Convertible Can-Do

It’s top-down weather again.

Few things compare to an open road on a fine spring day—top down, wind in your hair, teeth getting sunburned from the wide grin on your face. These new convertibles are well worth a test drive.

Cheap Thrills
Cute as a button, the Mini Cooper makes you smile just to drive it—and it elicits a similar response from onlookers watching you putter past. Actually, putter isn’t accurate, because even without adding the super-charged S package, there’s 162 horses packed under the hood. That’s more than enough to keep up with traffic on the AC Expressway. And you’ll smile again on those rare trips to the gas station, since it’s rated at 37 mpg/highway and 28 mpg/city.

The Mini has a fully automatic roof, plus a unique, little sliding sunroof for top-up weather—and it’s surprisingly roomy inside for its bite size. No wonder the Mini Cooper is top-rated by Kelly Blue Book for its high resale value. The turbo package adds just six horses—not worth $1,000. Instead, invest in other options, like a navigation system.

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Base price: $25,400

New No. 1
Out in Europe for several years, the BMW 1 Series is now available here with the 2008 models. First to arrive are the coupe and the 128i convertible, both powered by a compact but powerful 3-liter, 230-horsepower engine. The 300-horsepower, turbocharged 135i convertible arrives later this spring. Both engines feature coolant pumps that improve fuel efficiency. The combination of BMW’s famous inline six-cylinder design and rear-drive chassis promises to make the 1 Series a worthy baby sibling to the 3 Series, with the sort of sporty handling that’s made the 3 the best-selling Beemer year after year.

The 1 has a soft top that conceals itself completely in the tail, along with an integrated spoiler on the trunk. If the car registers danger, a rollover sensor launches two roll bars from their storage areas behind the rear headrests in fractions of a second. But the most dangerous thing just may be the iDrive control on the console—frustratingly complicated until you figure it out, then a brilliantly engineered no-brainer. Just keep your eyes on the road until you’re comfortable with it.

Base price: $29,375

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Terrific Technology
Redesigned for 2008, the Audi TT Roadster is lighter and faster than before, and a few inches longer and wider than last year, with new LED taillights that wrap around for a 3-D look. Several things haven’t changed, including Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive, fixed roll bars and signature sporty steering wheel. The latter is straight, not curved at the bottom, making the TT easier to get in and out of, and more comfortable for linebacker-sized guys to drive.

Driving the TT Roadster is just plain fun; it’s so responsive it seems to anticipate your every command. The engine is a 2-liter four-cylinder and a 3.2-liter V6 (which can be ordered with a six-speed automatic transmission featuring clutch-less manual sport mode). The new TT has a spoiler that pops up automatically at 75 mph and retracts when you throttle down to 50. The top is engineered to open and retract while you’re driving at up to 25 mph—even if that’s not the smartest thing you can do on the road.

Base price: $36,800

Power and Performance
The Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet is simply one of the best-handling sports cars ever, with or without a hard top. Its silhouette is basically unchanged from the 1960s original—but what’s under the hood has continually improved. There’s a 525-horsepower, 3.6-liter flat six-cylinder that propels the 911 from zero to 60 in 5 seconds, and the 480-horsepower, turbocharged version bolts it in 3.4. Both come in six-speed manual or five-speed Tiptronic (which comes with racing-style steering-wheel paddle shifters).

The Carrera 4 is the wide-bodied, all-wheel-drive version of the 911, so it’s as sure-footed and reliable cornering icy roads in the snow and slush of winter as it is plowing across a sand-blown beach parking lot in summer. The long, sloping nose and large air vents in front of the rear fender scream power, as does the throaty roar when you rev up. Thoroughly modern touches include a keyless ignition. New this year: an optional racing-style bucket seat with integrated airbags.

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Base price: $89,700 ($136,500 for turbo)

Scandinavian Safety
This could be the best of both worlds. The Volvo C70 T5 is a four-seat coupe that morphs into a convertible when the three-piece hardtop glides gracefully into the trunk. For 2008, Volvo has turbocharged the engine, upping the horses from 218 to 227. A six-speed manual is standard, or upgrade to the five-speed automatic with clutchless sport-mode shifting.

Another option is tiny, windshield-like washers for the headlights, as the Scandinavians do like to keep things neat and tidy. And they like to be different: The Volvo C70 is a highly unusual five-cylinder automobile. Mpg ratings are 27/18, which is pretty impressive for a car that can reach 149 mph (just not on I-95 on a summer weekend).

Base price: $39,240

All-Time Best Seller
Not only is the Mustang Convertible the best-selling convertible ever, it’s also the first to receive a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 210-horsepower V6 engine is built in Germany, the 300-horsepower V8 in Michigan. Both take lowest-price 87-octane fuel—a nice perk, compared with other high-performance engines that drink more expensive blends. The Mustang’s mpg rating is 17/26 with manual and 16/24 with automatic.

I’ve test-driven both engines and found little difference under normal, everyday circumstances. There’s more than enough thoroughbred power and handling with the V6. Is reaching 60 mph in a second less worth $5,000 more? Nah. The real performance difference comes when you upgrade to the Shelby GT500 convertible, a 500-horsepower vroomer that’s nearly twice the price of its plain-vanilla Mustang sibling.

Base price: $25,545

Lofty Perfection
As J. Pierpont Morgan once said about his yacht, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. To that end, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster is a super-car, its long nose covering a massive 5.5-liter V8 tucked into a body that’s mostly carbon fiber. It’s the new top-down sibling to the equally fab—and fabulously expensive—McLaren coupe. Is 626 horsepower enough for you? Is blistering acceleration (zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds) what you need? Do gull-wing doors—now called “swing wing,” but still an icon of design and desirability—turn you on? Do Formula One racing wins mean anything to you?

All of that does, of course. And that’s what you’re paying for. However, this beauty is not for stick-shifting purists. It’s available only as a five-speed automatic. And that begs the question—this one for the gurus in Stuttgart, Germany: What were you thinking?

Base price: $500,250


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