The advertising industry loves puns about convertibles. The Ford Escort last summer was 'Mean and roofless'; 'Peugeot's sun and air' is the come-on for the new 306 Cabriolet. One motoring magazine was more direct about the 306, describing it as 'sexier than a sackful of E-types'.

That is going a bit far, but Pininfarina, the design company responsible for all but a few of the most beautiful Ferraris, has done a very good job of transforming the 306 from a run-of-the-mill hatchback into a chic, well-proportioned convertible.

Styling is an important part of even the most mundane car's appeal. Good looks become essential when you market convertibles, because they are nothing if not fashion statements for extroverts.

It is no longer necessary to point out that most modern hoods can be used without a great deal of strength, ingenuity and patience. Opening and closing the Peugeot involves nothing more complicated than unlatching two catches (one on each side of the steeply raked windscreen), easing the leading edge of the hood up a few inches, then pressing a button and letting electric motors do the job in about 25 seconds. The roof vanishes beneath a flush-fitting metal cover, rather than being stacked above the boot and shrouded in a flexible cover with numerous fasteners. The operation makes this pounds 17,295 car's top more convenient and much neater than a pounds 166,680 Rolls-Royce Corniche's.

But the news it not all good. British weather being what it is, the 306 will cover most of its miles with the hood up. Heavy rain failed to penetrate the defences, but wind roar rose to a quite unacceptable level at motorway speeds, virtually obliterating conversation and the radio. The latest VW Golf Cabriolet is one of several reminders that sound effects worthy of the Roaring Forties are no longer necessarily part of the price to be paid for a convertible. The best are now almost as quiet as the saloons on which they are based.

How practical should this type of car be? The Peugeot seats four adults in comfort, with a caveat about backseat passengers not being too long in the leg. But the space needed to store the hood reduces the boot's capacity, although not as much as you might expect.

Talking of passengers, the steel added to keep the structure rigid without a metal roof makes the Cabriolet heavier by about the weight of one adult than the 306 hatchback. The extra weight lowers performance and raises fuel consumption; but it would be wrong to give the impression that this is other than a delightful car to drive. Sporty looks are complemented by a zippy engine, huge reserves of grip from the very low- profile Michelin Pilot 185/55 tyres, and wonderfully sharp, communicative steering, the excellence of which helps to account for the 306's exceptional agility.

This is just about the most expensive car in its class, although the price includes anti-lock brakes and a comprehensive security system with an alarm and an engine immobiliser. Convertibles tend to make tempting targets for vandals, but the Peugeot's group 13 insurance status gives it an advantage over most rivals in this respect.

Best of the bunch? Logic would give that award to the Golf, for reasons that include quality of hood and size of boot. But ragtops tend to be heart-before-head cars. On that basis, the Peugeot 306 gets my vote, for looking so good and being such fun to drive.


Ford Escort 1.8Si, pounds 15,995

Britain's best-selling ragtop cannot match the Peugeot's styling, but its straight-line performance is better. Price does not include power-operated roof or anti-lock brakes.

Renault 19 16V, pounds 15,900

Neat details earn high marks for appearance, complemented by the engine's 137bhp. Poor luggage space.

Rover 216, pounds 15,995

Looks not enhanced by the 'roll hoop' that helps to stiffen the body and can protect its occupants in an accident. A thoroughly competent car, but lacks character.

Volkswagen Golf 2.0 Avantage, pounds 16,899

Has practicality in its favour. Goes well and swallows much more luggage than many other convertibles.


Peugeot 306 Cabriolet, pounds 17,295

1,998cc four-cylinder engine, 123bhp at 5,750rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 116mph, 0-60mph in 10.6 seconds. Fuel consumption 27.5mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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