Motoring: Ten topless models

They may be impractical, but so what? Nothing beats driving a convertible on a sunny day with the wind in your hair. Here is a selection to suit every taste, whether you're a DIY enthusiast on a budget or a high roller with a quarter of a million to blow
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Viewed logically, taking the roof off a car makes about as much sense as removing the roof from your head. Cut a car's top off and you compromise its rigidity, handling and steering; and passengers are shaken about like Mexican beans. To remedy this, manufacturers add stiffening, which increases weight, which in turn blunts performance and economy.

Once at the wheel of your automotive folly, you will notice that, with the roof up, visibility is worse than in a bread van and noise levels are intolerable. Invariably the glove box will be more spacious than your boot; vandals will slash the roof daily; and on the rare days when you do get to drive with the wind in your hair, the sun will fry your forehead pink. But you won't give a stuff, because roof-down motoring along a country lane on a sunny day is an unsurpassably dreamy experience. In fact, roof- down motoring can even make inner-city, grey-day motoring a pleasure. You see so much more of your surroundings and, above all, everyone looks at you covetously, while you remain a study in nonchalance.

Most of the ten cars featured here can also be purchased with removable hard tops, making them viable winter transport. Some models have been excluded because they are too rare, too ugly, or too new - these latter will be tested at a later date. What you will find are convertibles to suit all pockets and tastes, but, as Baz Luhrmann would say: wear sunscreen.

Alfa Romeo Spyder, from pounds 23,559

Admirably eschewing retro styling for its revival of the Spyder name, Alfa instead presented us with this radical soft top, with piggy eyes and pronounced hunchback. But it works; against the odds, this is a beauty. Despite being front-wheel driven, the Spyder rewards the gung-ho driver with a talkative chassis, ample power (in V6 form, at least) and a gorgeous interior (very special in red leather). It shakes and rattles over bumps, but then Alfa convertibles always did - they call it character, you know. Proof that modern cars can still possess personality, this is a car to really bond with.

Lotus Elise, from pounds 22,625

Essentially a Caterham (see above right) for the sort of people who eat at Conran restaurants, the Elise offers circuit-racer performance with super-quick steering, horse-and-cart ride and the practicality of an underwater bicycle - but all wrapped up in the funkiest of bodies, with advanced aluminium underwear. A modern, minimalist interior (or if you're being unkind, an interior like the inside of a baked bean tin) and deafening engine noise mean that you won't want to use this for transcontinental jaunts, but for weekend blasts nothing beats it. An 18-month waiting list means second-hand examples hold their value well.

VW Golf Cabriolet, from pounds 15,570

Unusually for a VW, the entry-level Golf Cabriolet is actually cheaper than its closest rival, the Renault Megane. And, as usual, it's a better product too. The Golf pioneered the strawberry- basket look that so many small hatches subsequently aped when their roofs were chopped off, but if you can put up with the questionable aesthetics of that roll-over hoop (or wait for the next version which will do without it), you will have a practical soft top that will hold its value. Little fun to drive, owners instead comfort themselves with Mercedes-level build quality, hood-up refinement and safety.

Caterham Classic, from pounds 11,170

The motoring equivalent of a hair shirt, this is the cheapest and most spartan convertible on the market. The roof takes more time to erect than the Millennium Dome and the broad of bum won't fit in the cockpit, but no other car will offer greater thrills per pound. To join the Caterham club you'll need to be something of a purist - some might say a masochist (if you really want to suffer you can build one yourself). But you will trounce a Ferrari away from the lights (the Superlight does 0 to 60mph in four seconds) and have the brakes, steering and ride to leave the rest behind on the twisty bits. A car that doesn't know the meaning of the word "pootle".

Bentley Azure, from pounds 230,887

At this starting price, normal rules do not apply. The Bentley Azure is a Goliath of a car - the last true Bentley, some say - and as such it simply doesn't have any competition. OK, so it handles like a clipper on the high seas, could drain Kuwait of its crude oil reserves in less than a week, and you'll probably find yourself waiting to park it outside police stations, because that's the only safe place to leave it. But despite all its drawbacks, there's no other car on earth that will make you feel as imperious as an Azure, and that is something you cannot put a price on. Claridges on wheels.

Jaguar XK8 Convertible, from pounds 57,655

The Jaguar can accommodate two tiny people in the rear and, famously, there's space for a set of golf clubs in the boot too. The fact that Jaguar designed the XK8 around a set of golf clubs tells you everything you need to know about who buys these cars; they tend to appeal to traditionalists who demand a large slab of wood and some dead cows inside their vehicles, or their blood pressure starts to soar. Accordingly, the V8 engine is more of a lazy torquer than a frantic howler, but it is more refined than Princess Margaret, and only marginally more thirsty.

Mercedes Benz SLK, from pounds 31,640

Convertibles are about the impression they make as road furniture as much as anything else, and the SLK is a stunningly compact and purposeful design - practical, too, with its fully retractable hard top. Of course it's well built and holds its value (snob and monetary), but image is its chief selling point. On the rare occasions that an SLK will be required to do anything other than swagger up the high street, it will belie its automatic transmission and give the Porsche Boxster a fright at the lights, but don't expect it to match the Porsche's feel and precision; this is more of a boulevardier than a racer.

TVR Chimaera, from pounds 31,875

The traditional British sports car is alive and well, and sounding in the rudest of health. Since its revival in the late Eighties, TVR has cornered the market in hairy-chested, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive monsters. But these aren't the barbaric beasts of old; modern TVRs have exquisite hand-trimmed leather and wood or aluminium interiors, their engines are effortlessly tractable, and handling - with tail-out slides on tap - is a hoot. Don't expect Germanic build quality (though TVR have made vast improvements in recent years) and you won't be disappointed.

Ferrari 355 Spyder, from pounds 105,439

Although the hard-top 355 has been superseded by the new 360 Modena, the old Spyder will soldier on for a couple more years until the new convertible is ready to come on line. The 355 is already a legend, having surpassed all road Ferraris before it in terms of handling finesse and user friendliness (though the gears remain a challenge to the biceps). This is still an awesome sports car (capable of over 180mph); it is a shame that most spend their life cruising the harbour fronts of southern France and the boutiques of Bel Air, as to really know a 355 is a near-transcendental experience.

Porsche Boxster, from pounds 34,125

It didn't turn out to be quite as radical as the initial design concept, but the Boxster has been very popular - offering classic Porsche handling and steering (super sensitive and not too forgiving when the power oversteer kicks in), but with unremarkable power from the mid-mounted flat-six engine (a beefier "S" version follows). Luggage space is decent-ish, the engine sings a beautiful tune, and if you ignore the pointless Tiptronic transmission option, but are prepared to cough up for all the other add-ons (unforgivably, traction control costs an extra pounds 850), you'll have few complaints.

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