With winter behind us, our thoughts turn to sunny Sunday drives in the hills. For these, a convertible is the only proper vehicle.
Unfortunately, even with the enviable weather the Bay Area offers, not every day is sunny, nor is every trip a short one without freeways. Purchasing a convertible, like most cars, is a long-term, for-better-and-for-worse proposition.
Several manufacturers provide an answer that works: the retractable hardtop. We recently drove three of them. The 2007 Volkswagen EOS 3.2L and Volvo C70 both price out at just more than $40,000, with nearly everything you could want in a car that can be a convertible or coupe and actually haul four passengers when necessary.
If you want a little more in the way of performance, BMW has just introduced a retractable hardtop in its 3-series lineup. The Bimmer pop-top costs a little more - about $55,000 for the convertible, $9,275 more than its coupe version - but it offers all the capability for which the 3-series is known plus all the flexibility of a retractable hardtop.
Let's talk first about the common features of these cars.
In operation, all three are marvels of engineering. Push the button - from inside the car or outside using the remote - and the trunk lid pivots up and back, then the top separates into three pieces that stack one on top of the other as they pivot back into the trunk area, then the trunk lid pivots back into place.
After watching this performance, one of our car friends commented, "Boy, there are a lot of moving parts in there." Then next came, "I sure wouldn't want to have to fix it."
The best common feature is that, unlike some of the first generation pop-tops that looked as if they were wearing a bustle in back when the top was retracted, all three cars have the sleek lines of a true convertible. What is surprising is that with the tops up, they are so well engineered that the casual observer won't realize the top can be retracted.
The advantage of these cars is that from the inside they have all the advantages of true coupes. They're completely weatherproof, offer good visibility all the way around and, best of all, are as quiet and tight on the highway as any coupe.
And if this weren't enough, VW has even figured out a way to put an enormous sunroof into that retractable hardtop. So you can have sun on your head even with the top closed, or just slide open the sunroof for a little air when you don't want the wind blowing through your hair.
The only downside, if there is any, is that the space the top occupies in back would otherwise be used for the trunk. The pivots and arms take up a little bit of trunk space, and do restrict rear seating a bit.
As a consequence, with the top up the luggage space is around 12 cubic feet, about a cubic foot less than comparable sedans. With the top retracted, luggage space is reduced to about 7 cubic feet, though Volvo claims its trunk can still hold two sets of golf clubs with the top retracted.
If you're planning a weekend getaway to Napa or Mendocino, plan on packing only two airline roll-aboards, and on the return trip, the cases of wine will have to ride in the back seat.
But top up or down, the Volvo and VW are pleasant cars to drive. Both are front-wheel drive, with six-speed manual transmissions standard. The five-cylinder Volvo engine puts out 218 horsepower, while the VW claims 250 horsepower. Both offer the same torque of 236 pound-feet, which is what really matters.
Either one will get you to 60 mph from the side of the road in about 7.5 seconds, more than adequate for highway merging. Both have excellent handling characteristics that will give any driver confidence in high-speed maneuvers.
The VW offers one additional feature, unmatched by most cars: an optional six-speed direct-selection gearbox. This transmission is the wave of the future, behaving like an automatic when you don't want to pay attention to shifting, but giving you controllable dual-clutch shifting at speeds even professional drivers couldn't match. It's a perfect way to have a little fun on the way up to Skyline Drive.
If you want that extra performance edge for which BMW has become famous, and have a little more money in your budget, the 335i convertible is worth a test drive. Its dual-turbocharged six-cylinder engine, putting power to the rear wheels as always, makes an enviable 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. That's sufficient power to kick it to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and allows it to loaf at half its red-line rev limit while cruising at 75 mph.
If you have any worries about rollovers in a convertible, be assured that all three cars offer electronic stability control to reduce the chances of a rollover and roll bars that extend in milliseconds to protect the occupants in the event of a roll.
If you've ever harbored the urge to go cruising down the boulevard in a convertible - like Dinah Shore in those marvelous commercials from the 1950s - but realized that on rainy days or in highway traffic those ragtops were worse than impractical, perhaps now is the time to revisit your old dreams. BMW, Volvo and Volkswagen are ready to grant your wish.
Gary and Genie Anderson, Los Altos residents for more than 20 years, are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits MC Squared, the MINI magazine, and contributes articles and columns to a variety of other automobile magazines.