Drop-Top Dead Gorgeous
Convertibles True Fair Weather Friends
by Jim Bray
(editor's note: prices in this article are in Canadian dollars)
Ah, summertime, when a young person's heart turns to - top down motoring!
Perhaps this isn't the best year to be talking about going topless, even in
a car, since the weather in many regions has left something to be desired.
But regardless of how Mother Nature is challenging global warming myths, the
classic ragtop that was virtually dead not too many years ago is alive and
Convertibles come in two main varieties: roadsters designed to be drop-top
models, and hardtops that have had their hard tops forcibly removed. Add a
few "hardtop convertibles" that split the difference (for a price!),
and there's a drop-top for just about any lifestyle and budget.
And while the classic roadster seats only two, other models balance fun and
practicality by offering rear seats of varying degrees of usefulness. There
are even a couple of ragtop SUV's for those who enjoy sunshine and mud on their
faces at the same time - and if you're into retro, Ford offers the new Thunderbird
while DaimlerChrysler still has a few of the cancelled Prowler hot rods - if
you can find one.
Indeed, the 2002 vintage ranges from the comparatively affordable (Volkswagen
Cabrio, Mazda Miata, Chrysler Sebring, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac
Firebird, etc.) to the expensive (Mercedes Benz SL500, Jaguar XK8, BMW Z8,
Despite the abundance of models, however, convertible sales are a mere "drop-top
in the bucket" of overall sales. According to Canadian Driver, combined
1999 sales of all convertibles was just 29,804 out of total vehicle sales of
1,501,250. Whether it's because of the climate, a society that's increasingly
past its mid-life crisis age, or just the ups and downs of the roofless marketplace,
convertible sales are relatively flat and will probably remain that way.
The 2002 model year offers a drop-top for just about every lifestyle.
Arguably the most exciting new models for 2002 are the Lexus SC430
and the new SL500 from Mercedes Benz. These expensive luxury convertibles
feature retractable metal hardtops that morph them from coupes into
roadsters at the touch of a button. Then there are the more "conventional" new
ragtops such as the 342-hp V8-powered Mercedes Benz CLK55 AMG Cabriolet
and the souped up Jaguar XKR that boasts 370 horses from its supercharged
V8 - proving that if you have the bucks, you can have a lot of fun
in the sun.
These models join such popular soft-tops as the BMW Z3, Honda S2000,
Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, Chevy Corvette, Saab 9.3, 9.3VE and 9.3 Viggen
at the mid to high end of the market place.
More accessible are the standard bearers of years gone by: Ford Mustang,
Chevy Camaro (available in a 35th anniversary edition) and Pontiac Firebird,
the latter two of which are in their last year of production. This niche
also includes the Chrysler Sebring and Toyota Solara.
And for those who want a Z3, XK8 or Boxster, but lack the cash flow,
the zippy Mazda MX-5 Miata probably offers more smiles per gallon than
Here's a partial list of convertibles, by seating capacity and estimated
Mazda Miata $27,695
BMW Z3 2.5i $47,200
Honda S2000 $48,500
Ford Thunderbird $52,550
Mercedes Benz SLK $55,100
BMW Z3 3.0i $56,200
Chrysler Prowler $64,170
BMW M Roadster $67,900
Porsche Boxster $69,714
Chevrolet Corvette $70,165
Dodge Viper $106,945
Mercedes Benz SL500 $124,900
Porsche 911 Cabrio $113,400
BMW Z8 $195,000
Suzuki Vitara $18,695 (SUV)
Jeep TJ $19,975 (SUV)
Ford Mustang $27,565
Volkswagen Cabrio $28,530
Chrysler Sebring: $33,820
Chevrolet Camaro $35,345.00
Pontiac Firebird $36,205.00
Toyota Solara SE $39,505
Saab 9.3 $52,000
BMW 325ci Cabriolet $52,800
Volvo C70 $60,245
BMW 330ci Cabriolet $62,900
Mercedes Benz CLK $70,550
BMW M3 Cabriolet $83,500
Lexus SC430 $84,900
Jaguar XK8 $104,950.00
Jaguar XKR $116,950.00
It's a dollars and cents issue, for consumers as well as manufacturers.
"It's a niche market," explains Perry Itzcovitch of Calgary's Hyatt
Automotive group. "These are low volume, image cars that cost more to
build and to buy. People buy them knowing they're making a statement, that
they stand out in a crowd."
As for the carmakers, they'll continue to support convertibles knowing fully
well that they probably won't account for much more than a small percentage
of total sales. According to Don Johnson, General Director of Marketing for
GM of Canada, "Looking at economic and life stage dynamics, the conditions
are certainly conducive to an increase in demand, however, will Canadians be
willing to trade-off more functional attributes for the benefits of open air?
We believe the answer is no."
That doesn't mean there won't be new models coming down the turnpike, however.
GM is promising at least three new models in the next two model years, including
a 50th Anniversary Edition Corvette and two concept vehicles: the "retro" Chevy
SSR and Cadillac XLR Luxury Roadster, both of which should appear as 2004 models.
Not only that, but Volkswagen is adding a convertible New Beetle to its line
later this year and for 2003 Audi is slicing the roof off its popular A4.
Creating a convertible requires more than the mere application of the Jaws
of Life. A vehicle that loses its roof also loses some rigidity, which can
be a Bad Thing when you hit those twisty bits. To compensate, the lower body
has to be enhanced, which is usually accomplished by beefing up two key areas:
the rocker panels and the cross car structure. Manufacturers also increase
the gauge of metal used in the convertible's underpinnings.
Why would anyone want a convertible in a climate where you can't even exploit
it for much of the year?
Gerry Bliss, a forty-something information privacy and security consultant,
bought a used Chrysler Sebring convertible shortly after moving to Calgary
from Victoria, B.C.
"I bought a (used) car because I wanted to be able to drive it and park
it anywhere without worrying about it. And with its roominess and the fact
you can put 4 adults in it and still have a workable trunk, the Sebring's about
as practical as a convertible can be."
But why a drop-top? "I'd heard Calgary has a lot more sun (than the coast),
so thought it would be nice to take advantage of the wide open spaces." Bliss
hadn't owned a convertible before, but
"I had friends (with) leaky and noisy old MG's and Triumphs and it was
obvious the state-of-the-convertible-art had come along a lot. I'd always wanted
a convertible, and this seemed the right time."
Bliss matches the general demographics of convertible buyers: married, male
white collar professionals 35 years of age and older.
the premium, most convertible owners are undoubtedly pleased with their choice.
Calgary communications professional Catherine Styles, for example, loves her
Golf Cabriolet. "Of all the things you can spend your money on, this is
one of the few that really met my expectations. I leave work, put the top down
and just feel really free."
So practicality be damned! A ragtop makes you feel good; that's why manufacturers
will continue to indulge this particular niche as long as profitability allows.