Car Advice

Should I buy a convertible?

Should I buy a convertible? It’s the ultimate personal decision, but let’s take a look at the practicalities and bust a few myths along the way.

PEOPLE BUY CONVERTIBLES for one of three reasons: they like the idea of open-top motoring; or they like the idea of other people thinking they like the idea of open top motoring; or because the car they really want is only available as a convertible.  Either way, you’ve got to figure out if convertibles are for you, and that starts with deciphering a bit of jargon.

What’s in a name?

Convertible or cabriolet?  Nowadays, they’re the same thing – a car with a removeable roof, leaving just the windscreen in place.  “Cabriolet” is a word with French origins and is used by carmakers in an attempt to sound upmarket.  We’ll just use convertible here.

Soft-top, hardtop – your convertible may have a soft roof made of canvas or similar, or a hard roof made of plastic and metal.  Softtops are cheaper and lighter, but less secure and feel less of a “normal” car when the roof is up.  The Jeep is a soft-top, the Mercedes is a hard-top.

Jeep Wrangler is a soft-top

2015 Mercedes-Benz SL400 review

Roadster – a sportscar that is a convertible, usually a two-seater.  Also less commonly known as speedsters.  A term used by European manufacturers is spyder.  Like convertible and cabriolet there were originally differences but now the terms are interchangeable.

Sunroof – a car that has a panel which slides back to leave a hole in the roof. Moonroof – yet another term which has morphed over time, but really means a panel that slides back to reveal a window in the roof.  This is what most people call a sunroof nowadays.

Targas – where the windscreen and rear window remain in place but the entire roof between the two can be removed.  “Targa” is a Porsche trademark, although they were not the first to use the design.

Porsche has trademarked the Targa name

T-top – a targa, but one with a central metal bar between windscreen and rear window.

Tintop – motorsport slang term for a car with a roof.

What you could buy and what you should buy

Let’s start with the simplest, a sunroof or moonroof.  The first tip here is be sure you know what you’re buying rather than relying on the assumption your definition of a ‘sunroof’ is the same as the car salesman’s.  Sunroofs can be pop-up, spoilers, folding, integrated, tilt or panoramaic. 

Regardless of the type, any sunroof will add weight to your car in exactly the place you don’t want it, high up, and poorly designed kits will reduce body stiffness.  But… unless you are a professional race driver doing highly measured test laps you are never, ever going to notice the difference so don’t let that put you off or anyone tell you different.

A sunroof won’t really hurt resale as those that don’t want it just won’t use it, but there are a few buyers out there who do like their sunroofs and seek them out.  Sunroofs can really heat up the interior of the car, which is great in winter, and certainly let some ambient light in.  They do very little for exterior looks compared to cars without.

A T-top looks a bit different from a normal car.  You don’t get much of different experience to just putting the windows down on a normal car.  Perhaps that’s why the T-top has never really been that popular, but there’s a few people that love them.  Targas are rare these days, as the market has tended to go for either a convertible or a tin-top.

So the full convertible is where it’s at.  Nothing else compares with the wind-in-hair thrill of motoring along at speed.  But it’s not for everyone, so if you’re unsure then check out one of the major car rental companies and look for their premium range which typically includes a convertible or two.  Rent one for the weekend and see how you go.  Bear in mind that the novelty may wear off, but convertibles are like swimming pools – you don’t always use them, but there’s odd occasions when you’re really glad you own one.

Driving a convertible

You do need to know that a convertible is never going to be as practical as a normal car.  That folding roof takes space in the boot, and car security may be compromised. There may also be more road noise, and there’s a few more moving parts to go wrong. While the modern convertible is quite safe, all else being equal you’d rather roll a tin-top than an open-roofer.  Bear in mind that many modern convertibles have pop-up rollbars, so there’s more protecting you than just the windscreen mounts. 

The extent to which all these things are disadvantages very much depends on the specific vehicle, and in general the more expensive and newer cars have better designed systems.  Some convertibles require tools, swearing and several minutes to change over.  Others are just a press of a button and waiting for a few seconds. It is worth paying more for a good system as the harder a convertible is to convert, the less likely you are to make the effort to use it.

There is however one convertible disadvantage that isn’t, and that is weight and stiffness.  I blame TopGear for incessantly repeating the claim that convertibles are heavy compared to normal cars, and lack rigidity.  Modern ones weigh the same, or nearly the same as their tin-top equivalent and are just as stiff.  And again, if there is any difference you’ll need to do a number of carefully timed laps at a racetrack to notice.  Also, some of the most famous sportscars such as the Porsche Boxster,Lotus Elise Mazda MX-5, Honda S2000 are only available as convertibles and all of them are both famed and revered for their handling.

Convertibles also do take a little more looking after.  You need to remember to put the roof up because you never know when the weather will turn bad, and bird poo on a roof is one thing, on a seat is another.  And if you’re cruising down the freeway when it begins to rain you’ll need to quickly pull over to get your shelter in order.  

Are all convertibles sports cars?

Most, but not all.  Some 4WDs, notably the Jeep Wrangler are convertibles and in times past the Suzuki Vitara and Sierra, as well as the Land Rover Defender 90 and Mercedez-Benz G-Class.  There are four-seater convertibles, mostly from the likes of Audi and BMW.  Nissan released a convertible Murano but never brought it to Australia.  Land Rover has just announced a convertible Range Rover Evoque.

Converting a convertible to a tin-top

If your dream car is only available as a convertible, but you really don’t like the idea of a convertible then for popular models there are aftermarket hardtops available which pretty much semi-permanently turn a convertible into a hardtop.  Two common examples are the MX-5 and Boxster. 

It is also worth scouting around to see if there is in fact a hardtop version available from the manufacturer, and the Boxster is again a case in point as it was followed into production later by the Cayman – same car, different name. A Lotus Exige is a hardtop version of the roadster Elise, although in that case the Exige is more track-focused than its sister car.

Converting a tin-top to a convertible

So you have a normal car and you want to make a convertible out of it.  This is a big job, and only really an option with vehicles that have a separate chassis to the body such as most older 4WDs. Even so it will require a fair bit of engineering and skill, but is entirely possible.  You need to talk to custom-car specialists for this sort of conversion and be ready to spend on your dream, because this sort of job is only worth doing if done well and that means not on the cheap.

This is just one writer’s perspective, so what do some of the others think?

Paul Murrell:  There’s almost always been a convertible in my garage ever since first getting my licence. My parents were far too sensible to buy a convertible, but I was hooked the first time I went for a spin with my very attractive cousin in her MG TF. Mostly my convertibles were sports cars (Honda S600, Singer 9, Jensen Healey, Triumph TR3A, MG Special, Porsche 911 Speedster).

Driving with the roof down brings you closer to the real motoring experience (although passing three-day-old road kill is one part of the experience I could do without). It also enhances the impression of speed, without necessarily having to travel very fast. Without exception, they all leaked in the rain (the Honda had a nasty trick of gathering water on the rear shelf of the detachable hardtop and throwing it down the back of your neck the first time you braked, the Porsche sends so much water around the base of the windscreen and into your lap that it’s affectionately known as “The Bathtub”).

The good news is modern convertibles are almost as watertight as sedans – whether they remain so over the years remains to be seen – and raising and lowering the roof is considerably easier than it once was. There’s another benefit as you get older: getting in and out of a roofless car is easier (although some convertibles are almost impossible to get into with the roof up). Despite the prevailing opinion that they are sexier than closed cars, in my experience most members of the female gender will complain that topless motoring is “too hot, too cold, too windy, too sunny, too wet, too dusty”, but there is nothing to compare with an early morning blast through Galston Gorge (or somewhere equivalent) first thing on a cold and frosty morning with the roof down and the heater cranked up. 

Should I buy a convertible?

Isaac Bober:  Convertibles are perhaps my least favourite mode of transport. And anyone who bangs on about a drop-top getting your closer to ‘motoring nirvana’, or who dribbles into your ear about how wonderful it is to feel the wind in your hair is either lying, bald, or trying to sell you something. Probably a topless car.

I’ve spent my fair share of seat time piloting convertibles of all description with the most memorable being a jaunt around Tuscany in a Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe. The sun was shining and we were wafting around the hills of Tuscany in someone else’s million dollar ragtop. Sounds wonderful, right. Well it wasn’t and we spent just about every single moment of that half-day drive with the roof up. Stay with me…

And another time was almost literally the polar opposite of that, with a Melbourne to Sydney ferrying of an Ariel Atom. Not strictly a convertible, it has neither a roof nor, beyond a small strip of plastic, a windscreen. And that drive was fun for about 30 seconds. Why? It rained. The entire way.

The main problem of dropping the top of a convertible and going for a drive is, if you’ve got hair and you punt the thing along at highway speed the wind will whip your hair around until after a minute or two it feels like great clumps of hair are being torn out of your scalp. And once you’ve endured 30 minutes of that, you’ll arrive at your destination looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. And probably severely sunburnt too.

Oh, and up until now-ish most convertible were about as structurally rigid as a waterlogged tissue box. Sure, they’re better now, but you’ll still feel the wind in your hair while driving them and you’ll still, 30 seconds, later wish you didn’t. Grumpy old man, out.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper