Summer Scorchers
Six seductive new convertibles are hitting showrooms this year, and they're safer, roomier and more affordable than ever. One of them might fit your budget--and maybe your whole family.
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – When the Mazda Miata drove onto the scene in 1989, the tiny roadster rekindled America's waning love of convertibles. Other automakers rushed to join the convertible party, but their efforts largely failed to match the Miata's appeal. And besides, people were growing infatuated with those ever-larger SUVs that were rumbling down the road.

Well, Mazda's at it again with the MX-5, Miata's successor, and this time there's plenty of worthy competition. Convertibles are staging a big comeback: There are more models and higher sales right now than ever before. And today's drop-tops are not mere extravagant toys. All six of the new top-down cars we tested proved strong in everything from style and performance to value, quality and safety. These convertibles are still a joy to drive, but they deliver more than just the wind in your hair.

YEAR-ROUND USE One ground-breaking feature of today's convertibles (expensive models, anyway) is the folding hardtop that goes up or down with the push of a button. It replaces the traditional softtop, and it has rescued models like the Mercedes SLK and Lexus SC 430 from winter exile in the garage, turning them into 12-month vehicles even in the snowbelt. Likewise, today's cloth-top models are incorporating tightly fitted layers of insulated material to ward off chilly air and outside noise. Stronger construction and high-tech materials are making convertibles more suited for everyday transportation. Modern, rigid vehicle structures have sharply eased the shake, rattle and roll that used to hamper the ride and handling of roofless cars.

IMPROVED SAFETY Most new convertibles employ electronic stability control, which prevents spins and accidents. Many also feature steel roll hoops, including pop-up bars on pricier models like the Mercedes SLK that protect your head during a rollover. The latest Porsche Boxster we drove added head air bags that deploy from the windowsill. That's a convertible first.

LOWER PRICES You can spend $60,000 and get an excellent convertible like the Corvette or the Mercedes SLK55. But even drivers with lower budgets can take the top down in style. Three models we tested start at around $25,000, including the Mini Cooper on the facing page. Another, the two-seat Pontiac Solstice, goes on sale later this year for $20,000.

There are still issues of practicality. For a lot of households, a convertible will always be the weekend or backup car, so a brand-new one is out of the question. Thus we've assembled a list of the best used convertibles on page 97. Bottom line: If your fantasy is cruising a country road with the top down, this is a great time to indulge. Sure, a minivan would be more practical. But fun is a feature that never loses value.


Mini Cooper

BASE PRICE $22,000 to $25,450 AS TESTED $29,070 SEATS Four 0 TO 60 MPH 6.7 seconds

Slicing the roof off was about the only way to improve the Mini--and it worked. The topless version handles curves with the same ease as its hardtop sibling, although the 115-hp base model strains to go fast. A better bet is the supercharged, 168-hp Cooper S for $3,450 more. Other familiar Mini traits are terrific mileage, park-anywhere convenience and the best resale value of any small car. Drawbacks include a tots-only backseat and lousy rear visibility when the top is up. But while you're struggling to see past that plush fabric top, note that it is fully automatic and has heavy insulation, the kind usually found on $50,000 cars.


Ford Mustang GT

BASE PRICE $30,620 AS TESTED $33,905 SEATS Four 0 TO 60 MPH 5.0 seconds

Four decades later, it still rules. Among affordable four-seaters, the Mustang GT has no real competition in looks, power or performance. With 300 horsepower from its thunderous V-8, Ford's reborn pony car will fulfill any convertible fan's lust for power. But the giddy-up is tamed by an updated design, which makes for a smooth ride and easy handling, and a body that would make Steve McQueen proud. When it comes to pricing, value rules the Mustang corral: The GT starts at $30,620 (you can get an entry-level V-6, 210-hp model starting at $24,495). Misfires include a cheap vinyl top with awkward latches and an overpriced optional 1,000-watt audio system.


Mazda MX-5

BASE PRICE $20,995 to $27,260 AS TESTED $25,495 SEATS Two 0 TO 60 MPH 7.2 seconds

What do you do to improve the best-selling two-seat ragtop in history? One thing you don't do is change the name--unless you're Mazda, which has inexplicably ditched the Miata name, now calling it the MX-5. Luckily, the car has lost none of its freewheeling spirit. The new one is larger and better equipped yet just 22 pounds heavier, so it's still agile. The 2.0-liter, 170-hp four-cylinder engine amps up acceleration, and the body has packed on muscle in all the right places. You'll need a shoehorn to fit a weekend's luggage; still, we love the MX. Or Brand X. Or whatever it's called. We'll call it a Miata, and we suspect its happy owners will too.


Porsche Boxster

BASE PRICE $44,565 to $53,865 AS TESTED $58,210 SEATS Two 0 TO 60 MPH 5.2 seconds

On a racetrack, a car's performance and handling flaws are harshly magnified. But on a track near Detroit recently, this Porsche had nothing to hide. The redesigned Boxster ($44,565) and Boxster S ($53,865) add welcome power--they're up to 240 and 280 horsepower, respectively. This is also the first-ever convertible with head curtain air bags, and stability control is standard. Storage is limited to a teeny trunk up front and some behind-the-seat room (the engine sits in the middle, one secret to the Boxster's ability to whip through turns). With options the S can blow past $60,000 in a hurry. Fortunately, resale value is as rewarding as an all-day drive.


Chevrolet Corvette

BASE PRICE $52,245 AS TESTED $62,605 SEATS Four 0 TO 60 MPH 4.3 seconds

This car is enough to make you want a mid-life crisis. The 400-hp Corvette is a rocket and gets decent mileage considering its muscle, but that isn't the real story of this redesign. This is simply the most refined 'Vette ever. To wit: A power softtop, a surprisingly calm ride, generous cargo space and a quieter, richer-looking cabin. Big problems are the annoying keyless entry system and, for automatic buyers, a mediocre four-speed that lacks manual-shift capability (a must). But overall, even if this convertible can't match the sophistication of, say, the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, it delivers more power and incredible performance for $35,000 less.


Mercedes SLK55 AMG

BASE PRICE $60,500 AS TESTED $68,075 SEATS Two 0 TO 60 MPH 4.3 seconds

Consider the SLK55 a heat-seeking missile for two, only more luxurious. Thank the mad scientists at AMG, Mercedes' high-performance arm, who have molded the sweet SLK into the new SLK55. It gets a 355-hp V-8, a racier body, sport suspension and huge brakes. A luxe interior is capped with a power hardtop--drop it to enjoy the Airscarf, which shoots warm, cozy air out of the headrests. Then there's the high-tensile steel, magnesium and aluminum construction, which cuts weight and boosts safety (pop-up roll bars add protection). And you can shift through all seven speeds using steering-wheel buttons. Sold? We know--we had you at "Airscarf."