Pontiac SolsticeClick to enlarge picture

The Pontiac Solstice is one of several newer, eye-catching convertibles on the market. Starting price for the 2-seat Solstice is less than $21,000.

The resurgence means new convertible models—notably the Pontiac Solstice and G6 Convertible, Saturn Sky and Volkswagen Eos—are in showrooms.

There are more power-operated hardtop convertibles than ever before, too. Eight, to be exact. These cars offer the combination of open-air travel plus the security and interior sound insulation of a regular car.

Photo Gallery: This Year's Convertibles

Better yet, the latest hardtops are priced much lower than traditional hardtop convertibles that were, until recently, found only in luxury dealerships.

Indeed, the first-ever Mazda MX-5 Miata with a power-operating hardtop debuts for 2007 with a starting retail price of less than $25,000.

In addition, with starting prices under $30,000, the VW Eos and Pontiac G6 convertibles with hardtops are priced only $850 to $1,380, respectively, more than the starting price for a 2007 Toyota Camry Solara Convertible with a fabric top.

Convertibles In All Prices, Sizes
The 2-door MINI Cooper Convertible is the smallest convertible, measured from bumper to bumper. It's just 12 feet long. Still, it has seats for four—snug seats, to be sure.

But the 4-passenger, 5-door, retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser is the convertible with the smallest starting price tag. It's just under $20,000 for a base model with fabric top, 150-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine and manual transmission.

Other low-priced convertibles—all with fabric tops—include the Pontiac Solstice roadster, Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster and 4-seat Volkswagen New Beetle.

At the other end of the price spectrum are the luxury and sporty convertibles, including the two-seat Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG, which runs into the $185,000 range, and exotic, two-seaters from the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini, costs even more.

Choices Abound
The convertible segment includes mostly cars. But there is one open-top sport-utility vehicle—the Jeep Wrangler, which was redesigned for 2007.

The 2-door Wrangler has seats for up to four people and includes more than 8 inches of ground clearance for off-road duties.

The Wrangler's soft-top folds up and is strapped to bars above riders' heads. Or, there's a modular, three-piece hardtop that has removable panels at the left- and right-front passenger areas and at the rear. The Wrangler is powered by a 205-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 and is available with manual and automatic transmissions.

Some of today's convertibles, such as the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, have manually operating fabric tops. In these cars, all the operation of lowering the top—from unlatching the roof at the top of the windshield to putting a cover over the folded-down roof—is manual.

Many other convertibles require drivers only to manually release latches at the top of the windshield and then press a button for automatic power-lowering of the top. Examples: The Chrysler Crossfire and Ford Mustang convertibles. In order to put the top back up, the process is merely reversed—by the push of a button, the top goes back and up and riders reattach the top to the top of the windshield.

Then there are the convertibles with entirely power-operated tops. A driver doesn't do anything but push a button and everything works automatically. The soft-top Nissan 350Z features a power-operated top that retracts in just 20 seconds. Cadillac's XLR hardtop is fully automatic, too, with a top-down time of less than 30 seconds.

The soft-top on the Jaguar XK convertible also is fully automatic, right down to the aluminum tonneau cover that latches down over the folded fabric roof, for the first time since the car debuted in the 1990s. Total time for lowering the roof is less than 18 seconds.

This second-generation XK also is lighter than its predecessor, thanks to aluminum construction. And with 300 horses coming from the 4.2-liter AJ-V8 under the hood, the 2007 XK Convertible reaches 60 miles an hour in just 6 seconds, 0.3 second faster than earlier XK Convertibles.

Safety Story
Today's open-top vehicles incorporate a substantial number of safety features. All models, of course, have federally mandated safety belts and frontal airbags. And convertibles incorporate the same kind of safety items—frontal crush zones and side-impact beams—that are found in other cars.

Some convertibles also use automatically deploying roll bars designed to protect occupants during rollover crashes. For example, the Mercedes SL-Class and CLK feature rollover bars that automatically deploy in as little as a third of a second. Working with the windshield supports, these bars provide support if a car flips during a rollover crash. Deployable roll bars are in the Volvo C70, too, despite the fact this is a hardtop convertible. Volvo engineers say the roll bars behind the C70's rear seats work when the roof is down as well as when the hardtop is on the car.

In addition, the C70 was the first convertible with curtain airbags. Typical convertibles don't have curtain airbags for head protection in side and rollover crashes, because the bags usually deploy downward from a fixed car roof. In the C70, Volvo officials became the first to install curtain airbags in the insides of the doors and engineered the bags to deploy upward.

Mercedes took a different approach. The Mercedes SLK comes with side airbags that deploy and inflate to a size large enough to provide protection for both head and thorax, according to Mercedes. They just don't have a curtain design, but they perform the same function. The SLK also has knee airbags to help keep the driver and passenger properly positioned during a frontal collision.

Other safety features that can be found on many convertibles are anti-lock brakes, electronic brake distribution, electronic stability control and tire-pressure monitors.

About That Space Inside …
Making a decision about which convertible to buy often involves figuring out what passes for "enough room" for passengers and cargo. There are no big convertibles, except for the nearly 16-foot-long Bentley Continental GTC that is priced in six figures.

So convertible shoppers tend to examine every nook and cranny carefully. For example, a shopper checking out the MINI Cooper Convertible will find that the rear seats fold down, expanding the 5.8 cubic feet of cargo space that's in the trunk. Also note that the MINI convertible's trunk is accessed through a pull-down tailgate. And when down, the tailgate can safely hold up to 176 pounds of weight.

Meantime, the Pontiac Solstice and its mechanical twin, the Saturn Sky, both have odd-shaped "trunk" room, if you can call it that. With the top up, the maximum room for storage at the back of the cars is 3.8 cubic feet, and it's under the rear clamshell tonneau cover. But note that this shallow space is arranged around the fuel tank behind the seats and can't accommodate hard-sided items like briefcases and camera bags. And when the fabric roof comes down, virtually all the space at the back is gone.

Toyota's Camry Solara is one of the larger convertibles with 4-passenger seating that includes a respectable 35 inches of rear-seat legroom. Trunk space is as much as 13.8 cubic feet, which is comparable to what's found in some regular sedans.

Another 4-passenger, open-top car is Chrysler's Sebring convertible which also seats four people and has more than 11 cubic feet of trunk space, while the Pontiac G6 open-top car has 34.2 inches of rear-seat legroom and 12.6 cubic feet of trunk room when the top is on.

Engines, Transmissions Aplenty
Convertible shoppers find an extensive choice of power plants.

The Honda S2000, for example, has just a 2.2-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine, but it generates a 6-cylinder-like 237 horsepower. Meantime, Porsche's Boxster has a mid-engine design, with the top engine being a 280-horsepower 3.2-liter flat 6-cylinder engine.

Audi's TT has a base engine that's turbocharged. The TT's uplevel 1.8-liter turbocharged 4 cylinder puts out 225 horses. Meantime, BMW 3-Series and Z4 models come with 6-cylinder power plants that offer a minimum 184 horsepower.

Moving up the engine ladder, V8 power is available in several convertibles, too, including the BMW 645Ci, Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR.

If these models don't offer enough power, the Dodge Viper features a real retractable convertible top and a 500-horsepower V10 engine. Then there's the 552-horsepower Bentley Continental GTC with a 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged W12 power plant. With torque of 479 lb-ft available above idle, it's arguably the fastest 4-seat convertible in the world. Not to be outdone, Mercedes' ultimate SL-Class—the SL65 AMG—uses a V12 to produce 604 horses and a whopping 738 lb-ft of torque as low as 2000 rpm.

Venerable Nameplates
At least four nameplates that continue to sell convertible models are well-known names and a part of American pop culture.

The Chevrolet Corvette, which dates to the 1950s, has been in many popular songs and Hollywood productions.

The Ford Mustang dates to the mid-1960s as a "pony car" during an early era of horsepower wars. For 2007, there's a new Mustang convertible—the 500-horsepower, limited edition Shelby GT500.

And the VW New Beetle harkens back to the '60s and '70s when the original Beetle small car was popular. In addition, the Jeep Wrangler name goes back to 1987.

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