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Convertibles

Convertible buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

Getting started

Buying a convertible has little to do with practicality and everything to do with looking and feeling good with an open-air driving experience. The good news is that modern convertibles come with fewer compromises than the ragtops of yore. Several convertibles feature retractable hardtops, with a folding metal roof that stows in the trunk at the push of a button. When raised, these hardtop models minimize some inherent convertible compromises by providing better insulation from noise and weather, increased interior security, improved visibility, and better resistance to fading and wear than cloth. But when lowered, they can consume much of the available trunk space.

Even soft tops are now mostly well insulated and all now come with a glass rear window instead of flimsy, scratch-prone plastic windows that were common years ago.

Today's convertibles tend to have more rigid construction, reducing wear-inducing structural flex caused by the lack of a fixed roof on a coupe and also improving handling. What hasn't changed is that soft-top convertibles remain more susceptible to break-in and theft than hardtop vehicles, and they require more diligence to protect them from the elements.

Hardtop or soft, a convertible can typically transform from closed to open in less than 25 seconds, and some models can conveniently metamorphose a low speeds.

Key things to consider

Because the whole point of a convertible is driving with the top down, the ease of deploying the top is crucial. Where available, choose a power top. Among those few models with a manual top, some let you undo a latch or two and toss the roof back, while others make you get out of the car and fiddle with the folded roof. The simpler the better, and the Mazda MX-5 Miata has among the easiest manual tops to use.

To narrow your choices, decide first how you plan to use the car. Are you looking for a true sports car? Or a four-seater that happens to have an open-air ability? Is this a car that you plan to drive every day or just as a seasonal weekend car? For an everyday car, comfort, convenience, and fuel economy are important considerations. If driving is your passion, the fun quotient might trump practicality.

As always, price is a key factor, and convertibles usually cost significantly more than an equivalent fixed-roof car. If your budget is modest, your choices will be commensurately limited, possibly steering you toward a used model. In the sporty-car arena, you'll want to look at cars that focus on handling prowess, but for top-down cruising, ride qualities, comfort, and wind noise are also key factors.

The powertrains for convertibles usually range from a small four-cylinder engine, such as found in the Fiat 500C and Mini Cooper convertibles, up to the powerful V8s in American muscle cars and import-brand luxury models. Fuel economy is typically worse with a drop-top than that of the fixed-roof version of the car due to the added weight.

What you'll spend

Prices range from the low-to-mid $20,000s for a small convertible such as the Fiat 500C to well over $100,000 for ultra-luxury performance convertibles such as the Mercedes-Benz SL. There are plenty of models in the middle price range, too. It all depends on the sportiness, performance, and luxury levels that you can afford. The good news is that you don't have to spend a lot to have a fun driving experience. One of the least expensive sports cars on the market, the Mazda Miata, is a lot of fun to drive.

Types

Roadsters


Choose a roadster if you're looking for a fast, sporty car and rank performance over comfort and quietness. Purpose built, these two-seaters are simply fun to drive. But they sit low, potentially making it difficult for you to get in and out. Roadsters are definitely not practical. When you compare them with other convertibles types, you'll find interior space is lacking and that the trunk is tight.

Convertibles


Roadsters are about having an experience, while convertibles are about sharing the experience. These tend to be more mainstream cars that can seat four or sometimes five people, though the rear seats might be tight for adults. Traditional convertibles are a good choice if you're looking for an open-air driving experience with daily-use practicality.

Upscale and luxury convertibles


Luxury convertibles offer good overall performance, a smooth and powerful engine, and a plush, well-equipped interior. These tend to be expensive and target drivers looking to combine comfort, luxury, and a wind-in-the-hair experience. Moving upscale, features such as neck heaters and retractable hardtops are more common.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a convertible.

Engines and fuel economy

Engine choices in this category range from small four cylinders to powerful V8s. Six-cylinder engines typically provide the best balance of power and fuel economy. Four-cylinder engines generally deliver better fuel economy, but they lack reserve power and the refinement of a larger engine. Similarly, V8s usually provide more power than six-cylinders, but at a sacrifice in gas mileage. Turbocharged and supercharged engines may provide a balance of fuel economy and performance. These typically require premium fuel, adding to the operating costs.

Most convertibles are offered with an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions with six or more gears are typically available for sporty models. Manuals sometimes provide better performance and fuel economy than automatics, but not always. In fact, the latest automatic transmissions in sporty models often excel, and some brands now offer automated manuals, which can provide an engaging driving experience without the need to operate a clutch.

Drive wheels

Some convertibles use front-wheel drive, while most roadsters, muscle cars, and sports-sedan-derived convertibles use rear-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive typically provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. Conversely, rear-wheel drive usually provides better handling and steering. Some models are available with all-wheel drive, which offers significantly better traction in inclement weather than either two-wheel-drive system and better dry-pavement handling and cornering than front-wheel drive. As the name suggests, traction control provides extra grip when acceleration, but it isn't as effective overall as AWD. For more information about drive systems see our report on how much traction do you need.

Convertible tops

In addition to being less secure against theft, a soft top is inherently prone to admitting noise, cold, and potentially, water. A multi-layered headliner adds insulation. A retractable or removable hardtop reduces the compromises associated with a soft top. A removable roof can be heavy and cumbersome to get on and off, and it requires storage space when not in use. Retractable tops offer the best of both worlds, except that they occupy much trunk space when retracted. Due to the cost and complexity of the system, most hardtop convertibles are found at the expensive end of the spectrum for their classes.

Access

Convertibles often do not have much head room with the top up, making entry and exit more difficult. Roadsters often sit low, which can further make them awkward to enter and exit.

Seating

Depending on the model, a convertible can have seating for anywhere from two to five people. Even with a five-seat design, the middle rear position is often tight and uncomfortable for adults. Before buying, sit in each seat to gauge its comfort. Some so-called four-seaters employ a seating arrangement called "2+2," which provides so little room in the back that it could even be uncomfortable for small children. With convertibles, pay particular attention to child-seat-fit information on our car seat model pages, and check your seats before buying, as space might be too tight in many cases.

Cargo space

If cargo space is even moderately high on your list of automotive priorities, then this might be the wrong class to consider. Not only are convertibles typically smaller cars, many also give up rear cargo space to store the convertible top when it's down. If you have any large items, such as golf clubs or luggage that you'll often need to carry, you might want to bring them with you when you shop.

Safety features

All new vehicles have standard dual front air bags, three-point safety belts in the outboard seating positions, and top-tether and LATCH child-seat attachments in the rear seats, if so equipped. Most models have side air bags, but head-protection side bags often aren't available because they deploy from overhead. Some luxury manufacturers are offering side air bags that deploy from the door trim. Some convertibles offer a pop-up roll bar that deploys from the rear head restraints when sensors detect that a serious crash or rollover accident is imminent.

Antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) are standard on all new convertibles. Other safety features to look for include traction control, safety-belt pretensioners, and daytime running lights. If you're considering a two-seater, make sure it has a switch to disable the passenger air bag, in case you want to take a child with you. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rearview cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate when hard-to-see vehicles are driving to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These collision-avoidance systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too quickly and ignore an audible warning that sounds to alert you to the situation. Another emerging technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers your car in the lane if you start to drift. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You'll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has a more-powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback.

Cars at every price level have a jack for plugging in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, are able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio (Sirius/XM) offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming very widespread, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation. Many new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

Brands

Mazda arrow  |  Mercedes-Benz arrow  |  Audi arrow  |  BMW arrow  |  Chrysler arrow  |  Ford arrow  |  Volkswagen arrow

Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant convertible brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their convertible and roadster models.

Mazda

The Mazda Miata convertible is affordable, fun to drive, and reliable, making it a smart sports car choice. Mazdas in general feel sporty and provide good handling, braking and fuel economy. Lows are road noise.

Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes models generally have a good ride, handling, and luxury interiors, and that holds true for the sporty SLK, upscale CLK, and ultrapremium SL. Reliability problems have plagued the brand, but we've seen big improvements in recent years.

Audi

Volkswagen's luxury marque, Audi convertibles have top-drawer fit and finish, and are available with all-wheel drive. Audi offers the TT Roadster and a convertible version of the A5 coupe is replacing the A4-based model.

BMW

Known for its sporty driving character, BMW applies its enthusiast-satisfying dynamics to the Z4 roadster, 3 Series convertible, and luxury 6 Series convertible. These earn high marks for the agility, handling finesse, sophisticated engineering, and impeccable fit and finish.

Chrysler

The current Chrysler Sebring convertible is a spiritual heir to the old LeBaron. Besides exposing occupants to the great outdoors, these convertibles have always been mediocre at best.

Ford

The iconic Mustang is the only convertible in the Blue Oval stable. Available with a V6 engine, the Mustang for enthusiasts is a V8 with a standard shift.

Volkswagen

A mainstream brand with "premium car" overtones, Volkswagen offers the New Beetle soft-top and Jetta-based Eos with a folding metal top. Both models have high-quality interior materials and good ride and handling.

See coming convertibles in our New Car Preview.

New vs. Used

When in the market for a convertible, the first consideration is whether to buy a new or used car. Buying a brand-new convertible certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new cars can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new car, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback to buying a new car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed half its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Used cars can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that's only a couple of years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Likewise, solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing.

The key to selecting a good used convertible is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that has done well in our Reliability judgments. The convertible reliability stars in our records include models from Audi, Lexus, and Mazda.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for convertibles with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful pre-purchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do research and take care in the car selection, a used convertible can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do your research to choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our guides to buying a new or used car.

   

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