What sums up the ideal British summer better than the smell of freshly mown grass, the clink of ice cubes on glass, the thwack of leather on willow.... and getting to finally push the "open" button on the lid of your convertible car?
Despite our variable weather the UK is ideal for open-top motoring. It seldom gets too hot and although it frequently rains there are plenty of dry spells in between. Anyway, if you keep moving, most of the rain stays out. We also have the roads for it. Miles and miles of winding country lanes that are begging to be enjoyed in a convertible car. For those vain souls who like to be seen, they make a fine statement in London too.
UK sales of topless cars enjoyed a resurgence from the late 1990s and then shot skywards – as surely as an electrically-powered cabrio-top – from the early 2000s, in line with the economy. In 1996, only 30,628 convertible cars were sold, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, but by 2000 we had developed quite a taste for open-air motoring. Sales shot to 47,481, taking a 2.14 per cent share of the car market. The following year, sales rose to 59,820, rising to a heady 116,903 in 2004; a 4.55 per cent share, buoyed by sales of cars such as the Peugeot 206, BMW 3-Series and the then new Mini Convertible.
That was as good as it ever got. Bankers' greed and the economic slide conspired to drive sales of convertibles into a nose-dive, from 106,153 in 2007 to only 56,028 last year. Their share of the market sank back to 2.89 per cent.
Even so, convertible sales are still stronger than they were 15 years ago, with cars such as the latest Mini Convertible (now joined by the dashing Mini Roadster) and Mercedes E-Class proving hugely popular.
Here's our pick of some of the best cars for a topless British summer, ranging from the fast, sporty and expensive to the laid-back and fun.
It's billed as "the world's cutest car, now even cuter" by Fiat, and you can see why (main). It might be a little on the girlie side but heck, it makes you want to throw the roof back, head down to the beach and grab an ice cream. Unashamedly retro, it's nevertheless lots of fun to drive and is – as the looks suggest – full of character, even if it's not truly a full convertible, as the roof pillars remain in place. For some – especially in London where a "proper" convertible can leave you feeling exposed – that's no bad thing. It's no sports car (as indicated by the choice of 1.2, 1.3 or 875cc engines), but it has all the latest safety aids and features you would expect, and the cabin is nicely packaged too. From £12,960
Nissan 370Z Roadster
Not only does it look fantastic, in a predictable, macho, bare-chested kind of way, it goes like stink too. That's thanks to a 3,696cc V6 engine producing a hefty 320bhp – enough to take you from 0-62mph in a blistering 5.5 seconds before finally topping out at 155mph. Purists will no doubt opt for the manual, six-speed gearbox, but there's a good paddle-shift automatic too. The ride is harsh, but there's plenty of fun to be had thanks to the rear-wheel-drive handling. There's also a "one-touch" button for the roof, which makes it much easier to duck for cover when the rain suddenly closes in. While the 370Z Roadster (left) is strictly a two-seater and the boot is on the small side, as well as awkwardly shaped, there are plenty of nooks and crannies where you can store your things on board. It offers plenty of performance – and attitude – at an affordable price. From £32,080.
Peugeot has made a habit of setting the convertible market on fire, as you would see from even a casual glance at their sales charts. A firm peak in 2004 had a lot to do with the enormous popularity of its 206 model. The French firm now has two to choose from, the bigger 308 CC (right) and the slightly cheaper 207 CC. We'll focus on the 308 CC as it's arguably the company's sleekest and most well-built cabriolet yet, which also comes with a choice of great engines (especially the diesels) and a classy cabin. It may not be the most sporty drive in the world, but it's still quite fun and refined. It also does a good job of protecting you from the worst of the wind with the hood down, something that not all open-tops manage to achieve. If you're still a bit worried about catching a chill, you can order extra blowers to waft warm air around your neck. And you can't get much more cosseted than that. £21,445.
Renault Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet
It's hard to ignore this stylishly designed and well-equipped drop-top. The Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet is available with a wide range of petrol and diesel engines, and a clever glass roof that means you can make the most of the weather, whatever the weather. Ride and handling lean towards comfort, rather than sportscar-like handling (where can you drive fast these days, anyway?) but it's still a lot of fun, with the roof down. As with some other cabriolets, rear-seat passengers are not exactly spoiled for space, although the boot is reasonably large and the seats up front are comfortable and supportive. Even the entry-level models come with goodies such as TomTom sat-nav, automatic wipers and headlamps, and radios with MP3 compatibility and Bluetooth. From £20,810.
You couldn't possibly include a round-up of most exciting topless cars without referring to the popular, plucky and absurdly fun-to-drive little MX-5. With traditional rear-wheel-drive handling that comes to life in fast, swoopy bends, pin-sharp steering, a nice ride, good looks and peppy engines – when they're worked hard – it's a sweet recipe for success. Even with the roof down, the breeze is still well controlled, and when in place, the fabric roof does a reasonable job of deadening the wind and road noise. The MX-5 also has a great reputation for reliability and – although the cabin isn't the most inspiring in the world – the car feels very much as though it's built to last. The boot isn't huge and the cabin is cosy rather than commodious, but isn't that what summer, open-top motoring is all about? From £17,995.
This third incarnation of the Boxster roadster, originally launched in 1996, looks better than ever, although the changes are fairly subtle. Its has a longer wheelbase and wider track, there's a bigger air-scoop and the windscreen is more steeply raked, while the rear automatic "wing" now blends beautifully with the light clusters. Inside, the cabin has been more closely styled to that of the Panamera model, while more adjustment has been built into the seats. The stunning-looking Boxster now handles better than its older cousins, and is faster too. The entry-level, flat-six engine has been reduced from 2.9 litres to 2.7, but produces 10bhp more (enough for 0-62 in 5.7 seconds) and is more economical while producing 29 g/km fewer emissions. Choose the Boxster S for a 3.4 engine producing five more bhp. From £37,589 for the Boxster and £45,384 for the S model.