|

Convertibles

Convertible buying guide

Last updated: August 2015

Getting started

Buying a convertible has little to do with practicality and everything to do with enjoying the open-air driving experience. In years past, convertibles were fair-weather-only cars, but modern convertibles require far fewer compromises than the ragtops of yore. Many models can shed their tops in 25 seconds or less, and some convertibles even allow you to raise and lower the top while driving at slow speeds (a nice feature if you're lowering the top when stopped at a light and the light turns green).

Several convertibles feature a retractable hardtop, a folding metal roof that stows in the trunk at the push of a button. With the top 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 a car with a soft top. But when lowered, they can consume much of the available trunk space.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

That said, today's soft tops are much better insulated against noise and weather, and all now come with glass rear windows instead of the flimsy, scratch-prone plastic windows that were common years ago.

What hasn't changed is that soft-top convertibles remain more susceptible to break-in and theft than hardtop vehicles. An opportunistic thief with a sharp knife can easily have at the contents of your convertible. Soft-top convertibles also require more diligence to protect them from the elements, and some automakers warn against taking convertibles through automatic car washes with brushes or high-pressure water jets.

Since a car gets much of its structural rigidity from the roof, convertibles require extra bracing to minimize wear-inducing structural flex. Today's convertibles are better engineered and tend to have more rigid construction, which minimizes body flex and improves handling.

Note that not all convertibles are true convertibles. The Fiat 500C has a full-size sunroof that slides as far back as a convertible top, but the side roof rails always stay fixed in place. This design benefits from added rigidity and a top that can be opened and closed at highway speeds, but it doesn't deliver the same open-air feel as an ordinary convertible.

Key things to consider

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 opening roof? Is this a car that you plan to drive every day or just on sunny weekends? 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, and a used model may be a good alternative. In the sporty-car arena, you'll want to look at cars that focus on handling prowess, but for top-down cruising, ride comfort, wind noise, and back seat and trunk space are also important considerations.

The powertrains for convertibles usually range from small four-cylinder engines, as found in the Fiat 500C and Mini Cooper convertibles, up to the powerful V8s in American muscle cars like the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang. Fuel economy is typically worse with a drop-top than that of the fixed-roof version of the car due to the added weight, and driving with the top down may lower fuel economy even further.

Because top-down driving is the whole point of a convertible, the ease of deploying the top is crucial. Where available, choose a power top with a latch-free design. If the top does have latches, be sure to try them out at the dealerships”some latch designs can easily break fingernails, while others require the strength of Hercules to muscle the top closed. Some power top designs can be raised and lowered when the car is moving at low speeds, a very useful feature. 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. Simpler tops are better.

What you'll spend

Prices range from the low-to-mid $20,000s for small convertibles such as the Fiat 500C and Volkswagen Beetle to well over $100,000 for ultra-luxury performance convertibles like the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG and the BMW M6. There are plenty of models in the middle price range, too; prices dictate the levels of sportiness, performance and luxury, but not the convertible experience”a $25,000 convertible lets in just as much sunshine a $250,000 convertible. One of the most affordable convertibles on the market, the Mazda Miata, is an enthusiasts' favorite, and the reasonably-priced Ford Mustang convertible balances muscle, fashion, and four-place seating.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Types

Roadsters


Roadsters are purpose-built two-seaters that are (usually) good fun to drive. Choose a roadster if you're looking for a fast, sporty car that prioritizes performance over comfort and quietness. Roadsters are not built for practicality; compared to other convertible types, they lack interior and trunk space, and most sit low to the ground, potentially making it difficult for to get in and out.

Convertibles


If roadsters are about having an experience, then convertibles are about sharing the experience. Convertibles tend to be more mainstream cars that can seat four or sometimes five people, though the rear seats are usually 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. They tend to be expensive and target drivers looking to combine comfort, luxury, and a wind-in-the-hair experience. As you moving upscale, you'll find handy convertible-specific features such as neck heaters and retractable hardtops.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

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, with turbocharged four-cylinders frequently replacing the once-ubiquitous V6. Some of these turbo engines require premium fuel, adding to operating costs. Non-turbocharged (naturally aspirated) four-cylinder engines generally deliver better fuel economy; stepping up to a V8 brings effortless power while sacrificing gas mileage.

Most convertibles are offered with an automatic transmission, often with a manual gear-selection mode. Manual transmissions with six or even seven speeds are found primarily in sporty models. Manuals no longer provide superior performance and fuel economy; the twin-clutch automatic, found in high-performance roadsters like the Porsche Boxster, shifts gears faster than any human can. That said, if you're buying a roadster because you love to drive, a good old-fashioned manual can really add to the experience.

Drive wheels

Some convertibles use front-wheel drive, while most roadsters, muscle cars, and sports-sedan-derived convertibles feature 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 on dry roads. Some models are available with all-wheel drive, which offers significantly better traction during inclement weather and better dry-pavement handling and cornering than front-wheel drive. For more information about drive systems, see our report on how much traction do you need.

Interior storage and security

Soft-top convertibles are less secure than those with retractable hardtops; it's easy to knife open the top to gain access to the car, which is why many convertible owners choose to park with the top down. (The logic being that it's cheaper to replace a stolen stereo than a torn roof.) Most convertibles have locking gloveboxes, and better designs will have additional locking storage areas between or behind the seats, as well as a lockable or concealed trunk release mechanism.

However, parking with the top down poses a risk of vandalism (especially manual-transmission cars, which can be shifted to neutral) and opens up the possibility of theft. Many new convertibles use integrated or unique-fit stereos that are so deeply integrated with the car's electronics that they are effectively impossible to steal. Standard-size or aftermarket stereos, commonly found in older convertibles, are prone to theft.

Convertible tops

In addition to being less secure against break-ins than a metal-roof car, a soft-top convertible is inherently prone to admitting noise, cold, and potentially, water, especially as they age. Many auto manufacturers recommend against driving soft-tops through automated car washes with brushes or high-pressure sprays. Look for a car with an insulated multi-layer top, and be sure to test drive the car on the highway with the top up to evaluate wind noise.

A retractable hardtop reduces the compromises associated with a soft top; with the roof on, they seal up as tight and secure as a fixed-roof coupes. But these tops often take up much of the trunk when folded, and because of their cost and complexity, they are usually found only on more expensive convertibles. Some cars offer removable hard tops as a compromise. They are heavy and cumbersome to get on and off, and require storage space when not in use.

Many convertibles come with a removable wind deflector that reduces wind noise and turbulence inside the car. Such deflectors often allow front-seat passengers to converse in a normal tone of voice, even at highway speeds, but they often block access to the back seat. When shopping, see if this handy feature is included standard or comes as an extra-cost option; try it yourself to see how easy (or difficult) it is to install.

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. But the top folding mechanism takes up space, and many convertibles have narrower back seats and odd backrest angles when compared to their non-convertible counterparts. Before buying, sit in each seat to gauge its comfort. Some so-called four-seaters employ a seating arrangement creatively called "2+2," which provides so little room that the back seats are effectively unusable, even 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 based on smaller cars, many also give up rear cargo space to store the convertible top when it's down. Many vehicles offer a movable divider to help you pack; if the divider isn't in place, the top won't open. If you regularly carry large items such as golf clubs or suitcases, bring them with you when you shop.

Safety features

All new vehicles have standard dual front airbags, three-point safety belts in the outboard seating positions, and top-tether and LATCH child-seat attachments in the rear seats. Most models have side airbags, and two-seat roadsters will often allow the driver to disable the passenger side airbag to accommodate a child seat. Side curtain (head-protection) airbags often aren't available in convertibles because they deploy from overhead, though some luxury manufacturers offer side airbags that deploy from the door trim. Some convertibles offer a pop-up roll bar that deploys 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. To further elevated safety, consider advanced safety features that can help increase situational awareness and even avoid accidents. With the top up, outward visibility in most convertibles is compromised, making features like blind-spot monitoring and a rearview camera particularly welcome. Of course, be sure to check available crash-test results. (Learn more about car safety.)

Advanced 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 cross a lane line 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 becoming more widely available. These collision-avoidance systems warn you if you're approaching the car ahead to quickly and can apply the brakes if you don't react. Another advanced technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers the car in the lane if you start to drift. These features are often bundled together in a single option package. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone 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, though some automakers are now abandoning the CD player in favor of an auxiliary input jack, USB, and Bluetooth connectivity. 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 USB port for connecting a smart phone or iPod and for charging mobile devices, though some high-end European models have proprietary adaptors that require a dealer-supplied plug to connect your device.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $6 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka 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 sub-channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems are a great feature 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 mounted 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.

Most 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 now ubiquitous, enabling wireless devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps such as Aha and Pandora.

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 calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car's built-in GPS reciever to give first responders your car's location.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Brands


New vs. Used

When in the market for a convertible, the first consideration is whether to buy new or used. Buying a brand-new convertible certainly has its benefits. New cars have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements, not to mention a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. With a new car, you know what you're getting; 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 finance 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 are plenty of cars from which to choose. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that's only two to three years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit and should have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust isn't nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

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 usedcar.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

   

Find Ratings blob logo

Convertibles Ratings

Subscribers can view and compare all Convertibles Ratings.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News

Connect

and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:

Cars

Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more
left arrow right arrow
See also:
See buying guide down arrow
167 rated down arrow
61 rated down arrow