Cars

Three Affordable Convertibles Welcome Spring

 BEETLE JUICED: This bug’s still got it: fast pick-up, smart design. Choose the ’60s model in denim blue
BEETLE JUICED: This bug’s still got it: fast pick-up, smart design. Choose the ’60s model in denim blueCredit: VW

Convertibles used to be noisy, leaky, impractical, and expensive. They’re still a little tight in the back seat and limited in the luggage department, but these three convertibles have taken most of the downside out of owning a ragtop.

First up is the Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. The VW convertible debuted last year as sort of a replacement for the complicated and fussy EOS that never really found an audience. That’s largely because an EOS cost $10,000 more than a Beetle Convertible’s base MSRP. The base car for the Beetle convertible is powered by a 2.5-liter, inline five-cylinder engine that turns out 168 hp. It’s a nice car for people who aren’t asking for much. Everyone else should be looking at the Special Editions, of which there are three.

Named ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, each Special Edition trim level offers something unique. The old-school chrome hubcaps and steel wheels on the ’50s trim are supersharp, but the fun really starts with the ’60s, which we spent a week in just as the weather was starting to turn favorable. The 2.0-liter four cylinder delivers 200 hp and still allows 30 mpg on the highway, reminding us of why people liked Beetle convertibles in the first place.

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The 2.0-liter is a blast, even mated to the standard six-speed automatic. The top keeps the wind noise to a minimum even at highway speed, and with the top down and the heated seats cranked, you can withstand all kinds of weather. The ’60s Edition comes in one color, a denim blue that carries through to interior panels, and also comes with the upgraded Fender audio system. That sounds like a gimmick, but it’s truly a great system, with plenty of power to compete with the open air. Even the alloy wheels are cool, a tip of the hat to the old “Five-on-Five” chrome wheels from the original 1960s Beetles. The ’60s Edition makes the Beetle Convertible one of the most improved vehicles in the automotive landscape right now.Starting at $32,295, it’s not cheap, but it’s truly a premium small car.

The MINI Convertible is cut from the same retro cloth, bringing a premium experience to the world of small cars.Since its introduction just over a decade ago, MINI has been on a tear, introducing models like the Clubman, the Coupe, and the Countryman that spread the small car gospel to a country known for driving anything from Cadillac Eldorados to Ford Excursions.

 MINI MARVEL: Good power, great price tag, the MINI Cooper S convertible means a fun ride on sunny days
MINI MARVEL: Good power, great price tag, the MINI Cooper S convertible means a fun ride on sunny daysMINI USA

We drove the MINI Cooper S Convertible with a turbocharged four-cylinder, providing 181 hp, which makes it competitive with the Beetle ’60s Edition. But our money is on the base MINI Cooper Convertible with the 121 hp inline four-cylinder.Thanks to the standard six-speed Getrag manual transmission, it’s not only fun to drive, but much more economical than the 35 mpg highway the EPA estimates.

We drove a Clubman with that engine and transmission configuration and were able to squeeze staggering fuel economy out of it by going easy on the throttle and getting into sixth gear as quickly as possible.The fun’s still there, and the base price tag is $25,850, making it a relative bargain when compared with the Volkswagen.

The Fiat 500C is the value leader of the group, not only starting with a much lower price tag of $19,500, but thanks to its miniscule 1.4-liter, 101 hp four cylinder engine, it provides an outstanding EPA fuel economy estimate of 40 mpg on the highway. In contrast to the MINI, though, which had the power to allow better fuel economy than its EPA estimates in some cases, the Fiat 500C provided less fuel economy in actual driving experience.

 FIAT SLIDER: The roof only slides back, rather than all the way down, but if you want fresh air and a low price tag, this Fiat 500 is your baby.
FIAT SLIDER: The roof only slides back, rather than all the way down, but if you want fresh air and a low price tag, this Fiat 500 is your baby. FIAT

Why is that? Probably because it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slowly.You find yourself wringing the 500C out at every instance, working the 101 ponies for all they’re worth. Fiat offers an automatic transmission in the 500C, but the five-speed manual is really a necessity.

The 500C isn’t really a“convertible”in the purest sense, since only the fabric roof over your head folds back, like the roof of the original Fiat 500s dating back to the 1930s.While it doesn’t offer a complete open air experience, you can fold the top down at any speed, and back up again if the weather turns foul.

Of the three cars, the Fiat 500C is definitely feels the cheapest, with nowhere near the attention to detail in the Volkswagen or the MINI. But you can comfort yourself with all those thousands you’ll save, and maybe buy yourself a motorcycle for true open air excitement.

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