In many parts of the country, it has seemed like summer would never arrive, but just recently, the midwest and the northeast got an early preview (temperatures topped 90 degrees in New York City). Make no mistake: Summer’s lurking around the corner, and you’d best be ready for its arrival.
There’s no better way to celebrate the season’s first warm breezes than by sliding behind the wheel of a convertible. But which drop-top should you drive? Good question. For a body style that was once considered all but dead (Cadillac famously pitched its ’76 Eldo as the Last American Convertible), there are today more than 40 examples presently sold in North America.
We’ve compiled five extremes here, and while they may be markedly different from one another, they all allow you to let a little (or a lot of) sunshine into your daily drive.
Cheapest Convertible: 2009 Smart Fortwo Passion Convertible
MSRP: $16,990 (not including destination)
It may not be the most exciting drop-top on the market today, but the Smart Fortwo Passion is certainly the most affordable. Its $16,990 base price is almost $6000 less than the basic Mazda MX-5 SV.
True enthusiasts, however, won’t dare to compare the two. The Smart may be fun in the same manner as a go-kart, but it doesn’t offer the driving prowess of a balanced, rear-wheel-drive chassis. Nor does it offer much power – its turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder musters only 70 horsepower, much less than the Mazda’s 167 horses.
But that’s not the point. At this price, the Fortwo Passion (one can also upgrade to the visually-intense Brabus model) may be just the ticket for penny pinchers looking to infuse their commute with some UV exposure. They’ll also love the fact that, according to the EPA, the Smart is the most fuel-efficient convertible offered in North America. The tiny two-seater also has got to be the easiest to park, and it garners far more attention than its price would suggest.
Most Expensive Convertible: 2009 Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR 722 Roadster
MSRP: $548,000 (includes $3000 gas guzzler tax)
Fun fact: Daimler builds both the least and most expensive convertibles offered in America. The 2009 Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR 722 Roadster carries a base price that exceeds half a million dollars, and that’s not even counting the extra $3000 Uncle Sam tacks on as a gas-guzzler tax.
For those who can afford that exorbitant figure, it’s worth it. The SLR 722 makes use of a hand-built supercharged 5.5-liter V-8, balanced perfectly amidships. It’s good for a whopping 641 hp, which catapults the car from 0-62 mph in 3.6 seconds, and ultimately to a top speed of 209 mph.
That sum also buys considerable exclusivity. Only 75 examples of the SLR 722 roadster will be built, with only a handful – approximately 20 – coming to the U.S.A. After that, the SLR is no more in North America, although other markets receive the insane SLR Stirling Moss model (which is not only topless but also virtually windshield-less) as a farewell to the Anglo-Germanic supercar.
Best Soft Top Convertible: S
Apart from shelling out millions of dollars for an original example or building your own replica from tube steel and Volkswagen parts, there’s no better way to live out your Porsche 550 Spyder fantasies than by slipping behind the wheel of a . We’d argue there’s no better time to do so than now.
We’ve long lauded Porsche’s entry-level offering for good looks, plentiful power, and outstanding handling. These characteristics are still present, but for 2009, Porsche adds a few new tweaks (chiefly to the Boxster S) worth saving for. For starters, you can now opt for Porsche’s slick new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (PDK), allowing you to blip through gears in a split-millisecond.
Should you spring for the Boxster S, that fancy gearbox is mated to a version of the 3.4-liter flat-six equipped with direct fuel injection. In this form, it churns out 310 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, up 55 hp and 52 lb-ft over a base Boxster.
Best Hard Top Convertible: 2009 Ferrari California
MSRP: 197,350 (including $3000 gas guzzler tax)
Maranello has used the California nameplate on a roadster before, but a retractable hardtop? That’s a new trick. The same goes for the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, multi-link rear suspension, and direct fuel injection.
But there’s no denying the California, modern as it may be, fits right into the legacy established by the most endearing Ferraris ever built. It’s a front-engine gran turismo, with all of the 4.3-liter V-8’s 455 hp channeled to the rear wheels. And, much like the 250 GT California, it looks even better with the top securely stowed.
And, like virtually every Ferrari before it, the California will be rather exclusive. The firm expects the car to be popular, and plans on building 2500 units each year. That may be a gargantuan figure for Ferrari, but we’re hearing most of that production run is already spoken for.
Best Summer Fling: 2009 Honda S2000
Like the cute girl you had a crush on at band camp, the Honda S2000 is ripe for a summer romance. But you’d better act quickly. The company’s roadster will disappear from the lineup after 2009, and a planned successor has been cancelled – deemed an unnecessary frivolity as even Honda hunkers down to ride out the recession.
We’ll eventually mourn this loss, but in the meantime, we suggest you strike now. S2000s are still at dealers, in either its standard form or the hardcore CR (club racer) guise. Although the latter is more apropos for tearing into apexes, the base car is slightly more comfortable in areas with less-than-perfect road surfaces.
It’s not as if the base S2000 isn’t sporty. The 2.2-liter DOHC four loves to rev, and reaches a peak 237 horsepower at a screaming 7800 rpm. The 162 lb-ft of torque may seem low, but it is tasked with moving only 2864 pounds. Better yet, the roadster sports an almost-perfect weight distribution (49/51 percent front/rear), making it simply brilliant in the twisties.
It’s a limited time offer if we’ve ever seen one, but unlike that camp infatuation of yours, this fling could easily blossom into a long-term relationship.