CONVERTIBLES have come a long way since the days of leaky canvas roofs and sheepskin jackets. Given the uncertainties of the British weather, that’s just as well. Spring in Britain may bring the promise of daffodils and lambs, but no sooner have you ventured into the garden to scrape the rust off your barbecue than winter returns with an icy blast.
The cars that we’ve tested below have metal folding roofs and offer a year-round solution, combining the advantages of a hard top — including noise insulation and security against thieves — with the benefits of sun on your face and wind in your hair when the weather perks up.
Put the hood down, even on a chilly day, and you can enjoy a world of sights, smells and sounds while blasting away the cobwebs after a winter of being cooped up in a stuffy office. Efficient heaters blow warm air around the cabin, and wind deflectors reduce the buffeting, so you can listen to the radio and converse with your passenger.
Britain’s love affair with the convertible — we used to buy more such cars than the French, Spanish and Italians, trailing only the Germans in Europe — has dimmed in recent years, mainly because budget models such as the Peugeot 207 CC, Ford Focus CC and VW Eos have been discontinued.
For the past few years the choice has been expensive or more expensive. But alongside those are some new cheaper models to choose from. Test-driving them is a must, of course.
So for today, at least, let the barbecue go on rusting and pop down to your car dealership to shift those cobwebs.
BMW 440i M Sport
The standard 4-series is a safe, if staid, choice with a ho-hum four-cylinder diesel engine. By bolting in a six-cylinder petrol engine, BMW has given this two-door convertible performance beyond the promise of its looks. A blistering 0-62mph time of less than six seconds is one reason drivers will fall for this car.
The other is that they can take passengers along to enjoy the ride. There’s room for four, and even in the back, adults won’t suffer leg cramps. Plus, unlike in a two-seat roadster, the boot will hold more than a pair of washbags.
The three-piece roof opens and closes at driving speeds of up to 11mph. Close it, and the car is comfortably the most refined of this trio and the easiest to live with day to day. With the roof open, the exhaust note is raspingly satisfying, although the turbos rob the engine of a dramatic Andrea Bocelli top note.
Tip: opt for the eight-speed auto gearbox. The flappy paddles let you take control when you want to and take it easy when you don’t.
There is a downside to the car’s understated power: a few moments’ lack of attention could cost you points on your licence. And remember: for this money you could get two MX-5 RFs.
- Price £48,635
- Engine 3-litre six-cylinder turbo petrol
- Power 322bhp
- Gearbox 8-speed automatic
- Acceleration 0-62mph: 5.4 seconds
- Fuel economy 39.2mpg
- Boot space (roof down) 220 litres
- Cool rating ★★★★☆
Mercedes SLC 200
Scarf by Hermès, shades by Prada, convertible by Mercedes. Rightly or wrongly, this stylish two-seater has gained the reputation of being not entirely gender-neutral. It’s a problem Mercedes has tried to address by giving the SLC — the successor to the SLK — “visual attitude”, with a meaner radiator grille, a jutting front spoiler and fewer curves.
If you want to wipe the smirks off the faces of detractors, there’s a range-topping, V6-powered SLC 43 that will sizzle from standstill to 62mph in 4.7 seconds. It has a whiff of testosterone and enough leather to line a German rock band’s motor home.
Most customers will opt for the more relaxed four-cylinder diesel version, which, on paper at least, is the most frugal. We prefer the 2-litre turbo petrol with nine-speed automatic gearbox: it has the sound and feel of a sports car, which the best-intentioned diesel can’t match.
Consider the Airscarf option, which puts heating ducts behind the driver’s neck — ideal on a crisp day — and the £410 glass roof, which makes the SLC seem open to the air even when it’s not. Somewhat confusingly, for the roof to start opening, the car must be travelling below 3mph, but you can speed up to 25mph while it’s going about the conversion.
- Price £32,595
- Engine 2-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Power 181bhp
- Gearbox 9-speed automatic
- Acceleration 0-62mph: 6.9 seconds
- Fuel economy 47.9mpg
- Boot space (roof down) 225 litres
- Cool rating ★★★★☆
Mazda MX-5 RF
Television commercials depict convertibles driving through a summer landscape, sun glinting on the driver’s Ray-Bans, but the reality for most of us is more likely to be played out in Poole than Puglia. In these more humble surroundings, a shouty sports car will make you look like a cross between an estate agent and a hedge-fund bonus blower. Even a genuine tan will look fake.
One solution might be the new RF — Retractable Fastback — the folding-hard-top version of the bestselling MX-5. It’s a simple, zesty beans-on-toast roadster that follows the time-honoured formula of having an engine at the front and sending power to the back wheels.
The car’s weight has been pared to a minimum — the roof adds just 45kg. It can be lowered at the touch of a button at driving speeds below 6mph, which allows drivers to indulge in a spot of showing-off in crawling traffic.
Unlike its soft-top counterpart, it’s not completely open to the elements. There are pillars behind the driver’s and passenger’s heads, stiffening the body shell and providing rollover protection but reducing visibility. It drives just as smoothly, though.
As we cruised around Barcelona, it drew more admiring glances than its price deserved — hence its five-star cool rating. Even if there’s barely enough boot space for a toothbrush.
- Price £23,395
- Engine 2-litre four-cylinder petrol
- Power 158bhp
- Gearbox 6-speed manual
- Acceleration 0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
- Fuel economy 40.9mpg
- Boot space (roof up or down) 127 litres
- Cool rating ★★★★★