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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."

Of course, having a near-perfect retractable roof is only part of the reason to praise the newest "3-er." There's also the 300-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline six with twin turbocharger—the most powerful power train package short of the M3. The 335i's engine is smooth and slick, with none of the whine and lag you'd normally expect from a turbo.

A retractable hardtop is a complex and hefty affair, adding several hundred pounds to the basic 3 Series sedan. But while you might notice the difference by comparing 0-to-60 times, you'll hardly feel it on the road. The 335i doesn't drive like a heavy car. It is as quick and precise as you'd expect from any BMW 3 Series.

With the top up, the car is uncannily quiet. Top down, with the wind blocker in place, you can still hold a pleasant conversation at speeds well in excess of the posted limits. Odds are that the new 335i will be BMW's most successful convertible ever.

CADILLAC XLR
It was designed to Evoq a very different era—a time when Cadillac truly set the standard in the world of luxury cars. Based on the wildly popular Evoq concept car, Caddy's XLR is the GM division's first convertible since the demise of the largely unloved Allante roadster.

There's a lot more to like about the XLR, which matches its distinctive styling with high performance and solid handling. The roadster's platform has a lot in common with the latest-generation Corvette. Meanwhile, the company had to develop an all-new version of the Northstar, the first rear-drive application of the powerful Cadillac V-8. At 320 horsepower, it's a solid performer, but hardly a segment benchmark.

For those who want to push things to the max, there's the XLRv, which ups the pony count to 443. The V-Series edition is blindingly fast and enviably nimble, as we discovered during a day of driving through the mountains outside Palm Springs.

Both models have a few drawbacks, like a bit too much plastic and trunk space that pales by comparison to the Mercedes-Benz SL. Those gripes aside, the XLR is a credible first offering and a hopeful sign of change at Caddy.

MAZDA MX-5 MIATA POWER RETRACTABLE HARDTOP
When it debuted nearly 20 years ago, the Mazda Miata was dubbed by one critic "the best British sports car the Japanese have ever built." Over the years, it has only gotten better.

The latest-edition roadster is sleek, sophisticated and more powerful than ever. OK, you may lament the loss of the classic Miata pop-up headlights, but there's not much else to complain about—not even winter weather, now that Mazda has introduced an optional retractable hardtop.

That might seem anathema considering the basic mission of the Miata: keep it simple. But to those expecting the results to be slow, awkward and expensive, the MX-5 Miata Power Retractable Hardtop (PRHT) will come as a pleasant surprise. It adds little more weight than the standard-edition ragtop, which means minimal impact on performance. And at $24,945, the PRHT is immensely affordable.

Okay, so trunk space is negligible, and it's a more complex affair than some other power hardtops, but somehow the package just comes together—again. And now it's a car you can drive all year.

CHRYSLER SEBRING
Whatever its ills, Chrysler deserves kudos for reviving the convertible, two decades ago, in its long departed LeBaron. Now Chrysler has a new version of its Sebring ragtop, and the '08 model will have three different ways to go topless. As with the Miata, the new coupe offers a retractable hardtop or fabric roof—cloth or vinyl. Another nice touch: an optional remote keyfob that allows you to roll down the roof even before you get into the car. Sebring sails into showrooms later this year.

MERCEDES-BENZ SL550 and SLK
In car-crazy Los Angeles, you are what you drive. The keys you hand the valet can determine just how long you'll wait at all the right restaurants and nightclubs—or so we learned the moment we started rolling down Sunset Boulevard in the latest version of Mercedes' top-of-the-line roadster. It's been more than five years since its introduction, yet the SL still has plenty of head-turning power. And a fair bit more performance, thanks to the SL550's newer, larger V-8.

With the hardtop in place, the cabin is cozy but by no means claustrophobic, even for someone stretching well over six feet. Putting the top down is a one-touch affair and it is endlessly entertaining to anyone within eyesight. Requiring less than 30 seconds, the process is quick and easy enough to operate at a stoplight. With the top stowed away, the trunk can store a modest-sized suitcase, and you can squeeze a briefcase or laptop bag behind the seats. Top up, you can cram in a week's worth of luggage.

Put the nifty wind deflector in place and you'll find just the right amount of wind blowing through your hair. Even at highway speeds, it's easy to hold a conversation, and you can listen to the stereo without cranking volume to the max.

Just when the roadster had all but vanished, the high-end German automakers revived the barren segment. Porsche rolled out the Boxster, BMW the Z3. From the folks in Stuttgart came the SLK, with a distinct difference: it was the only hardtop convertible among them.

The second-generation SLK is more sporty, better balanced and more visually appealing than the original, with a long, sloping nose, yawning air scoops and an integrated Mercedes tri-star liberally lifted from the $452,750 SLR McLaren.

At a tenth of the price, the SLK is affordable and fun to drive, with a peppy 3.5-liter V-6 mated to Mercedes' seven-speed automatic transmission. The roadster's suspension comfortably sucks up road bumps while maintaining a firm and predictable grip on the road.

But the biggest attraction is that hardtop convertible roof. Similar in operation to the folding top on the bigger and decidedly more expensive SL, it's quick enough that you can wait until the very last moment before a rainstorm lets loose before hitting the button.

PONTIAC G6
The first hardtop convertibles were targeted at the automotive elite, but these retractable designs are steadily moving down the price spectrum, as the Pontiac G6 aptly demonstrates. Attractive and affordable, the compact coupe comes in at a base price just south of $30,000.

There's no question that General Motors' Pontiac division has its problems. Over the years, it has suffered from a lot of styling excesses. The look of the G6 is surprisingly clean, however, with none of the heavy-handed plastic cladding that marked prior offerings, such as the Grand Am and Aztek. The G6 convertible's back seats are usable, but you would not want to sit there for any length of time. Trunk space is reasonable.

The market for convertibles in this price range is strong, and the G6 is a true four-season alternative for those who live outside the Sunbelt. It's not the fastest or best equipped product in the segment, but for the money, it's definitely worth a look.

VOLKSWAGEN EOS
Few automakers have had more fun—or success—with convertibles over the years than Volkswagen, but it only now offers a retractable hardtop, the all-new Eos. At around $28,000 it is also one of the most affordable entries in this emerging niche, costing little more than comparable canvas-top convertibles.

For your money, you get a peppy 2.0-liter turbo I-4 engine making 200 horsepower. There's an optional 250-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 as well. You can order either with a six-speed automatic or six-speed stick.

The Eos is a surprisingly well-equipped package, with an attractive, upscale cabin. VW has also put a lot of emphasis on safety: the two-door features antilock brakes, stability control and a trick set of pop-up rollover bars. It has a uniquely designed set of side-impact bags that burst out from the seat and provide the sort of head protection you normally only find in a car with a fixed roof.


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