We gave our editors one simple rule: No MX-5 Miatas allowed. It's not that Mazda's diminutive roadster isn't great -- on the contrary, as one of our favorite cars of all time, it's too just too easy to recommend. Our experts needed a challenge.
2004 Porsche Boxster -- Brian Cooley, editor at large
The 2004 Boxster is the last year of the first generation and one of the very best ways to get a bargain on a midengine convertible that is both a natural autocrosser and wine country cruiser.
Notable features of a 2004 include a glass rear window, glove box and backup battery access system in case it dies, all of which arrived in 2002. Check service records for any indication of problems with or prevention of intermediate shaft bearing failure or cylinder liner cracking, the two main issues some of these cars have.
This price is for a manual transmission car, you'll pay about $500 more for a Tiptronic. Don't be car-shamed into avoiding that if you want a daily driver; The Tip is a good sport automatic and plenty of them slot well at autocross.
You can ignore any premium audio options, all first-gen Boxster radios are poor and offer no modern connectivity like AUX or Bluetooth streaming.
Don't run around bragging too much about your new car's "made in Germany" quality: Until 2011, Boxsters were built by Valmet in Finland. They have a reputation for as good or better build quality than German-assembled Porsches.
2000-2003 Honda S2000 -- Jon Wong, road test editor
Launched in celebration of Honda's 50th anniversary for the 2000 model year, the S2000 brings a rigid X-bone platform, 50:50 front/rear weight distribution, limited-slip differential and responsive steering to the party, creating an exceptionally well-balanced roadster.
A 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower four-cylinder with a sky-high 9,000-rpm redline powers the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission.
Early S2000s are known as AP1 models, while cars built after 2003 received chassis revisions, bigger wheels and a slightly larger 2.2-liter engine with a lower 8,000 rpm redline along with the designation AP2.
In some circles, the AP1 is the preferred S2000 model thanks to its the higher-revving engine. You should be able to find a 2003 model with about 150,000 miles on the clock for $12,000. If you find a car with the optional factory hardtop, be prepared to pay a little extra, as they have become rarer, and are highly sought after by the S2000 community.
2008 BMW 1 Series Convertible -- Chris Paukert, managing editor
BMW's 1 Series arrived on the scene in 2008 just as driving enthusiasts were starting to fear that the German brand was starting to lose the plot.
The bulldogish rear-wheel-drive coupe and convertible delivered a stiff chassis and superb dynamics in two flavors: 128i and 135i. At the time, the 1 Series formed the entry point to the BMW brand, but many enthusiasts found it to be the company's most entertaining driver's car.
For $12,000, you're likely looking at a 2008 128i Convertible with about 96,000 miles on the clock. It features BMW's classic 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine dispensing 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. That's plenty for enjoyable driving, especially if you ferret out a six-speed manual example.
Keep an eye out for minor electrical issues (lights, windows) and make sure the transmission shifts smoothly.
If you can find a good deal or can afford to splurge on a 135i, go for it. The turbocharged I6 has a healthy 300 hp and 330 pound-feet, enough to make it one of the most engaging driver's cars of its day.
2000-2005 Toyota MR2 Spyder -- Emme Hall, road test editor
When Toyota brought the MR2 Spyder to US shores in 2000, it hoped to bring a stop to the Miata craze sweeping the nation. We all know how that went. The model survived until 2005, and while it doesn't have the same cult-like following, the MR2 Spyder is still a fun little roadster, as long as you keep your power expectations in check.
The inline 4-cylinder engine knocked out 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, but was a relative lightweight, coming in at a smidge over 2,000 pounds. Its midengine design made the rear-wheel-drive convertible a blast in the corners, but the MR2's low power meant it was never much of a straight-line demon.
Beginning in 2002, Toyota offered a novel five-speed sequential-shift manual transmission option that could be operated from the multifunctional steering wheel or from the gearshift.
For my money, I'd rather have the simpler, less mechanically complex three-pedal setup. NADA says to pay around $11,000 for a final-year MR2 Spyder with a 5-speed manual transmission and 132,000 miles on the clock, but some quick Internet searching revealed far more affordable examples with fewer miles, so there are bargains to be had.
2005-2007 Mini Cooper Convertible -- Wayne Cunningham, managing editor
When BMW reimagined the Mini Cooper last decade, the resulting cars were hailed for their "go-kart handling," an attribute that has been lost with the newest, larger models. But reach back to the Mini Cooper Convertible in its 2005 to 2007 model years, and not only will you rediscover nimble control at the wheel, you'll also find a supercharged engine in the S models.
If you've dreamed of that Anglophile styling ever since the new Minis came to the US, and want to enjoy the twin bonuses of open-top driving and decent power, the 2005 to 2007 Mini Cooper S Convertible, internally designated R52, can be had for well under our $12,000 cap. Typical used car pricing for these models ranges from $5,900 to $8,400.
After the 2007 model year, Cooper S Convertible models followed their hardtop brethren in replacing the supercharger with a turbocharger on the engine, introducing a bit of lag during quick starts. Stick with the older supercharged 1.6-liter engine and you get 168 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds of torque, plenty for this small and light car.
If you can find a Cooper S Convertible with the John Cooper Works tuning option, engine output increases to 210 horsepower, a big bump. However, typical pricing also increases, with a 2007 John Cooper Works model going for $11,625, still comfortably under our pricing cap.
2007 Nissan 350Z Convertible -- Tim Stevens, editor in chief
For a $12,000 convertible, you could do a lot worse than a 350Z roadster. That money should comfortably get you into a 2007 Enthusiast model. In 2007, the 350Z's 3.5-liter V-6 received a 20 horsepower bump, up to 306, and since you can afford the Enthusiast trim, you'll get a limited-slip differential to keep that power in check -- plus a few interior upgrades.
Look to spend just under $12,000 for a car in good condition with about 80,000 miles on the clock.
1993-2002 Mercedes-Benz 600 SL -- Andrew Krok, news editor
If you want the ultimate expression of a grand touring convertible, look no further than the V-12-powered Mercedes-Benz 600 SL, which was on sale in the United States from 1993 to 2002.
It wasn't meant to be particularly quick, but its 6.0-liter V-12 did put out 389 horsepower, all of which was sent to the rear wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission. The other V-12-powered SL, the SL73 AMG, featured a 7.3-liter V-12 that would later feature in the Pagani Zonda supercar.
Seek out the best example you can find -- although the SL's price of entry is reasonable, parts and labor costs can get scary in a hurry. If you're not brave enough to take on V-12 ownership, there are also plenty of great eight-cylinder SLs within reach.