Convertibles: The Ultimate Summer Ride

2004 Cadillac XLR
The Cadillac XLR’s retractable hardtop is made of exotic materials like magnesium and can put on quite a show for passersby.

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In the Sun Belt, drivers can be sporty all year ‘round. Sadly, sports-car fans in northern regions aren’t as fortunate. Sports cars may be equipped with nearly all of the amenities and creature comforts offered by other types of vehicles, but for most owners, they’re still essentially summertime cars.

The majority of sports cars are available as convertibles. In fact, that’s long been one of their main attractions. For that reason, weather and geography play big roles in determining how often you get to enjoy a “ragtop” to the fullest. Owners of the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper SRT-10, Porsche 911 and other high-performance machines — and even owners of some less-expensive sports-car models — often boast that their car “has never seen snow” or is never driven in rainstorms.

Price Upcharges
When a sports car can be purchased as either a soft-top roadster or a closed coupe, it’s a safe bet that the fabric-roofed version will cost more — often, a lot more. A 2004 Audi TT roadster, for instance, costs $2,000 to $3,000 more (depending on the model) than a comparable TT coupe. The difference between the BMW M3 coupe and its convertible companion is a whopping $8,500.

Chevrolet’s price for the Corvette convertible is $7,000 more than the coupe’s cost, while the price difference between coupe and convertible versions is less for the Ford Mustang, Jaguar XK8, and Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eclipse Spyder. Topping them all is the Porsche 911 Carrera, which commands an additional $9,800 in cabriolet form.

Four sports cars don’t require the buyer to make a decision. The new Cadillac XLR, Lexus SC 430, and Mercedes-Benz SL-Class and SLK-Class have retractable metal roofs that provide cozy protection from the elements but can fold away neatly when the sun begins to shine.

2004 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder
Buyers of Mitsubishi’s Eclipse Spyder convertible have a choice of either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine and a manual or automatic transmission.

It’s likely that a sports car will be your second, third or even fourth vehicle. If that’s the case, you’ll probably only drive it on fair-weather days. “These cars are toys,” says analyst John McElroy, editorial director of Blue Sky Productions in Detroit and the host of two automobile-themed television programs. People “don’t rely on [them] for everyday transportation.”

For shoppers who can’t quite commit to an all-out sports car, how would a midsize convertible do? A soft-top Chrysler Sebring can produce at least a mild dose of sportiness without some of the drawbacks of a cramped two-seater or 2+2 model. So can the redesigned Toyota Camry Solara convertible, which joins the Solara coupe during the 2004 model year. An even sportier ride is yours with a BMW 330Ci soft-top.

Sunroofs and Moonroofs
If going completely topless doesn’t appeal to you, then a sunroof or moonroof may be the next best option. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but a sunroof has a metal panel and a moonroof has a glass panel. Vehicles with a sunroof or moonroof option cost a lot less than full-fledged convertible versions, but only a few authentic sports cars offer them. As a factory-installed option, a sunroof or moonroof will cost $900 in the Toyota Celica or $1,050 in the BMW M3 coupe.

Sunroofs and moonroofs can be cheaper if they’re purchased either as a factory-installed option or as part of an option group rather than as an aftermarket upgrade. Factory installations can also add to a car’s resale value later on, while an aftermarket-installed sunroof can actually detract from a vehicle’s total value.

Pampering Your Convertible
Plenty of us drive around in dirty vehicles, putting off clean-up chores day after day. Sports-car fans tend to be a lot less tolerant of grime and grease. Providing the proper care for your special car should be an integral part of the full ownership experience.

2005 Chevrolet Corvette convertible
Along with the coupe, the Chevrolet Corvette convertible gets a redesign for the 2005 model year.

To keep a sports car’s paint and soft-top in excellent condition for the longest time, the vehicle should be kept in a garage. A heated, climate-controlled garage is the best, and a wood structure may be better than brick for keeping harmful moisture at bay. Even a carport is better than nothing — anything that offers protection from the elements will help.

A car cover can also protect your car, provided that it’s made of suitably soft material so it won’t harm the finish in any way. A cover has to be sufficiently porous so that it won’t trap moisture inside, which can cause serious damage.

Follow the instructions in your owner’s manual for washing and waxing. Naturally, many manufacturers’ manuals recommend car-care products marketed under their own brand. Aftermarket substances will probably do just as well, but don’t skimp on quality and buy the cheapest items on the shelf. Sports cars aren’t cheap, so cutting corners on body care isn’t wise. Study the labels, and ask a knowledgeable salesperson for advice.

Some manufacturers recommend specific brands. For example, buyers of the limited-production Panoz Esperante have been told that it should be cleaned with Zymol — and that’s no surprise, because that company’s car-care products are affiliated with Panoz.

Check the manual for proper operation of a convertible’s fabric top. By doing it correctly and avoiding unnecessary creases, the top will last for many years — especially if the car is driven infrequently in damp or cold weather. But if you do it wrong, the fabric might begin to crack and split sooner than you think. Most of today’s convertibles have glass rear windows; if yours is plastic, take special care when cleaning the transparent surface and while raising and lowering the top.

By Jim Flammang for

Posted on 4/7/04