Whether it's a roadster or a cabriolet, the convertible is the ultimate fun automobile. Some are sexy and some are adorable, but they're all eye-catching. This is the type of car everyone wants–a symbol of the good life–especially if it waits undercover for weekend drives in lovely weather. By its very nature, a convertible-style car allows its occupants to be seen, with the sun glinting off their sunglasses and their hair blowing in the wind.
A used convertible is a vehicle with a roof that can be retracted and folded down or completely removed. Individual automakers may have variations in what they classify as a convertible, but generally if the it's capable of open-air driving it's a convertible. Car insurance companies take a similarly wide view, and as such they charge higher premiums for vehicles of this classification. Even a vehicle such as the Isuzu Amigo, which has a solid, steel roof over the front seat and a removable soft top over the rear seat, can be classified as a convertible.
It goes without saying that drop-top cars are especially popular in places where Mother Nature deals out a lot of sunny days and very little rain. Southern California is a hotbed for convertibles, where they're much more likely to be somebody's everyday transportation; they're purchased at a lower rate in places like Seattle and Minneapolis and are more likely to be a weekend car. Even a place like Florida, the Sunshine State, is not completely ideal for convertibles, since summer brings a lot of rain along with stifling humidity.
Types of Tops
The convertible roof was the way of the automotive world at the turn of the 20th century. In those days cars were a luxury rather than a virtual necessity, and they were taken out for pleasure drives on nice afternoons. Besides the fact that open-air travel was the norm, speeds were low and highways as we know them didn't exist. Later on, in the age of Interstate transportation and government-mandated safety standards for automobiles, a reinforced, steel roof became more desirable. Convertibles' popularity plunged in the 1970s, but not for long. They started a steady comeback in the 1980s and they're here to stay, with plenty of choices–affordable ones, even–offered by a good variety of carmakers.
True convertible tops, as opposed to removable tops such as that of a Jeep Wrangler, run from manually-operated ones to automatic ones that open and close at the touch of a button with minimal input from the occupant. Cars are still being made with manual roofs (the Pontiac Solstice, for instance), and this may be a negative with many folks who prefer the hands-off to hands-on. Generally a convertible's top is made of weatherproofed canvas, but there have also been hard-top convertibles through history. These have come back into fashion recently, with cars such as the Volkswagen Eon and the Volvo C70 presenting fast-folding, retractable tops that let you take it down or put it up with a button's push at a red light.
There are simple used convertibles and hoity-toity ones. The aforementioned Jeep Wrangler–a no-nonsense vehicle of the first order–requires you to unsnap and fully remove a soft or hard top and leave it home. On the other end of the spectrum is something like the Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead, a car whose easily-operated automatic top actually has cashmere fibers in its interior lining. Some convertible tops have glass windows (with defrosters, even) and some have vinyl windows, which can crack, split, or grow hazy over time. Regardless of what your windows are made of, your convertible top needs to be conditioned and maintained to last the life of the vehicle–replacing them is an expensive pain.
Life in a Convertible
Assuming that the fear of a rollover isn't great enough to keep you out of a ragtop, there are a few adjustments you have to make when driving this type of car. First, you'll find yourself tuned in to the weather forecasts more so than other drivers, especially if you have a removable-top type of vehicle as opposed to a traditional folding-top. If a sunny day is promised and you decide to head out in your Wrangler, leaving the top at home on the garage floor, then you must have good faith in your weatherman. Even so, you'll soon figure out some emergency measures, such as ducking into a mall's covered parking structure or something of that sort in the case of a sudden downpour.
The biggest compromise with this kind of car comes with the ride quality. Even with its top up a convertible is going to be noisier than a regular vehicle–no question about it. Part of this is due to the flexible material of the top and its seams and other features inherent to the top's functions, and part is due to the lack of a more solid and thus more sound-resistant roof; you'll hear more of the wind and the road. You'll also hear more of the rainfall, which is good or bad depending on your perspective: the chief designer at Rolls-Royce, Ian Cameron, said that part of the reason his team went with a soft top on the new Phantom Drophead was for the romance of hearing the falling rain from within. Ah yes–the grass is always greener from the inside of a Rolls.
Now, how is a used convertible's overall ride different from that of a solid-body car? The absence of that unifying solid roof means you'll feel significantly more flex in the body when cornering and negotiating twists in the road. In the worst cases you might experience a shimmying windshield. If you're the type who looks for pure performance, then a ragtop probably isn't the car for you. Not that there aren't convertibles out there that perform beautifully, but if you want the ultimate in handling, then structural integrity and the resulting stiffness are the things you need. Flexing and shaking are certainly not good for the car, as they can do a number on countless joints and connections in the car's structure. As time goes on the rattles may increase as small parts loosen, but that isn't a given, especially if you drive the car with relative gentleness.
Manufacturers can–and do–work to minimize negative factors to make the ride quieter and more pleasant, but the buyer will pay more because more engineering and fine-tuning has gone into the car's creation, especially if the car carries the name of a European manufacturer. That Drophead is a perfect example (and its price tag is perfectly extreme): five layers of material in the top and extra-long and reinforced A-pillars take this convertible as close to a coupe's quieter and firmer ride as may be possible. The anecdotal information about domestic convertibles vs. foreign-made ones speaks volumes, with honest Mustang convertible owners (who certainly love their ponies nonetheless) groaning about the ride quality, especially if they've had, say, an Audi-driving experience to compare it to.
Back to Those Names
A convertible is not simply a convertible. There are nuances within the style that have their own colorful names. The sexiest type of convertible is the roadster, a sporty two-seater with the engine in front, or the spyder, which would be mid- or rear-engined. In the past these words held distinct definitions, but they're more or less interchangeable these days, as manufacturers have blurred the lines in naming models over the years.
The Europeans love these colorful words, especially the British. Aston Martin and Jaguar have used the term "drophead" and–as mentioned earlier–Rolls-Royce is using it again with the new Phantom convertible. Then there's the cabriolet (or cabrio), which denotes a convertible with a backseat. They're less sporty by nature (and structure), but they help the occupants meet the same purpose: to gain exposure to warm winds, sunshine, or starry skies.