It’s the automotive dream of a lot of people – to own a convertible and experience the joy of top-down driving. I live in the Northeast, so it’s not always a priority, but I do enjoy putting the top down occasionally (when I have a convertible to review). With two children under the age of 5, a used convertible is not in my immediate future, but let me offer some advice if you’d like to take the plunge.
Three Kinds of Convertibles
Basically, you’re going to come across three kinds of convertibles: those with roofs you operate manually, by the push of a button or some combination of both. (I’m looking beyond the multitude of engines and power trains that are available.) My preference is always going to be full-power roofs that open at the touch of a button because the last thing I want to do is actually have to think about opening the roof. (I can be mentally lazy.)
There is another type of roof I’m going to ignore: the removable top. Basically you take it off, store it in the garage, go about your motoring, and put it back on at some point. It’s open-air motoring at its most inflexible. Typically, removable roofs are found on sports cars that largely are designed for track use.
Test Drive a Roof
There are two ways to test drive a convertible roof. The first is the most obvious: standing still. This is when you have all the time in the world to either get the top up or down. It’s not going to be difficult to operate a roof with a power top, of course. During the stand still test, with a manual roof, you’re basically seeing how difficult it is to operate the latches that secure the roof. You also want to see how easy it is to fold the top and secure it in the down position.
Be brutally honest with yourself in your appraisal of how easy it is to manually operate the latches associated with opening the roof and securing it. The latches may – and I emphasize may – become easier to use as time passes, but probably not. If your hands aren’t strong enough to open the roof now, they’re probably not going to be strong enough six months down the road.
Speed is another important test. See how quickly you can put the top up. Now, this doesn’t matter with a power roof because it only goes up as fast as its engine allows it to. Where it makes a difference is with a manual roof. You’re going to want to see how quick you can put the roof up in a rainstorm.
Types of Roofs
There are two basic types of roofs: fabric or hardtop. The hardtop roof is made of the same sheet metal as the rest of the car and folds down with the aid of a motor. Fabric tops can be made of a variety of materials such as vinyl, canvas or an acrylic/polyester blend.
Test the roof itself by spraying water on it, specifically at the points where the roof hits the windshield and where the glass hits the roof along the sides. You’re looking for leaks. They can happen even in a hardtop convertible. A 2010 Infiniti G37 S convertible I test drove had a slight drip problem after a heavy rain. A good roof seal lets in no moisture.
The Storage Space
Check out the well where the roof is stored. Most have some kind of removable top that locks into place. See if there are signs of rust inside the well. It could demonstrate leaks that are going to eventually destroy the roof if it is stored improperly. Examine how securely the top snaps into place. Loose tops contribute to the destructive moisture problem. They could also fly off at highway speeds.
How Does It Drive
Convertibles have come a long way in the last five years. The Volvo C70 was miserable to drive until it was improved in 2006. Now it’s a dream. The problem was the cowl shake. In layman’s terms, when a car becomes a convertible, it loses a lot of the rigidity offered by the roof. The base of the windshield shakes more in convertibles without that support and it telegraphs to the steering wheel. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
Understand that a motor can go at any time. The relays that run the top can just fail without any warning. This may or may not turn up in an inspection. Convertibles, by their very nature, tend to be a little more temperamental than your regular coupes. They get more exposure to the elements, which can affect operations of interior parts.
As with any used car purchase, it's important to remember to always get an independent inspection of the vehicle.
Consumer Reports Recommended
- BMW Z4 – 2004-06
I’ve never driven one, but folks who have tell me they can be tight on space. There is also some dissent among purists about the design. Consumer Reports, though, says it’s a winner.
- Ford Mustang – 2004, 2007
Long live the Mustang. This is a great All-American convertible that has its practical side, too. If you really want to feed the need for a convertible, you won’t be disappointed with the Mustang.
- Honda S2000 – 2000-07
It’s a tiny little convertible that is well loved by track racers in its coupe form. It’s not quite tailored to my 6’2” bulk, but it is a sporty convertible that gets high reliability marks – and that’s never a bad thing.
- Lexus SC – 2002-06
This is the face of luxury convertibles, but for some reason it tends to be associated more with females than males. OK, I’m going to say it. The Lexus SC is a chick car, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be proud to own one.
- Mazda MX-5 Miata – 1999-2008
The Miata was redesigned in 2006 (and had MX-5 added to its moniker). I’m pretty biased towards all things Mazda, so I was happy to see it included on Consumer Reports’ list of recommended convertibles.
- Porsche Boxster – 2003, 2006-07
Frankly, Porsches don’t do much for me, which is absolute heresy for an automotive journalist. They are, though, an out-and-out hoot to drive. I’m just not a huge fan of the company.
- Toyota Camry Solara – 1999-2007
Here’s one Toyota I wouldn’t recommend. I never liked the Solara. I found it heavy and sluggish. However, if it’s reliability you seek while enjoying the sun, you’re probably not going to go wrong with the Solara.