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Take your top off and raise the roof

Now is the perfect time to buy a used hatchback convertible. James Ruppert advises on what to look for and what to avoid
Sunshine or snow, convertibles have never been more fashionable. The trouble is, not everyone can afford them, or even wants a snarling sports car. What many buyers in search of open-topped excitement need is a used CDC, or car-derived convertible. All the comfort, convenience and low running costs associated with the family hatch are combined with a large dose of open-air adrenalin. Perfect.

Now is also just about the perfect time to buy a used convertible. Prices will harden significantly in late April as the temperature starts to rise. Chance upon on a soft-top for sale during an April shower and sellers might be open to offers, whereas during the summer they can name their price.

Essentially, these cars are hatchbacks with the roof removed. The only penalties are higher insurance costs, increased weight and slight flexing of the bodywork, called scuttle shake. For added safety, most are beefed up with roll-over protection and additional structural metalwork - hence the higher weight. However, that can take the edge off performance: a Golf GTi convertible is a trifle disappointing dynamically.

But convertibles can be just as much fun in their own way as the original hatch. The Peugeot 205 CTi is nimble; the Escort cabriolet and Vauxhall Astra convertible reliable and economical; and for sheer quality you cannot go wrong with a Rover 200, a relative newcomer but a solid and classy package.

Checking out a convertible is slightly more involved than appraising a standard hatchback. There are many stolen examples in circulation, so be careful who you buy from. As for the car itself, it is the hood which demands the most attention. Look for tears, leaks and vandal damage and make sure that electrical mechanisms operate smoothly. A hood costs a significant amount and gives a good indication as to how the vehicle has been cared for.

Because convertibles are mainly kept as second cars,there are many low- mileage examples. These, however, are not always ideal buys because they get ignored for half the year. Seized brake callipers, rusty brake discs and rough-running engines are the signs. A full service history is a must for buyers.

I braved the snowy elements and went search of a drop-top that would be easy to live with. At 1st GTi in Richmond, Surrey, there was almost a complete set of CDC soft tops. First to catch my eye was a 1991 cherry- red Peugeot 205 CTi. Priced at £6,999, it came with a novelty power roof that could provide hours of fun. The mileage was 46,000 and the overall appearance very clean. Nearby was a 1990 Ford Escort Cabriolet SE, also finished in red, with a couple of unique touches. This special edition had an electric roof that folded back to reveal half-leather interior. The mileage was low at 24,000, backed up by a full service history. It cost £5,499.

Apart from yet another red cabriolet, this time a 1988 Vauxhall Astra, the only other convertible to attract my attention was a Golf Cabriolet for £3,499. This was not just any old Golf, but a 1986 Coco Chanel special edition. That means the buyer gets all-white paintwork and a few of those famous CC logos dotted around the bodywork.

I fancied going a little more upmarket and SMC Rover in Slough, Berkshire, had about 10 216 cabriolets. The average price was £12,995, the registration plate letters were all Ls and the mileage around 8,000. All the specifications were similar, with metallic paint, alloys and alarm. I was spoilt for choice. Calling in at the Trade Centre in White City, west London, I found a cheaper, though older (1992) 216 with a power hood at £8,999; three Peugeot CTis which started at £5,399, and a couple of Renault 19s. These French models were good examples of a drop-top phenomenon whereby a dull hatchback is transformed into quite a stylish cabriolet. Asking prices were reasonable. The two Renault 19s were registered in 1992, had just under 30,000 miles on the clock and tipped the price scales at £8,800. The only significant choice between the models was whether the buyer preferred red or metallic green.

Anyone who wants an all-year round convertible should seriously consider a Saab. These cars are big, safe and oddly styled, but they are designed to cope with Scandinavian winters - with a heater to toast your toes. I saw only one Saab convertible, at the Wimbledon Carriage Company: a 1991 900i with low mileage for a reasonable £13,395.

Probably the most coveted of car-derived convertibles (before one enters the Mercedes-Porsche stratosphere) is the BMW 3 series. The so-called old shape "classic" models are well built, have smooth six-cylinder engines and command high prices. At Convent Motors in Ashford, Middlesex, I saw a 1987 325i in very tidy condition. Bright silver paintwork was contrasted with a smart black leather interior. It did not just look good, the all-important full service history accounted for its 65,000-mile life. Everything from mud flaps to a Kenwood stereo system was designed to make each journey comfy and as far removed from the original bone-shaking, wind-in-the-hair, open-top affair as it is possible to get.

The refined convertible experience, courtesy of this BMW, would cost £8,999. A test drive proved beyond doubt that there is an alternative to the traditional, open-top sports car.

1st GTi, High Park Road, Richmond, Surrey (0181-392 2005); SMC, 134 Bath Road, Slough (0753 574266); Trade Centre, 44-45 Hythe Road, White City, London NW10 (0181-969 5511); Convent Motors, 126 Feltham Hill Road, Ashford, Middlesex (0784 252005); Wimbledon Carriage Co, 64-74 Kingston Road, London SW19 (0181-540 9581)