Driving a nicely performing convertible with the top down on a sun-baked summer day is about as good as it gets for driving enthusiasts. But there’s more to convertibles that wind-whipped hair and the open road.
Whether ragtop or hardtop, convertibles are experiencing a popularity resurgence. There’s new innovation and increased competition among U.S. and foreign manufacturers. And that means more choices for consumers. In fact, nearly 50 new-model convertibles are now available in the United States. Here’s a look at five manufacturers’ offerings:
* MITSUBISHI ECLIPSE SPYDER (Base price: $25,984; Gas mileage estimates: 25 mpg, city; 29 mpg, highway)
With the 2007 Eclipse Spyder, Mitsubishi is attempting to squelch the concerns of buyers who may constantly wonder just how long their vehicle’s ragtop will work properly.
After restyling and adding improved safety features to the Eclipse coupe for 2006, the convertible version became available to the public as a 2007 model in March 2006. And it’s impressive.
With the flick of two side easy-to-maneuver latches and the pressing of a button just above the transmission box, the convertible function works fast. The entire up or down process windows, rear glass mirror, cloth top and cover takes less than 20 seconds.
Innovative convertible top aside, the Eclipse has a spacious interior, it’s well-healed at nearly 3,500 pounds and it’s strong competition in the sporty convertible category that includes the Toyota Solara and Ford Mustang.
Heavy for its class, the Eclipse feels sturdy and confident on the road. It corners with a firm response and with its perfectly contoured seats, front passengers have a secure, capsule-like feel.
Shorter drivers may need to reach for the pedals. But the Eclipse’s front-seat room is welcome. The only exception is that the vehicle’s low-level feel hampers entry and exit. Two rear seats are small, but not afterthoughts as is in the case with other manufacturers’ offerings in the class.
The automatic transmission is responsive, although not fast. Understandably, automatic transmissions dominate the market, but the sportiness of the Eclipse seems more conducive to driving with its optional five-speed manual transmission. There are two horsepower options, the GS has 162-horsepower and four cylinders; the GT has a V6 with 263 horsepower in its coupe and 250 horsepower in the convertible.
The Spyder and its siblings have handsomely designed instrumentation panels with sharply contour panels and easy-to-use knobs, buttons and switches. Standard features for the GS model include: 17-inch wheels, air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows, CD player, 50-50 split rear folding seat. The GT has leather upholstery, heated front seats and 18-inch wheels as options.
* PONTIAC SOLSTICE (Base price: $21,515; Gas mileage estimates: 20 mpg, city; 28 mpg, highway) A new roadster in 2006, the Solstice, like the Saturn Sky, has attracted a lot of attention and brisk sales with its unique design and innovation.
There’s nothing jagged or abrupt about the Solstice. The car has fine curves and smooth, rounded corners. In short, it’s sexy. A full-on front view reveals a short, compact grill. With its elongated headlights, daytime running lamps and the small, pointed Pontiac insignia, the front of the Solstice resembles a human face with a determined expression
Additionally, the 18-inch wheels fit perfectly under the body and the windshield is angled just right. The Solstice looks like a sports car and it’s an American sports car.
A four-cylinder, 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower engine with a 5-speed manual transmission was the only available option in 2006. Since then, an automatic transmission was introduced last year and a sporty, exceedingly more powerful 260-horsepower turbocharged engine with a sport-track suspension and stability control was added this year.
The Solstice’s sharp sports car looks don’t fully equate to a sports car drive. The manufacturer reports 0-60 in 7.0 seconds in the four-cylinder model, and its acceleration isn’t authoritative. Likewise, there’s a constant exhaust noise while shifting through gears.
Sports cars aren’t particularly known for being quiet or for smooth rides, so it’s hard to fault the Solstice. There’s a substantial road feel, wind whistle and some intermittent squeaks over around-town speed bumps. Yet, for sports car enthusiasts, those characteristics are part of the vehicle style’s attraction.
What sports car enthusiasts appreciate more is sports car handling, and that’s the Solstice’s best attribute. It’s well-balanced, feels tight and it’s extraordinarily secure on the road.
Sports cars can also feel inferior on highways, but the Solstice is confident and has better assertiveness at higher speeds than when it’s called upon to accelerate quickly in a lower-speed predicament. There’s also good side vision (for a convertible) when the top’s up.
While its exterior design is admirable and innovative, the Solstice’s interior features are contradictory. There’s sufficient leg and head room and the instrumentation is nicely designed and user friendly. Armrests are positioned ideally for easy comfort. Passengers sit particularly low in the cabin, and the top end of the instrumentation panel nearly obscures front windshield vision.
* SATURN SKY (Base price: $23,115, Gas mileage estimates: 22 mpg, city; 26 mpg, highway) If there’s one sure thing about the Saturn Sky, it’s the new sports car’s attention-grabbing appearance. Passersby will stop you at traffic signs and ask questions. Restaurant patrons will come by your table. Neighbors will want to know about it, and even friends who have little interest in cars will be curious.
Introduced as Saturn’s first “high-performance” convertible sports, the Sky was first available in the spring of 2006 as a 2007 model. From a front view, it looks like a Corvette. From the rear, it looks like a “Bat Mobile.” One friend said it looks like a Matchbox car for adults.
The two-seater, which shares its basic design with the Pontiac Solstice, is available in two options, the 177-horsepower base model and the 260-horsepower, turbocharged Red Line. Both models, like the Solstice, are rear-wheel drive and have 5-speed manual transmissions as standard equipment. A 5-speed automatic is also available in both models.
The Sky is at its best with its rag-top down. The vehicle’s exterior design, which some have compared to a Lotus, is sleek and handsome. The car’s standard 18-inch aluminum wheels are perfectly contoured under the body. The Sky simply looks fine maneuvering through city traffic or cruising down the highway.
The Sky has an affordable starting price at just slightly more than $23,000. But its attractive price comes at a “cost.” The convertible top, for example, is manual. And while it easily fits into the trunk, the two side flaps and the center trunk hood latch are difficult to properly secure. The “trunk is ajar” warning light repeatedly flashed unless extra pressure is applied to tightly to close the trunk after the top is secure.
The Sky has additional shortcomings. Consider: With the top down, there’s no trunk space; With the top up, the trunk compartment is nearly useless because of its odd convex design; The Saturn has only a 13-gallon fuel capacity; Most gauges are adequately sized, with the exception of the very small (and difficult to see) gas gauge.
Still, considering its price point, the Sky has a lot to offer. Its steering and handling are superior. The two passengers sit low in vehicle, providing the oxymoron of being in a spacious cockpit. Acceleration is sufficient even with the base engine, but the car was slightly underpowered in some hilly scenarios. The Red Line version is decisively quick, however, particularly in mid-speed acceleration situations.
* VOLKSWAGEN EOS (Base price, $28,110; Gas mileage estimates: 23 mpg, city; 32 mpg, highway) Among the newest entries in the convertible hardtop category, the Eos is offered in base, 2.0T and 3.2L models. And even considering the base model, the Eos is hefty competition for any other vehicle in the convertible category.
Unlike other new convertibles, the Eos has a good performance pedigree with the Volkswagen line. It could also easily be categorized as a “convertible tweener.”
Named after the Greek Goddess of sunlight, the EOS in remarkably less expensive than many of the luxury convertibles, but it also features a lot more luxury and superior refinement that convertibles in its own price class.
The base model Eos, for example, offers no options. But its standard equipment list includes: 16-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, CD player with MP3 capacity, power windows and heated exterior mirrors.
The Eos convertible system is called CSC (Coupe-Sunroof-Convertible). It’s the acronym designated for the large power sunroof that’s built into a retractable roof. The idea: In weather not conducive to having the top completely down, the sunroof can slide open or passengers can just enjoy the sunlight with the sunroof closed.
In either the 2.0L (200-horsepower) four-cylinder or 3.2-liter V6 (250 horsepower), the Eos is appreciably quick and offers a confident, comfortable ride. It’s not the quickest vehicle around, but its personality is reminiscent of most VWs. It performs admirably on the open road, like on the Autobahn in Germany, for example. It has tight handling and offers precise and quick-enough maneuvering.
The 2.0L and 3.2 liter models offer impressive options, including Sport and Technology packages that offer, among other features: 18-inch wheels, a 10-speaker Dynaudio sound system, iPod integration kit, front and rear parking sensors, bi-xenon headlights and a navigation system.
* VOLVO C70 T5 (Base price: $39,090; Gas mileage estimates: 21 mpg, city; 29 mpg, freeway) A four-door, four-passenger hardtop convertible that showcases he Swedish manufacturer’s innovation and reputation at its best. The C70 T5 drives so nicely and offers such well-planned features, it’s hard not to like.
The standard offering is a 2.5-liter, 218-horsepower turbocharged, 5-cylinder engine with 5-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift gate. A six-speed manual transmission is also available.
Without the hardtop deployed, the C70 offers no indication that it’s a convertible. Instead, it looks like a stylish sedan. But when the hardtop is deployed with the push of a button near the transmission cluster, the convertible is equally attractive.
As a new vehicle in mid-2006, the convertible mechanism’s durability is still largely unknown. But in either direction, the convertible feature works well, with one small caveat. When the metal hardtop and rear glass window are deployed, they’ll only properly lock into place in the trunk if the plastic platform they rest on is also securely in place.
A small, illuminated button positioned just inside the trunk is among several other smart features. When the top is down, it fills most of the trunk. But push the trunk button and the metal top, glass and platform rise en masse about six inches, providing easy access to a still-usable storage area.
Two other push buttons, one on the top outside of each front seat, adjust the entire seat forward and backward. And with the pull of an adjacent lever on each seat, rear passengers have surprisingly easy access into the adequately spacious rear cabin.
There’s also a wealth of deep storage bins throughout the car as well as neatly designed and sturdy rear front-seat “kangaroo” pouches. And at the top of each rear headrest are sequestered rollover bars designed to deploy if sensors detect a pending problem.
But perhaps the car’s most innovative feature is its a Volvo-named “ultra-thin center console panel.” The AM/FM radio 6-disk in-dash CD changer and heating/air conditioner controls are slickly packaged into the curved, thin configuration. The unique design leaves an open, if hidden, passage between the two front seats.
While not exceeding quick, the C70 accelerates well and its steering and handling and ride quality all add up to what’s expected of the Swedish brand a tight, controlled car that embraces the road regardless of conditions.