Great Drive: Luxury Hardtop Convertible Comparison
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.
In recent years, manufacturers ranging from Volkswagen to Ferrari have dabbled with convertible hardtops. At the moment, in fact, four models in the $50,000 range are fighting for market share in the four-seat luxury segment. The Volvo C70 was the first to arrive, and even now, three years after its debut, it still looks handsome, offers more trunk space than the competition, and boasts the most comfortable seats this side of a La-Z-Boy outlet. But the Volvo is showing its age in several ways - a five-speed automatic transmission when its rivals have six or seven gears, a nav system that seems like an afterthought, and, worst of all, a creaky, rattle-prone structure. The C70 is the lightest car in our quartet, and the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine makes good power - 227 horses and 236 lb-ft of torque way down at 1500 rpm. But all that grunt is routed through the front wheels. Can you say "torque steer"?
By mounting the five-cylinder engine sideways, Volvo got a trim and tidy package but at the expense of a turning radius the size of a battleship's. The nautical metaphor works equally well to describe the car's lack of composure as the limit is approached. During a brisk run through high-speed sweepers, the C70 gets into an uncomfortable corkscrewing motion, and the air is ripe with the smell of roasting brake pads after one bury-the-pedal stop. Meanwhile, West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, shadowing me in the BMW, is driving with one hand on the wheel and feathering the throttle to avoid punting the Volvo in its lovely Swedish derriere.
It's worth noting that, at nearly $55K as tested, the BMW is the most expensive car in our comparison, this despite the fact that we opted for the po'boy 328i rather than the top-of-the-line twin-turbo 335i. Also, our BMW is equipped with the sport-package suspension, which is a double-edged sword since, in addition to firming the handling, it adds hard, aggressive seats to an interior that already seems a bit too Spartan for luxury shoppers. But the few hardtop convertible owners interested in using their cars for go as well as show will appreciate the BMW's exemplary body control, confidence-inspiring brakes, and ideally weighted steering.
BMW's signature in-line six is turbine-smooth, but it displaces only 3.0 liters and doesn't benefit from forced induction, which condemns the 328i to a role as the weak sister in this group. With only 230 hp, the BMW gives up nearly 100 hp to the Infiniti, and a mere 200 lb-ft of torque means a discouraging lack of midrange oomph, even compared with the less powerful C70. Still, the BMW feels livelier than the engine ratings suggest. Smaller, too. Oh, and a manual transmission is available for those who want to shift the old-fashioned way. (It's far better, by the way, than the H-pattern gearboxes offered by Volvo, Infiniti, and Lexus.) But we're perfectly content with the six-speed automatic, which bangs off satisfying redline shifts in sport mode and feels seamless while cruising along Pacific Coast Highway up to Crystal Cove.
What's now Crystal Cove State Park was once part of the vast - and I mean huge - tract of land owned by The Irvine Company, the real-estate enterprise that essentially developed Orange County. During the 1920s, seasonal tourists camped in tents on a stretch of beach so isolated and tropical that it doubled as a set for South Seas movie scenes. Until construction was prohibited, enterprising visitors threw up primitive cottages just beyond the beach and on the coastal bluffs overlooking the water. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, forty-six cabins have been preserved, twenty-one of them restored to period glory so they can be rented as inexpensive hotel rooms or used as modern-day surf shacks.
While sauntering along the wide, sandy beach, just beyond staircases leading to the oceanfront cottages, I walk into a wooden building housing a handful of large, striking canvases painted by California artist Roger Kuntz when he was living at Crystal Cove in the late 1950s. This turns out to be a teaser for a comprehensive Kuntz exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum. When I return to town to check it out, I discover that Kuntz's best-known work - his Freeway Series - depicts abstracted views of the Los Angeles highway system. (Evidently a car guy at heart, Kuntz often worked from photos shot while he tooled around in an Austin-Healey roadster.) But even more impressive than Kuntz's paintings is the museum itself - a small, airy gem with three stories of exhibition space devoted to California artists.
The museum is the legacy of the Laguna Beach Art Association, which was formed in 1918 and which set the tone for the city's development. Like most coastal communities in Southern California, Laguna Beach has its share of surf shops and beach volleyball courts, and there's hardly a square inch of downtown that hasn't been ruthlessly developed into retail space. But what sets Laguna Beach apart from Venice and Redondo Beach and Dana Point is the quantity of its art galleries - more than 100 at last count. You want plein-air California Impressions? No problem. Guerilla graphics from skateboard artists? Ditto. Without once getting in your car, you can find everything from Picassos and Matisses to an entire gallery devoted to the stylized whales of one-name muralist Wyland.
Fittingly, the city's biggest crowd-pleaser is the Pageant of the Masters, an annual summer extravaganza featuring cast members in elaborate costumes who create "living pictures" of famous paintings in a starlit amphitheater, accompanied by a full orchestra and live narration. The general principle behind the event comes to mind as I cycle through the Infiniti G37 and the Lexus IS350C. Both cars are glosses on somebody else's work, although in their case the inspiration isn't Renaissance masterpieces but the modern classic known as the BMW 3-Series.
The bad-boy Infiniti, which debuted last year, skews to the performance side of the BMW equation. It packs the biggest engine (3.7 liters), pumps out the most power (325 hp), and sports the trickest transmission (seven speeds in the rev-matching automatic). Some people don't like the obtrusive and contrived exhaust note, but I think it's only right and proper that a car this powerful make at least some noise. Steering feedback is good and handling is superb, with the car soaking up road imperfections yet never seeming stressed when pushed. The BMW might - repeat, might - be a tad more satisfying to drive. But choosing between the G and the 3-series probably comes down to whether you prefer the bank-vault feel of a German car or the sprightlier Japanese approach.
Ironically, the Infiniti weighs in at better than two tons, making it the heaviest car in our group by more than 200 pounds. And unlike its rivals, it required some fundamental rethinking to morph from a coupe into a convertible. To shorten the rear deck that mars the appearance of many retractable hardtops, Infiniti engineers relocated the rear damper towers and redesigned the rear suspension. Unfortunately, this leaves the G37 with the smallest trunk space in both Before and After configurations. Adding insult to injury, the trunk lid is difficult to open. But the interior is stylish in the contemporary idiom, and it benefits from a host of neat touches, such as headrest speakers and an intuitive navigation/stereo/HVAC interface.
Lexus was the last of these automakers to enter this particular luxury hardtop convertible sweepstakes, and the IS profited from the delay. Not only does its roof retract faster than those of the competition, but the electric motors are specially configured to make the operation smoother and more elegant. Like BMW, Lexus opted for a two-tier approach, with the IS250C targeted at bargain hunters and the IS350C designed for serious players. The silky 3.5-liter V-6 in the pricier car makes 306 hp and the most torque in this comparison - 277 lb-ft - yet it's priced to compete with the 328i rather than the significantly more upscale 335i. No wonder Lexus expects to sell 1600 convertibles a month.
Although Infiniti tries to channel BMW's sporting heritage, Lexus favors the luxury end of the spectrum. The IS350C features the most sumptuous interior in its class, with all the easy-to-use ergonomics you'd expect from a Toyota. Cowl shake is minimized, and although we don't have the numbers to back up this claim, the IS seemed to be the quietest cruiser with the top up. The steering is too light for our taste, and the car exhibits too much body roll to be much fun in the twisties. But banzai canyon runs aren't in the future of most retractable hardtops. By all of the measures that matter most to prospective owners, the Lexus was very good, and it offers a winning compromise of style, performance, and utility.
Still, there are no clear-cut winners or losers in this group of contenders. The Volvo is the odd car out - a front-wheel-drive turbo five in a world of rear-wheel-drive, normally aspirated sixes - but many buyers won't care. Meanwhile, the Lexus, the BMW, and the Infiniti are differentiated less by the quality of their execution than by the subtle contrasts in their underlying philosophies. I continue to ponder this issue as I lounge on a bench in Heisler Park, a sleepy green space tucked away from the traffic on PCH. As I watch the waves crash down on the jagged rocks extending out from the beach, I decide that this is what retractable hardtop convertibles are designed for - embracing the environment and soaking up the scenery rather than driving from point A to point B or setting fast time of the day on stages 2 or 3. By this standard, all four of these cars are winners.
The Specs: 2009 Infiniti G37 ConvertibleBase price: $45,000 (est.)
PowertrainEngine: 24-valve DOHC V-6Displacement: 3.7 litersHorsepower: 325 hp @ 7000 rpmTorque: 267 lb-ft @ 5200 rpmTransmission Type: 7-speed automaticDrive: Rear-wheel
Chassis Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinionSuspension f/r: Control arms, coil springs/multilink, coil springsBrakes: Vented discs, ABS
MeasurementsL x W x H: 183.3 x 72.9 x 55.1 inWheelbase: 112.2 inTrack F/R: 60.8/62.8 inWeight: 4095 lbepa mileage: 17/25 mpg (est.)
The Specs: 2009 Volvo C70Base price: $40,625
PowertrainEngine: 20-valve DOHC turbocharged I-5Displacement: 2.5 litersHorsepower: 227 hp @ 5000 rpmTorque: 236 lb-ft @ 1500 rpmTransmission Type: 5-speed automaticDrive: Front-wheel
ChassisSteering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinionSuspension f/r: Strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springsBrakes: Vented discs, ABS
MeasurementsL x W x H: 180.4 x 72.3 x 55.1 inWheelbase: 103.9 inTrack F/R: 61.0/ 61.4 inWeight: 3640 lbepa mileage: 18/26 mpg
The Specs: 2009 BMW 328i ConvertibleBase price: $45,375
PowertrainEngine: 24-valve DOHC I-6Displacement: 3.0 litersHorsepower: 230 hp @ 6500 rpmTorque: 200 lb-ft @ 2750 rpmTransmission Type: 6-speed automaticDrive: Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinionSuspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springsBrakes: Vented discs, ABS
MeasurementsL x W x H: 180.6 x 70.2 x 54.5 inWheelbase: 108.7 inTrack F/R: 59.1/59.6 inWeight: 3858 lbEPA mileage: 18/27 mpg
The Specs: 2010 Lexus IS350CBase price: $44,815
PowertrainEngine: 24-valve DOHC V-6Displacement: 3.5 litersHorsepower: 306 hp @ 6400 rpmTorque: 277 lb-ft @ 4800 rpmTransmission Type: 6-speed automaticDrive: Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinionSuspension f/r: Control arms, coil springs/multilink, coil springsBrakes: Vented discs, ABS
MeasurementsL x W x H: 182.5 x 70.9 x 55.9 inWheelbase: 107.5 inTrack F/R: 60.4/60.0 inWeight: 3880 lbepa mileage: 18/25 mpg
Trip Notes: Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach is a coastal community and art colony in Orange County, fifty miles south of Los Angeles. The most spectacular of the many oceanfront resorts in and around town is Montage Laguna Beach (888-715-6700, montagelagunabeach.com), which boasts Craftsman-style architecture and four-star dining at prices that could break many banks. But for less than $200 a night, you can score a beach view with limited bells and whistles at the Inn at Laguna Beach (800-544-4479, innatlagunabeach.com). Or if you want to go native--and bargain basement--try the renovated surf shacks now known as the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (800-444-7275, reserveamerica.com). Prices here also start below $200, but some of the cottages have enough private bedrooms to accommodate up to nine people. The bad news is that reservations are booked six to twelve months in advance, although cancellations aren't uncommon.
- As befits a world-class tourist spot, Laguna Beach has dozens of restaurants at every price point. If you want to rub shoulders with the locals, start your day with huevos rancheros and mango-papaya salsa at Zinc Café (949-494- 6302, zinccafe.com). For lunch, we went the other route and hung with the out-of-towners at The Cliff Restaurant (949-494-1956, theclifflagunabeach.com). The tuna tasted like it came out of the can, but that's a price worth paying for alfresco dining and a spectacular view of the Pacific. We got better value at dinner at Sorrento Grille (949-494-8686, sorrento-grille.com). The attractively appointed bistro offers tasty wood-fired Cal-Ital cuisine; their three-course prix-fixe meal for $30 is hard to beat.
- Culture vultures will want to begin their tour at the Laguna Art Museum (949-494-8971, lagunaartmuseum.org). Admission for adults is $10. Art galleries abound; it's tough to walk a block in downtown without hitting one. There's very little in the way of cutting-edge contemporary work, and the schlock quotient is dangerously high. But the Redfern Gallery (949-497- 3356, redferngallery.com) is one of several shops specializing in California Impressionists, The Vintage Poster (800-558-7552, thevintageposter.com) offers fine values, and Wyland Galleries (800-WYLAND-1, wylandgalleries.com) is devoted to idealized and popular--but critically reviled--paintings of marine life.