)
Nothing says American muscle like a Mustang. It accelerates like a rocketship, and emits a heady V-8 rumble in the process. The sound alone is habit-forming. But this Mustang is also the most refined ever. It's comfortable, quiet if you don't stick your foot in it, good-handling, and almost completely free of cowl shake. But it's also the most expensive Mustang yet. (A cheaper V-6 version is available.)
The GT is also thirsty, despite a new, slightly smaller V-8. Its 14 miles per gallon during testing might be something to write home about, after all.
Ford Mustang GT
head-turning index: Surprisingly little interest. No. 6.
lockable storage: Adequate. The electric trunk release is inside the lockable glovebox
top boot convenience: The one-piece boot is cumbersome to put on, but is designed to lie flat in the trunk so it takes up minimal space.
trunk size: Decent for a convertible. Easily handles a week's groceries for two.
likes: Acceleration, fun, and refinement.
dislikes: Fuel economy. Tiny, confusing radio controls. Low price-to-value ratio, though optional equipment on the test car such as leather seats added $4,000 to the base GT's price. Too little legroom for tall drivers. Fussy styling with too many phony scoops and slats.
overall reaction: The most exciting performer overall.
20/28 m.p.g. (V-6 engine)
In this group, the Sebring is the practical everyday convertible for most people. It has the roomiest back seat, a surprisingly accommodating trunk, and front-wheel-drive to pull it through winter slush. Designed from the start as a convertible, it has a minimum of cowl shake. The underpowered, noisy, Mitsubishi V-6, feels out of place in this otherwise refined package.
The Sebring drew looks and questions everywhere it went. Particularly appealing was the two-tone cream-and-gray leather interior on the tested top-of-the-line JXi model.
head-turning index: Almost universally loved. No. 3.
lockable storage: The best. Big trunk with an electric release button inside a lockable center bin, plus a big glovebox.
top boot convenience: Big and bulky to stow, but one of the easiest to put on.
trunk size: Cavernous for a convertible. The biggest. Take it to the airport.
likes: Comfort, room, and looks. Well-thought-out controls. Practicality.
dislikes: Rough, noisy, underpowered engine. Sloppy automatic transmission. Driver's seat doesn't go back quite far enough.
overall reaction: Cushiest. Good choice if you don't require high performance and the convertible is going to be your only car.
23/29 m.p.g. (4-cylinder engine)
The Miata M Edition, reviewed here, is a lesson in nostalgia. Modeled after a 1960s British roadster (the Lotus Elan) the Miata mimics the close-to-the-ground, minimalist feel of cars from that earlier era. It's not long on practicality, but it is long on fun.
The relatively new M Edition also brings back the feel of '60s sports cars with a tan - rather than black - top, leather seats, and a polished wooden shifter and hand brake. But at $25,000, minimalist in price it's not.
In fairness, a basic Miata, with a black top and interior, can be bought for less than $20,000.
The car rides like a buckboard, is noisy, and won't handle snow well, but it is Fun to drive with a capital 'F.' Besides, the engine noise sounds right at home in a sports car.
head-turning index: No. 7. No longer grabs attention. The Miata's been around too long, and too many are on the road.
lockable storage: Nice try. Everything's lockable with the top down, but tiny. The trunk will hold a briefcase, though.
top boot convenience: A real chore to install, but it folds down to nothing.
trunk size: Smallest. Three large bags of cat litter.
likes: Fuel economy. Price (base version costs less than $20,000). Fun, fun, fun!
dislikes: Tiny trunk. Minimal interior storage. "Isinglass" plastic rear window, and vinyl (not canvas) top. Noise and harsh ride may get tiresome on a long trip.
overall reaction: Great as a second car.
19/29 m.p.g. (V-6 engine)
The Camaro never failed to attract notice and comments. But many people didn't know what it was.
Passengers are cocooned inside, sitting low to the ground, barely able to peer over the dashboard and window sills. The glass rear window is tiny.
The tested model was the Camaro RS with a V-6 engine and an extremely low front spoiler and other low-mounted bodywork. This engine has plenty of power for most people, but it won't beat a Mustang V-8 down the drag strip as the V-8 Camaro will. The body has a fair amount of flex, and the Mustang handles better. So, while the Camaro is much faster with a comparable engine, it's second in overall performance.
Chevrolet Camaro RS
head-turning index: Terrific. A close No. 2 to the BMW. No one failed to notice it. The praise just wasn't as exclamatory.
lockable storage: Pass. The electric trunk release is disabled when you lock the door.
top boot convenience: Fine to install and remove; a real pain to stow. And it takes up the whole trunk.
trunk size: Moderate. Not too bad for a convertible as long as the top boot isn't in there.
likes: Great looks. No. 1 for power. Driver-friendly interior layout. Comfortable seats and interior (though don't try to put anyone over 6 years old in the back). Classic-American feel, like the hot rods based on 1940s and '50s cars.
dislikes: Cowl shake. Top leaks some in the rain, unlike the other cars tested. Minimal visibility to rear with top up.
overall reaction: Fun. For the hot rodder in you.
21/28 m.p.g. (4-cylinder engine)
The Celica GT in many ways seems like the best compromise as an all-around convertible: It's front-wheel-drive, so can make it through snow, has plenty of room to stretch out up front, has a bona fide trunk, and gets good gas mileage. It also has the tightest body structure of any of the four-seaters by far, despite the fact that the car is a decapitated coupe, not designed from scratch as a convertible. It handles very well and has plenty of power. The top lined up perfectly every time it was closed; never once did it require lining up or fiddling with the latches, as most of the other cars regularly did. Toyotas have an unsurpassed reputation for longevity and low maintenance.
The problem is the price. For $28,000, you could buy a loaded Mustang
GT or a BMW Z3.
Toyota Celica GT
head-turning index: People like Toyotas, and this is the best-looking Celica yet. No. 4.
lockable storage: Poor. There's a big glovebox, but that's all. The remote trunk release on the front floor isn't lockable.
top boot convenience: Poor. Really bulky, and it's a tight fit.
trunk size: Second only to the Sebring; it's a real, usable trunk.
likes: Great handling, comfort, and style. Tight chassis. Toyota's reputation for reliability
dislikes: Low price-to-value ratio. Cheap-looking, ill-fitting panels in trunk. Top boot is hard to see over, even for tall drivers.
overall reaction: Best overall balance of attributes for everyday use (as long as you don't need a back seat for adults). Very little not to like.
23/33 m.p.g. (4-cylinder engine)
The Sunfire is an example of how sophisticated - and expensive - cars have become compared with only a few years ago. As the least expensive convertible in this group, it has everything the more expensive cars have, and some nice details that they don't have: The power top is by far the most convenient among this group.
It's one of three front-drivers, so it can be driven year-round. It has the only back seat that folds down to allow long cargo to fit in the trunk. But the seatback doesn't lock; rather, it has a big handle in the middle that invites access to the trunk from the inside when the top is down. It looks and feels sporty and has reasonable space inside.
The four-cylinder engine uses the latest technology, and the control layout is excellent.
But the low budget and high level of amenities come at a price: a cheap chassis and skimpy comfort. This results in by far the worst cowl shake in this test, a horribly uncomfortable driver's seat, and a cheap-plasticky dashboard that will very likely sound like a band of crickets after 20,000 miles of this kind of vibration.
But if you've got to have a convertible and have only $20,000 to spend, this is a reasonable, practical, and fun car, aside from the shaking.
Just be sure to install a comfortable, after-market driver's seat before taking any long trips.
head-turning index: No. 5. What's red and swoopy that doesn't turn heads? (It comes in other colors, too.)
lockable storage: Poor. Big glovebox, but no place for a briefcase.
top boot convenience: Easy to put on, but one of the bulkiest to stow.
trunk size: Roomy. On par with the Toyota.
likes: Convenient details. Best top. Fold-down back seat.
dislikes: Terminal cowl shake. Horribly uncomfortable driver's seat. Non-lockable fold-down back seat.
overall reaction: Fine if you're on a budget and have to have four seats, though the five seatbelts are a joke.