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The Top-Down Hardtop

Convertibles are back! This time with rigid roofs and all of the romance, but none of the hassles of ragtops.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

A white dusting dapples the peaks that fence in Phoenix, the result of the city's first snowstorm in a decade. It's an odd and disorienting apparition: snow piled atop the giant saguaro cacti, their arms raised high as if pleading for warmth. We're chasing the sun, as well, as our new BMW 335i wends its way through the Tonto National Forest. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, as we descend into the Valley of the Sun, the temperature begins to rise. We steadily turn down the heat that's been blasting out of the Beemer's vents until finally, near the city limits, we shut the heater off entirely.

It's the moment we've been waiting for. With the tap of a button on the center console, we're greeted with the whir of electric motors and the thunk of a mechanical latch releasing. There's motion overhead as the coupe's roof lifts skyward before folding up like sheet metal origami. The rear deck lid yawns wide and the top disappears, the entire process taking barely 25 seconds.

Even in the best of weather, driving a convertible can be an exercise in joyous masochism. Sure, there's that wonderful feeling of the sun streaming down, the wind whipping through your hair. But the trade-off is the buffeting and wind noise, especially when you're turning 80 on the freeway. Even with the top up, noise levels can be deafening, and in the winter you can never get quite warm enough. There's also the issue of safety and security; ragtops seem to encourage car thieves and snatch-and-grab artists.

In the heady, postwar years, convertibles were a common sight, but by the time sales peaked in 1965, at half a million, the seeds of decline were already sown. Experts debate the precise cause of the downturn. Some blame the rise of affordable, in-car air conditioning, others cite the expansion of the interstates. Toughened federal safety standards didn't help, although, contrary to popular lore, the rules were not designed to kill off the convertible. Whatever the reason, by the 1970s, ragtops had become an endangered species, and with the demise of the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado, the last of the breed, it began to look as if they were extinct. But there's something about driving al fresco, and seven years later, the convertible reappeared.

The success of the first Chrysler LeBaron convertible begat an assortment of copycats; soon almost every manufacturer had at least one ragtop in the lineup. Convertible ownership required a proud sort of commitment as the roof mechanism took a bit of muscle and pluck. Operating the top on the original Cadillac Allante roadster meant removing a dozen pieces of plastic molding, then fitting them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The process could take half an hour for a novice, and even those who solved the puzzle complained about leaks.

Newer ragtops are significantly easier—and quicker—to operate, though they continue to suffer the same noise, heat and security problems that have beset motorists since the first open-top cars hit the road. Now, however, there's a real alternative, something that offers the best of both worlds: the hardtop convertible.

The new BMW 335i is by no means the first. In fact, the E.R. Thomas Co. came up with the concept more than 100 years ago, when it introduced its removable "California top." A half century later, Ford Motor Co. added power to the package when it introduced the tank-sized Skyliner. With the touch of a button, the roof would lift up—in one giant piece—then slide into the trunk. It was a great concept on paper, but problem-plagued on the road. And over a three-year run, Ford sold only about 50,000.

The concept was revived—and dramatically refined—by the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL. A metal roof replaced the classic SL's canvas top, but unlike on the Skyliner, the complex mechanism would bend and fold into a surprisingly compact package that not only fit into the roadster's modest trunk, but left a lot of room for luggage.

The new technology isn't cheap, and it adds a fair bit of weight—even more than the mass of the standard convertible top. But hardtop convertibles have become the latest rage, and for very good reason. With the top up, they're quiet, secure and a good bit safer, especially during a rollover accident. More than half a dozen models are now available, covering a wide spectrum of prices and products—from entry-level coupes to expensive sports cars—and even more are on the way. Here's a look at this new breed.

BMW 335i
The new 335i is but the latest in a long line of BMW convertibles stretching back over 20 years. This time 'round, however, BMW has opted for a retractable hardtop. Perhaps that decision was due to the savage criticism of the oddly shaped canvas top on the bigger 6 Series convertible. Whatever the reason, we can only say, "Thanks, BMW."


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