We're spending a weekend in the idyllic seaside resort of Laguna Beach, California, and each decision is tougher than the next: Beach or pool? Sushi or sashimi? Shaken or stirred? And most vexing of all, top up or top down?
The last problem is purely intellectual, though, because all of our rides - BMW 328i, Infiniti G37, Lexus IS350C, and Volvo C70 - are equipped with retractable hard tops that fold up and magically disappear at the touch of a button. Of course, once the cleverly articulated roofs are stored, to the accompaniment of a dramatic symphony of whirs, hums, and clunks, there's barely enough room in the already cramped trunks to hold a toothbrush and a bathing suit. Then again, that - and a no-limit credit card - is pretty much all you need to enjoy a weekend on the town in Laguna Beach.
From humble origins as an artists' colony, Laguna Beach has developed into one of Southern California's most affluent coastal communities, with pricey homes (median cost: $1.4 million) in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a dense downtown area packed with upscale restaurants, precious boutiques, and other tourist destinations. The most sybaritic of the luxe resorts are found on the edge of town, but we choose to stay at the midpriced and centrally located Inn at Laguna Beach. West-facing rooms look out on the water, and we can reach all the major attractions on foot, which is a good thing because driving in downtown Laguna Beach is a nightmare, with miserable traffic, narrow streets, and limited parking.
All of which make our fleet the perfect cars for our stay in paradise. Hardtop convertibles aren't the best vehicles for performance, since they carry over the worst feature of a ragtop, compromised structural integrity - and then add a few hundred pounds (and a few thousand dollars) to the mix. But they provide added security and minimize wind noise, and the stylish bodywork makes them just the thing for the see-and-be-seen crowd. It's no coincidence that, as we're getting ready to make our first foray into town, a couple rolls into our parking lot in a Volvo hardtop convertible. And later, as we're about to go to dinner, another couple tells us they plan to buy an Infiniti just like the one we're testing.
In principle, a hardtop convertible is a great idea. (No muss! No fuss! Nobody breaking in with an X-Acto knife!) And watching these babies fold and unfold is a mesmerizing experience. (Picture a cross between an automated Swiss Army Knife and a robotic street dancer in Times Square.) But even as we marvel at the engineering sophistication built into our test cars, we can't help but sympathize with the poor dealership technicians who are going to be stuck repairing all those pesky sensors and servo motors down the road. Mechanical woes sank the first of the breed, the 1957-59 Ford Skyliner, and a trifecta of extra complexity, cost, and weight relegated retractable hardtops to footnote status for most of the next half century.