Things to consider before you shop for a convertible car
The convertible is also often referred to as the soft top, ragtop, cabriolet, cabrio, open-top, droptop, drophead, spider, spyder, speedster and roadster
As we gradually say goodbye to the hot and sticky summer, we also welcome the fine-weather things and activities back into our lives, like outdoor concerts, beach days, desert BBQ parties etc. And as far as cars are concerned, it is also a good time to drive a convertible. These lifestyle vehicles with their retractable roofs are a great way to enjoy the cool winter breeze, be it on a drive home from work or to a weekend destination. And if you are planning to get one, here are a few things you should know before signing on the dotted line.
The many kinds
When one hears the word convertible, the image that comes to mind is that of a soft top, also known as rag top, like the one Vanilla Ice drove in his music video ‘Ice Ice Baby’. These are open-top cars with retractable fabric roofs. One very popular example is the Porsche 718 Boxster. In fact, the name Boxster itself is a portmanteau of the word ‘Boxer’ (a type of engine configuration) and ‘Roadster’ (another name for convertible). The Ford Mustang Convertible and Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet are also notable mentions from the current roster of vehicles.
Then you have the hardtop convertibles. Essentially, they are the same, but instead of fabric, they have retractable body-coloured metallic panels. The Mercedes-Benz SLC and previous generation BMW Z4 are favourites in the sub-segment. Uber luxury automakers offer them too, like the Ferrari F8 Spider and McLaren 720S Spider.
The third lot are the targa tops. They are bit like 2-door coupes, but with manually removable roof parts. The Porsche 911 Targa is one such example. The Lamborghini Aventador Roadster is another. But perhaps the most well-known of them all is the Chevrolet Corvette.
The term convertible is a very inclusive one and by that I mean, the term is not just restricted to 2-door vehicles. Over the years, we’ve had SUVs and crossover SUVs with this open-top magic. The Range Rover Evoque Convertible, the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon Cabriolet and the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet are some of those rare examples.
And technically speaking, even the Jeep Wrangler is a convertible, thanks to its removable doors and roof panels, and drop-down windshield. The soon-to-be-released Ford Bronco has that likeness too.
The little-known facts
Convertibles are usually good lookers with their top down, but they turn into disjointed and even ugly pieces of machinery with the roof up. The BMW 3-Series (F30) Cabriolet is a recent victim of this design disaster. But over time, manufacturers have refined the aesthetics and you can see that improvement in the silhouette of the current crop of Porsche 911 sportscars.
Watching a convertible transform from coupe to roofless beauty is a thing to behold. But the time it takes to do so, is also to be judged. The 718 Boxster takes a mere 9 seconds or so, some others take closer to 15 and the most sluggish lot, even 20-plus seconds. If you’re a person of sparing patience, be sure to examine this crucial number with the cars on your shortlist.
Every mechanical engineer knows — and you should too — that more moving parts means more mechanical issues can occur down the road. With time and the lavish use of the retractable contraption, you may end up with a roof that won’t drop down on a fine weather morning or won’t raise when the dust storm sets in… or worse, closes only halfway during heavy downpour. Hence, frequent checks are necessary. Speaking of which, the operation of these roofs is often limited to a vehicle speed of 50 kmph in most cases.
They are a porky bunch and tend to weigh more than their coupe counterparts. And there is a perfectly valid reason for it. The lack of a fixed roof reduces the structural rigidity and, therefore, subjects the chassis to more flex, especially while cornering. And more flex means compromised handling and ride quality. In order to counter that, manufacturers strengthen the frame by adding extra bracing that is often bolted on or welded, or use a different strength of steel or aluminium. Add to this, the weight of the roof itself and the related motor and parts and you have something that is slower off the line, subject to more trips to the gas station, experiences bumpier rides over potholes and lacks the dynamic edge of its coupe sibling.
The other enemy of convertibles are noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). The top-up convertibles are known to be busier on the insides, thanks to road and wind noise; and their cabins aren’t as waterproof or as well insulated from ambient temperatures, be it hot or cold. Although with recent developments, including the use of multiple layers and engineered materials, cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet are said to be a great place to enjoy a conversation with a passenger even at 200 kmph! But the majority of convertibles aren’t German built and for them, things aren’t the same. The good news is that you can hear a few extra decibels of the exhaust note and even more so with the top down.
And at high speeds with the top down, be ready for plenty of wind buffeting — waves of wind and noise hitting the occupants over and over again. Some of the manufacturers have resolved this by using a wind deflector. And it works, provided you keep the windows up.
Keeping the top down also means that you also leave the upholstery exposed to the elements, which makes them degrade faster. If you don’t give these surfaces the right treatment often enough, you may be left with cracked leather surfaces, faded fabric and plastics.
Do keep in mind is that when you drop the top, the roof gets stowed in the boot, thereby eating away a considerable amount of luggage space. So travel light!
Convertibles also wear a heftier price tag. Thanks to the implied sense of luxury, the additional bracing and the limited demand, convertibles are considerably more expensive than the those with fixed roofs.
And finally, a word about safety! Some of you may be wondering what’s going to protect your heads and your meticulously gelled undercut hairstyles in the event of a crash, one that results in an overturn. Worry not! Manufacturers have already addressed this issue a long time ago with the use of roll over bars — large hoop-like structures — behind the front seats. These days, they are often concealed and automatically pop up within a few milliseconds in the event of a collision.
The choices are many, each with a compelling argument. But the way we see it, if you’re on a shoestring budget, the Fiat 500C may appeal to you; if you love a sporty drive, the Porsche 718 Boxster certainly won’t disappoint; and if you need a 4-seater with decent space, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet works.