What You Should Know Before Buying Convertibles
Clark Gable and Gary Cooper raced them, James Dean died in one, and Raymond Burr – as attorney Perry Mason – started with a T-Bird and later drove a Lincoln. All were convertibles. And all were fabulous. Across all automotive categories, there is no segment that better gets our engines running than the convertible. And although safety standards initiated in the Nixon era were supposed to have killed droptops in the U.S., the selection of available convertibles has never been more varied. Some – such as Porsche’s Boxster, Chevrolet’s Camaro or Ford’s Mustang – are ubiquitous, while others, such as Buick’s Cascada and the now-discontinued Nissan Murano, hover near the edge of the automotive market, with little marketing support or available inventory. And if you know going into your purchase that no convertible offers the utility or security of a coupe, sedan or SUV, you’ll be delighted by the simple act of dropping the top on a beautiful day or to better enjoy a memorable sunset. Increasingly, the traditional cloth soft top has been replaced by the folding hardtop (in its 3rd generation Miata Mazda offered both). Although the folding hardtop provides additional security, it represents more compromise in both trunk storage and – in most instances – adds additional weight. And the complexity inherent in the opening and closing of a retractable hardtop will be expensive to repair or replace once your car is out of warranty. In considering your options you’d do well to ask: Are you James Dean…or Perry Mason?
Exterior – If you’re James Dean, you’ll fit just fine in one of the smaller convertible entries, such as Mazda’s MX-5 Miata. Unlike many – if not all – of its contemporaries offered over the last 25 years, the Miata has actually gotten slightly smaller when compared to its last iteration, and matches almost identically the footprint Mazda was using at the Miata’s 1990 debut. The big domestic convertibles have (apparently) been reduced to historical anecdotes; no big Lincoln or Cadillac, and Buick’s droptop, the Cascada, is imported from Europe. But in contrast to the scarcity of the big domestic convertibles we have open variants of sports coupes in the 3-Series, Audi’s A5 and Mercedes C-Class, while VW’s Beetle and Mini maintain a retro tie to their flower-powered beginnings. Nostalgia is also well served by Ford’s Mustang and Chevrolet’s Camaro. In ’17 Range Rover drops the top on its futuristic Evoque, and unlike Nissan’s attempt with its Murano crossover this one might actually work, both visually and in the marketplace.
Interior – The whole point, of course, of a convertible is to drop the top and enjoy the outdoor space; it is not – notably – to obsess on interior details. The reality, however, is that unless you live in Los Angeles, or the convertible you’ve purchased is a weekend toy, you’ll probably have the top up more often than you have the top down. It’s important to consider the car’s livability once you’re in it. Given their sport and/or luxury orientation, most convertibles provide the upscale touches of their coupe or sedan counterparts. There are exceptions, however, assembled with a minimalist bent to maximize the car’s sporting nature. Mazda builds two, in its iconic Miata and recently launched Fiat 124, built by Mazda for Fiat on a Miata platform. Leather is available in both the Miata and 124, as are many (but not all) of the tech features today’s consumers invariably want.
Powertrains – Without benefit of real horsepower that ‘wind in your hair’ will be a modest wind. But with Mazda’s Miata as an obvious example, in a smallish convertible – Miata or Mini – it doesn’t take much horsepower to power your fun. If you want more, however, somebody makes it; noteworthy examples are provided by BMW, Mercedes, Audi and – of course – Camaro and Mustang. And if nothing less than 200 miles per hour will do, you can get close via those built by Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. As yet the marketplace doesn’t supply diesel, hybrid or electric drivetrains (although Tesla’s first production offering was an electric roadster) in the droptop portfolio, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
Safety – There’s virtually no way around it: a car without a roof is less safe than a car with one. With that as a given, today’s convertible inventory bears absolutely no resemblance to the no-crash-zones (we’re figurative here) offered to consumers in the Swingin’ Sixties. Vehicle platforms are much more stable, crush zones have been added and refined, and a virtual cocoon of airbags make the landing into another car – or tree – much softer. But this remains a car without a roof, and even those convertibles featuring a folding hardtop are more marginal in a collision or rollover than their hardtop or sedan cousins.
Much like their sedan and hatchback counterparts, convertibles are offering increased active safety via enhanced handling, braking and performance, along with better passive safety as passenger cells are optimized to not only do well in collision testing conducted by the government’s own National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but the more rigorous and varied testing (offset frontal collision is one notable example) performed by the industry-sponsored Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Among the best known improvements in active safety is anti-lock braking systems, virtually universal across all price points. Today ABS is often supplemented by optional safety suites, which include – but aren’t limited to – forward collision warning and/or avoidance; adaptive cruise control, which prohibits your vehicle from colliding with the car, truck or SUV in front of you; and lane keeping assist, which keeps your vehicle in its lane when driver distractions get in the way of driving.
Technology – Today, if a manufacturer opts for an introduction at a major auto show the offering is more typically devoted to newly-introduced technology within the product than the outside sheetmetal or under-the-hood enhancements. Of course, within any automobile automotive technology can take many forms, including those intended to improve the aforementioned safety, efficiency, connectivity or entertainment. With its Tech of the Year Award in 2016, Autoblog recognized Apple CarPlay for its user-friendliness and “overall impact on bringing our connected lives into the car.” If you’re an iPhone user, the control of apps is done via a familiar interface on an infotainment screen while adding features that weren’t originally installed at the factory. Android Auto was second in the voting, delivering to the user essentially the same capabilities via Google’s phone OS.
With automotive technology’s trickle down, you can expect in-car WiFi to enjoy greater availability, and its integration into a ‘media hub’ increasingly common. Of course, what happens in the dash is not all that’s happening with the operation of the convertible. For those that obtained their license without demonstrating the ability to parallel park, optional parking assist available from an increasing number of manufacturers will park the car for you. Rearview cameras are the norm, and 360-degree cameras are increasingly available on both luxury and more moderately priced cars; it can’t be long before they enjoy widespread use on convertibles.
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