Forty years ago, they declared the convertible dead.
News reports lamented the last American convertible as U.S. consumers chose the safety, security and comfort of closed cars.
But the exhilaration and prestige of top-down motoring were irresistible. So fast-forward four decades and the convertible is alive and well. Today’s “ragtop” buyers gravitate to luxury brands as mass-market customers seek more practical SUVs or crossovers. And the Germans have taken the lead, with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz offering affluent Long Islanders over three dozen convertible choices.
Current luxury drop-tops are usually all-season rides, combining a wind-in-the-hair experience with the bells and whistles of sedans or coupes. “You can get all the same features as the regular sedans,” says brand specialist Ed Lumer of Atlantic Audi West Islip in New York. “But when people are looking for a convertible, they also want a fun car.” Along with the fun, you get plenty of power, handling and crash protection, as well as folding metal roofs, all-wheel drive and the latest technology. “It’s 2016 and everyone wants more,” says James McCarthy, general manager of Habberstad BMW in Huntington and Bay Shore, New York. “Buyers want everything you can get in one car.”
Premium convertibles slot into three categories: two-seat roadsters, exclusive and exotic models, or the luxury four-seaters often seen in valet parking lots of trendy area restaurants. And like a good bowl of chili, you can order them mild, medium or hot.
Roadsters for Street or Track
Roadsters are often at home on the street or track. Think Audi’s TT, BMW’s Z4, Chevrolet’s Corvette and Mercedes’ SL and SLC, along with serious contenders from Alfa Romeo, Jaguar and Porsche. Even the performance-oriented Corvette now features sumptuous interiors to lure buyers from competing brands, according to Mike Cortigino, sales consultant at Atlantic Chevrolet Cadillac in Bay Shore, New York. “I’ve pulled so many people out of Porsches that I’ve lost count,” he says.
Buyers wanting exclusive or exotic rides turn to Aston Martin, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Rolls-Royce. The entry fee usually starts around $150,000 and escalates swiftly from there. Plunk down a cool half million on a Rolls Drophead and you’ll luxuriate on blemish-free leather hides from cattle raised high in the Bavarian Alps, far above nipping mosquitos.
Sweet Spot: the Four-Seater
But for many prosperous Long Islanders, the sweet spot is the four-seat convertible serving as prestigious family transportation to the country club or summer home. German brands dominate this segment starting around $40,000, although industry observers expect Japan’s Infiniti and Lexus to return soon with new offerings.
Audi hits the road with the entry-level A3 and up-market A5 and S5 – with features such as upgraded sound systems, torso-hugging sport seats and a sublime, multi-layer acoustic canvas top that rises in 17 seconds. Atlantic Audi general manager Thabiti Lee says the A5/S5 attracts well-off buyers of all tastes. “With the all-wheel drive,” he says, “it’s a car you can drive in winter. And for other people, it’s just a summer car.”
BMW offers a broad range of 17 models in three different series, with cloth or metal roofs and horsepower topping out at 560. The 4 Series “is definitely the most popular convertible we sell,” says Habberstad’s McCarthy. Ragtop buyers can also choose the smaller 2 Series or the larger 6 Series, a confident $84,000 autobahn cruiser that gives drivers a “king of the road” feel.
Mercedes adds Two New Models
For 2017, Mercedes complements its roadsters and E-class convertible with two new four-seaters. The smaller C-class features a new nine-speed transmission, while the S-class is the brand’s first full-sized soft-top since 1971, adding all-wheel drive and up to 621 horsepower. “The C-class should be a great car for us to slot under the E convertible,” says Mercedes-Benz of Huntington’s owner-operator Jim Buzzetta. “When a car is less expensive, it gives us a broader base to sell it to younger people.” He’ll use the S to compete against the ultra-luxury Bentley Continental GT.
What makes a top-down drive so alluring? “The convertibles are kind of the style- and the image-makers,” says Buzzetta. “They’re trend-setting . . . the iconic vehicles.” For older Corvette buyers, “it’s rewarding their success,” says Atlantic’s Cortigino.
Perhaps it’s also the smell of new-mown grass on a breezy North Shore drive or the scent of ocean spray on a balmy Hamptons cruise. Whatever the attraction, one thing is clear: this time around, the luxury convertible is here to stay.
This column first appeared in Luxury Living magazine's Summer 2016 issue.