How to buy the best convertible

Convertibles are all about fresh air, fun and freedom. Here's how to find the one that's right for you.

Top picks

Budget-minded: Mazda MX-5 Miata

The reborn Miata may look far more aggressive than ever before, but underneath, it's still the same friendly, low-power, low-weight approach to elemental motoring. At $25,000, it's also one of the best driver's cars at any price, a true joy.

Mainstream midsize: Chevrolet Camaro

Following a dramatic weight loss, the all-new Camaro is both better to drive and better to live with every day. Starting at $31,000, it's powered by a range of engines that now includes a turbocharged four-cylinder, as well as its traditional V-6 and V-8 offerings.

Premium compact: BMW 2 Series

Starting at around $37,000, the 2 Series delivers the lion's share of the much pricier 4 Series Convertible's virtues in a more tossable package. It's even available with all-wheel drive.

Premium sports roadster: Porsche Boxster

This mid-engined roadster is highly prized for its neutral handling, superb driver feedback and surprising practicality. Starting at $52,000, it's expensive but worth it. Do splurge for the S model, but don't go crazy on options.

Premium grand touring: Mercedes-Benz E-Class

The Three-Pointed Star's best-known convertible may be the SL-Class, but the E-Class is nicer to drive, more capacious, and starting at around $62,000, it's a lot less expensive. Relaxed yet powerful, it's a world-class top-down cruiser.

Convertibles, defined

Dropping the top on on a warm day and going for a cruise is one of the great joys in all of motoring, but convertibles of yore demanded that owners put up with wind noise, leaks, greatly diminished safety and finicky roof mechanisms.

These days, advances in top technology, as well as improvements in body rigidity, safety tech, aerodynamics and cabin comforts like seat heaters have combined to make convertibles surprisingly versatile, year-round propositions. Nearly every model on the market has a power top that stows or raises in seconds, and there's even an expanding pool of all-wheel-drive offerings for those in northerly states.

The world just looks different from behind the wheel of a convertible. It sounds different, it smells different, and with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, it even feels different. Convertibles aren't the loud, leaky, flexible flyers they were just a generation or two ago.

Segment overview

f-typeawdconvertible026lowres.jpg

We always picture convertible ownership like this, don't you?

Jaguar

The convertible market has changed a lot in recent years, and there are fewer choices than there once were. However, a recent uptick in new and updated offerings may breathe life into the genre. The financial recession and the rise in popularity of crossover SUVs has conspired to curb the number of convertibles on the market, leading to a disproportionate number of the remaining models being from luxury brands and/or based on sports cars.

The comfort-first "cruiser" mass market is almost entirely gone -- larger-volume players like the Chrysler Sebring and the Toyota Solara have been discontinued, in part because the popularity of the two-door coupe body styles that help make convertibles possible have themselves dwindled. These days, many mainstream car companies fail to offer a single convertible. Yet despite being a small segment, there's still a surprising amount of diversity, with a convertible out there for nearly every person and pocketbook.

A major difference between models is whether they are equipped with a backseat. Typically, the need to package a convertible's folding top takes a toll not just on trunk space, but also on cabin room, turning a car that would normally have four- or five- seats as a hardtop into a two seater. Generally, the best one can hope for is a 2+2, industry-speak for two front seats and a pair of occasional-use perches in the back, but even they are usually best reserved for purses and grocery bags. A car like the Audi A3 Cabriolet 2+2 is quoted as having 31.9 inches of legroom (the sedan has 35.1 inches, and even it's rather cramped), and there's a reduction in shoulder room of over 7 inches, enough to turn the five-seat A3 sedan into a four-seat convertible.

When it comes to choosing a droptop, one buying factor seems to loom above all others: Styling. Since convertibles are more of an emotional purchase than a practical one, the way a vehicle's appearance resonates with shoppers is often a greater factor in purchasing than with most other types of automobile.

Power vs. economy

Convertibles are indulgent by their very nature, so they traditionally prioritize performance and easy power over fuel economy. You won't find a single dedicated eco model, let alone any hybrids or pure electric choices in this marketplace. In recent years, there's been exactly one alt-fuel convertible offering, the Volkswagen Beetle diesel, and it's not available this year, owing to the German automaker's emissions scandal.

2016-fiat-500c-cabriolet-overhead.jpg

Fiat's 500C is one of the most frugal pop-tops you can buy.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The most efficient models tend to be the smallest and least powerful ones -- vehicles like the $20,000 Fiat 500C Cabrio that carries EPA estimates of 31 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, or the $25,500 2.0-liter gasoline Beetle Convertible, which registers 25 mpg city and 34 highway, respectively.

In general, convertibles are a bit heavier and slightly less aerodynamic than their hardtop counterparts, which can negatively affect performance numbers, including fuel economy.

Conversely, when it comes to making power, the sky's the limit -- most new convertibles have over 200 horsepower, but many offer a multiple of that figure -- especially sports cars and exotics.

Tech and safety

Outside of the established luxury makes, there aren't many models that include much in the way of advanced driver-assist systems like lane-keep assist and auto-brake, but such technologies are still relatively new. Since convertible variants are often the last addition to a given model line (often launching a year or more after their fixed-roof cousins), it can take a while for the latest tech to filter in. Even so, modern convertibles are very safe, packing reinforced body structures and a phalanx of airbags. Most models have pop-up pyrotechnic roll bars, too.

Because convertibles tend to be luxury purchases, it should come as no surprise that many offer comprehensive infotainment systems, including large, high-resolution displays and sophisticated all-in-one multicontrollers. Companies like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz excel in this regard. Conversely, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are just now making inroads into the market, with models like the $31,000 Chevrolet Camaro and $25,500 VW Beetle among the first to offer them.

How to raise the roof (and lower it, too)

The general consensus is that a convertible involves a roof that either folds or is removed completely to create unobstructed views skyward. It's that "completely" part that's up for interpretation, as cars like the inexpensive Fiat 500C can still leave their roof rails in place, merely peeling back their canvas tops in a bustle like the lid on a tin of sardines. More common is a complete folding soft- or hardtop that stows between a car's rearmost seats and its trunk area.

16-rolls-royce-dawn-small.jpg

Even Rolls-Royce's new Dawn employs a canvas roof.

Rolls-Royce

Vinyl and canvas convertibles have an edge in terms of lower cost, complexity and weight, plus they tend to be more compact when stowed, so they sacrifice less trunk and cabin room. The best multilayer canvas tops give up very little in terms of sound and weather insulation to their folding hardtop counterparts -- even Rolls-Royce and Bentley rely on canvas tops. However, multipiece tin tops do offer an extra degree of security against vandals, and some people just prefer the mental security of having a metal roof overhead.

The vast majority of today's convertible tops are power articulated, with some requiring manual latching and unlatching at the windshield header, and many conducting their electro-hydraulic or motorized actions fully automatically. Occasionally, some cars still have manual tops, like that of the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but its Z-fold mechanism is small and spring-loaded, so it's a cinch to put up and down.

Budget-minded convertible picks

The entry-level convertible market now seems to trade exclusively on cuteness and nostalgia. It's comprised almost entirely of topless versions of retro-styled European hatchbacks -- namely the aforementioned Fiat 500C (around $20,000), the Mini Cooper Convertible ($26,000) and the Volkswagen Beetle ($25,500).

Of these offerings, the Mini and Volkswagen are "true" convertibles, with cloth tops that fold away completely, while the Fiat still leaves its roof rails in place, leading some to view it as more of a car with an oversized sunroof than a proper convertible. In any case, with package sizes this small, room to stow the folded tops is somewhat tricky. Unlike nearly every other convertible on the market, all three of these models fold their tops into a "bustle," which compromises rearward visibility (especially in the case of the Fiat), but preserves as much of what minimal rear-seat space existed in the first place. Cargo volume in all three takes a predictably large hit.

VW's Beetle Cabriolet is an evergreen fixture on the droptop scene.

Josh Miller/CNET

These retro funsters are all front-wheel-drive four-seaters, and none of them are truly high-performance vehicles. However, there are sprightly, sportier variants available of all three models, including the 500C Abarth ($26,500), a car that is as entertaining and characterful as it is flawed. The latter's singular Italianate looks and motorboat soundtrack will win as many buyers over as its awkward driving position and pendulous-feeling handling will alienate.

There is a significant exception that lives in the budget-minded end of the market, however, and it's the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Wholly redesigned for 2016, it's a traditional rear-wheel-drive, two-seat roadster. Starting at around $25,000, it's the only truly affordable sports convertible of its type, having run off every would-be rival that's entered the market over the last quarter-century. The Miata really has no rivals other than the forthcoming Fiat 124, which is a new competitor of Mazda's own making -- it's little more than a reskinned Miata with a different engine. (If you're thinking of the Nissan 370Z, think again -- one only need take a look at its interior to see and feel its age, and it starts at about $42K.).

In many ways, the Miata is the purest convertible on the market, with its simple, manual folding top and a driver-focused agenda that favors light weight and handling chops over outright power and luxury. It's also a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: unlike nearly every other convertible on the market, there's no fixed-roof coupe or hatchback version.

The Miata may just be the Roadshow editorial team's favorite convertible, at any price.

Mainstream midsize convertible picks

As mentioned earlier, comfort-first convertibles are strangely almost entirely absent from today's marketplace.

The largest-volume segment of the non-luxury convertible market is now dominated by topless versions of sporty pony cars -- the $31,000 Chevrolet Camaro and $29,000 Ford Mustang. Far more civilized today than they were just a generation ago, these rear-wheel-drive, four-place convertibles are available in a wide variety of price points and performance potential, each offering between four and eight cylinders, with both turbocharged and normally aspirated engines. They even have decent tech, with the latest models offering navigation systems with apps and smartphone integration. Pick your pony (car) -- you won't go wrong.

2016-buick-cascada-1.jpg

The backseats in the 2016 Buick Cascada can hold adults for short trips.

Jon Wong/CNET

With mainstream and near-luxury four- and five-seat convertibles like the Volkswagen Eos, Saab 9-3 Convertible and Volvo C70 having recently left the market, the traditional, non-premium leisure convertible market essentially has one occupant -- the new Buick Cascada. This four-seat, front-drive convertible is a model that General Motors borrowed from its European division, Opel. It features a power-folding fabric top, a small-displacement turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated exclusively to an automatic transmission, plus it offers a reasonable 13.4-cubic-foot trunk with the top up (9.8 with the roof stowed). It will be interesting to see how the $33,000 Cascada fares in the market -- if it sells well, other car companies may reconsider their lack of affordable convertibles.

Premium compact convertible picks

While not booming, the premium market has weathered the convertible segment's downturn considerably better than the mainstream. In fact, according to IHS Automotive, "premium brands represented a much larger share of a much smaller market, with 55.5 percent share compared to the mass-market brand's share of 33.1 percent." That makes sense, because convertibles are an inherently pricier luxury, and premium carmakers are more easily able to command the higher MSRPs necessary to make developing such vehicles profitable. In any case, there are a lot more choices in the premium realm. Some companies offer a number of dropheads -- no fewer than four different models wear a BMW emblem.

On the low end of the premium convertible spectrum, there's the Audi A3 Cabriolet and BMW 2 Series, a pair of four-seat models that start at around $37,000 and can run to over $50,000. The Audi is a front-wheel-drive model with available all-wheel drive, while the BMW is a classic rear-wheel-drive convertible with optional AWD. Both are solid driver's cars and feature sprightly turbocharged engines, all-in-one infotainment controllers and nominal rear seats that are best reserved for handbags or very small children.

2015-bmw-228i-convertible03003.jpg

Blind spots are often an issue on soft-top convertibles when the roof is up.

Tim Stevens/CNET

The next rung up the lux ladder is the realm of the Audi A5, BMW 4 Series, Infiniti Q60 (formerly known as G37) and shortly, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet. This is the heart of the premium convertible market, with more volume found here than in other segments. Models here typically start just under $50,000, but routinely rocket well into the $60K and even the $70K ranges when thoroughly optioned. Both the Audi and BMW offer sportier variants of these models -- in the case of the Four Rings, it's the S5, and for Bimmer, it's the even higher-performance M4, a car that starts at $74,000 before extras.

Interestingly, BMW's 4 Series/M4 Convertible and the soon-to-disappear Lexus IS Convertible both employ folding hardtop mechanisms that afford an extra layer of security versus their soft-topped rivals. However, their added weight, cost, complexity and toll on trunk space means that this type of roof won't be worth it for everyone -- especially when rivals offer simpler multilayer fabric tops, acoustically laminated glass and plenty of sound deadening. Folding hardtops can also create aesthetic challenges, because it's hard to package stowed roof panels without widening or elongating rear fenders. Some companies manage this design challenge more successfully (BMW) than others (Lexus).

One other side benefit of going soft: Many folding fabric tops can also be erected or folded at low speeds (generally under 31 mph), which is helpful when approaching or pulling away from a stop light. It's a party trick that's generally not possible with a folding hardtop.

Premium sports roadsters

There are a brace of luxury convertibles based on sports car models -- let's call them premium sports roadsters for the sake of simplicity. They vary rather widely in price, but the focus remains on delivering a high-fidelity, high-performance driving experience for two people in a small, stylish sports-car wrapper.

These models are generally based on rear-wheel-drive architectures, but in a couple of cases, all-wheel drive enters the picture. Four- and six-cylinder engines rule here, many with turbos. Most of these models are sold with sophisticated automatic and dual-clutch transmissions, but unlike many other segments of the market, nearly every nameplate in this niche is still available with a traditional manual gearbox for maximum driver involvement.

2016 Porsche Boxster

Porsche's Boxster is one of the only mid-engined convertibles on the market.

Porsche

While expensive at $52,000, the Boxster is among Roadshow's very favorite convertibles because of its incredible handling, poise and road feel. Unlike its chief rivals, the Boxster is rear midengined, meaning the powerplant is located behind the driver but ahead of the rear axle. With its inherently better weight distribution, handling is made that much sweeter, yet there's still a surprising amount of cargo space owing to its two trunks.

This segment is loaded with top-notch talent, however, and we have other models to recommend. Now in its third generation, Audi's stylish TT is shockingly good to drive. Quick and grippy thanks to its standard Quattro all-wheel drive, the $43,000 TT also has one of the most tech-forward and highest-quality cabins in the business. Then there's the Jaguar F-Type -- introverts need not apply. Not only is the $68,000 F-Type one of the best-looking cars on the market, it has an incredibly vocal range of powerful supercharged six- and eight-cylinder engines. It's also delicious fun to drive.

And we can't forget the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. At around $60,000, this Bowtie is a screaming value, with the performance of cars costing tens of thousands more. It's also thoroughly modern, with a solid infotainment system and unique features like 4G LTE Wi-Fi and an available Performance Data Recorder, a camera system with data overlays for assessing your track day performance from the comfort of an easy chair.

The only other midengined convertible that doesn't stretch into six-figure territory is the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, a stripped-down, track-oriented proposition with unique carbon-fiber tub chassis construction and steering without power assist. For hardcore drivers, this $66,000 coupe can be motoring nirvana on a winding road or road course, but it's also a major chore in daily driving even for the committed enthusiast, owing to its hard ride and extremely cramped, loud and preposterously cheap interior.

Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Convertible

Chevy's Corvette Z06 Convertible is a high-performance bargain.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's also a bit of a stretch to call the 4C Spider a true convertible -- it has a laborious manually removable folding canvas toupee that's really more like a targa panel or a large sunroof than it is a full-fledged convertible. The Alfa also has the single worst audio head unit/navigation system in the entire car industry.

The 4C Spider is hardly the end of the road for Premium Sports Roadsters, however. If you have more cash, and the Boxster doesn't offer enough oomph for you, the Porsche 911 Cabriolet warrants serious consideration, as does the $79,500 Corvette Z06 Convertible, one of the quickest ways around a track at any price.

If you're getting the impression that this category is thick with talent and diversity, you've got it. There are few bad choices here.

Premium grand touring convertibles

If luxury is important to you, but you'd rather have a bit more space and are less intent on having the higher feedback levels of a sports car, a powerful yet relaxed grand touring convertible might be just what you're looking for.

2014e550cabriolet04.jpg

Mercedes-Benz's E-Class is about effortless alfresco luxury for four.

Greg Jarem/Mercedes-Benz

Today, cars like the $85,000 BMW 6 Series Convertible and $62,000 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet epitomize the breed, with their effortless, long-legged performance and substantial dimensions. These are heavyweight cruisers with powerful, bigger-displacement six- and eight-cylinder powerplants, and every conceivable gadget lining their options lists. Sophisticated infotainment systems with large displays, all-in-one controllers and concert-hall sound are a given, as are radar-based adaptive cruise control systems with auto brake, night vision and massaging heated and cooled seats.

Both of these Germans are based on rear-wheel-drive chassis, but are available with optional all-wheel drive, making them genuine four-seasons companions for the well-to-do.

If you want a slightly more personal experience than the four-seat E-Class, Benz's classic $85,000 SL-Class might be for you. The SL Roadster has long epitomized relaxed luxury motoring, and today's folding hardtop model features a couple of innovations that make convertible life more enjoyable -- namely Airscarf, a vent in the seatbacks that circulates warm air around occupants' necks to further comfort in chilly temperatures (also on the E-Cab), and Magic Sky Control, a variable-opacity electrochromic roof panel that allows you to let more or less light into the cabin with the push of a button.

Droptop SUVs

There have been a handful attempts at convertible SUVs over the years, but very few have met with success.

2016-jeep-wrangler-willys-wheeler.jpg

Jeep's Wrangler has been carrying the torch for convertible SUVs for years.

Jeep

The enduring exception to this rule is Jeep's evergreen Wrangler, which starts at about $24,000 and is available with a removable top in two-door and four-door Unlimited guise. Both the soft top and the available three-piece hardtop are real chores to manipulate, and neither do a particularly good job at keeping out wind and road noise. Of course, the Wrangler's elemental, almost agrarian quality is an important part of its appeal. This iconic model will climb up the side of a tree and sell the wilderness lifestyle like nothing else, but it's also incredibly crude in terms of handling, interior refinement, safety, convenience technology and fuel economy. Wranglers are peerless partners off road, and they sure do make a statement, but you have to be committed -- especially to drive one every day.

There's only one other convertible SUV on the market, and it's brand new. The forthcoming Land Rover Range Rover Evoque takes one of the industry's most stylish crossover utilities and throws a power-folding soft top on it for around $50,000. This luxurious four-seater still has genuine off-road ability, but its outward visibility takes a big hit when the top is up, and its style won't be for everyone. That's probably just fine by Land Rover, as it's a niche variant of a niche model.

Ultra-premium grand tourers

Mercedes is readying an even bigger, even more luxurious convertible based on its hugely impressive S-Class sedan, and it promises Bentley- and Rolls-Royce-rivaling levels of luxury for a price solidly in the six figures.

Speaking of six-figure prices, if you like the idea of a big-boned GT, but you fancy something with a rarer badge, more voluptuous styling and an exotic engine wail, Maserati's $146,000 Granturismo Convertible or Aston Martin's $203,000 DB9 Volante may well fit the bill. However, you'll have to overlook a useless back seat, a lack of advanced driver-assist features, jurassic infotainment systems and some surprising interior quality gaffes in both.

fd-2015-maserati-granturismo-sport-6-of-18.jpg

Maserati's Granturismo Convertible Sport is long on looks.

Tim Stevens/CNET

While it doesn't offer much in the way of cutting-edge electronics and driver-assist features, the Bentley Continental GT Convertible is a significantly better bet in terms of interior quality, usability and overall performance, plus it has standard all-wheel drive. It's also more expensive, starting at about $220,000.

If you have the means, however, nothing will say you've arrived like the new Rolls-Royce Dawn. This massive, elegant convertible has much to recommend it, including a 6.6-liter turbocharged V-12 engine with 563 horsepower matched to a transmission that takes advice from GPS satellites for perfect shifts. It also has a peerless level of personalization. Want a paint color that matches your favorite tie? Done. Rare, open-pore wood inlays over eye-popping mandarin-orange leather? Done.

It's all capped by a fabric soft top that's so smooth and muted in its operation that Rolls has labeled its action, "The Silent Ballet." When the top is up, Rolls claims the Dawn is as quiet as its Wraith coupe counterpart, which we can attest is pin-drop serene. Pricing figures to be about $320,000 to start, so the Dawn is squarely in tycoon territory.

Exotic supercars and hypercars

If you're looking at to buy a six- or seven-figure supercar or hypercar, you probably know what you want, but we're going to cover some basics all the same. These cars are the cream of the performance crop, blending ultrahigh-horsepower powertrains with sticky, oversized rubber and massive brakes -- often carbon ceramic instead of traditional steel. In this realm, manual transmissions are rare -- paddle-shift, dual-clutch transmissions with high gear counts are the new norm. Interestingly, convertible hypercars -- think of them as a rung above supercars -- are the only niche in which you can find a hybrid powertrain.

The market starts with near supercars like the Audi R8 Spyder, a midengined, all-wheel drive juggernaut that can be had for around $130,000 in V-8 form, and climbs to over $166,000 when fitted with a V-10 engine. Sexy and surprisingly easy to live with every day, it's a wonderful machine. An all-new R8 Coupe bows in 2016, and a second-generation Spyder will probably show up next year.

150901ferrari488gtbspiderlateraletettomotion-1022x768.jpg

Ferrari's 488 Spider drops its top in just 14 seconds.

Ferrari

On the Ferrari side, there's the California T, a retractable hardtop convertible with a turbocharged, high-revving 5.3-liter V-8 mounted up front. Meant to be the "accessible" prancing horse, it's often thought of as the softest and most affordable of Ferraris, but it's still very capable. At a starting price of $200,000, it's still very expensive.

For those seeking a more focused driver's car, the midengined 488 Italia Spider is one of the most involving cars on the planet, with a howling turbocharged V-8 delivering a whopping 661 horses at 8,000 RPM. Pricing hasn't been released yet, but we're anticipating a base MSRP of around $275,000.

If you don't already know British supercar manufacturer McLaren from its longtime motorsports exploits, you're probably not aware that they build some of the best road cars in the world, too. This includes their convertible range, which includes the 650 Spider ($280,000) and the already-sold-out 675LT Spider ($373,000), which are track animals with surprisingly civil street ride quality. They're evocatively styled, complete with theatrical butterfly doors and carbon-fiber construction. Like most small-volume exotics, they don't offer much in the way of infotainment and advanced driver assist technology, but once you drive these quarter-million-dollar heroes, you won't care, either.

Featured Video
Close
Drag