2005 Mini Cooper ConvertibleClick to enlarge picture

The first 16 inches of the front of the top on the MINI Convertible can slide backward to leave a sunroof-like opening when passengers don't want a full top-down experience.

Many consumers think they have to compromise when they buy a convertible. The car will be unsafe without a roof or have a roof that leaks, they think. Or the car won't have much room for people or golf clubs and luggage. Or it won't get good gas mileage because of all the heavy reinforcing needed to give a convertible a rigid structure.

Relax. New technology, new attention to detail and new efforts are being made to address these and other drawbacks of open-top cars.

Trunk Space
Older convertibles always preserved space in the trunk for the fold-down top. This space was left empty if the top was up and filled only when the top was down.

Many of the newest convertibles, especially in the luxury category, employ different thinking. They provide storage well above the trunk for the top to sit in, and there's a divider between this well and the trunk. The divider is adjustable, so with the push of a lever, the well space can be added to the trunk area.

In this way, when the top is up, there is maximum trunk space. The Audi A4 Cabriolet, Lexus SC 430 and Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet are among the cars with this feature. With the top down, the CLK Cabrio has 5.4 cubic feet of space because the well is filled with the fabric top. With the top up, the car has 8.6 cubic feet of room because the trunk space is enlarged.

Some convertibles also have resorted to eliminating spare tires to preserve precious trunk space. For example, the BMW Z4, with up to 9.2 cubic feet of trunk space, and Chevrolet Corvette, with 13.9 cubic feet, come with durable run-flat tires that allow a driver to travel a significant distance even with a flat tire.

Hatchback Designs
Some convertible designs don't limit luggage and golf club space to the trunk alone. They include fold-down rear seats that expand the rear storage area.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible has this design, and then some. Seats in the PT Cruiser Convertible not only fold but they can tumble forward to create a number of cargo-carrying configurations. Thus, despite the car's relatively compact size, the PT Cruiser Convertible can accommodate two sets of golf bags.

How? The Cruiser convertible's rear seats are split 50-50. Each can fold flat or each can be folded and tumbled forward so long items can pass through from the car's trunk. The rear seat belt buckle anchors also tumble with the seats so the cargo area is kept clear. The tumbled-forward seats are secured in place by adjustable nylon web straps.

Result: The PT Cruiser Convertible has between 7.4 and 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, depending on the storage configuration in use. In a hardtop PT Cruiser, where the rear seats can be removed entirely for maximum cargo space, there's 64.2 cubic feet of luggage room.

The MINI Convertible also comes with fold-down rear seatbacks that expand the otherwise small cargo area at the back of the car. The MINI's seats don't tumble forward, but the rear entry to the cargo area is uniquely designed as a tailgate that lies flat, rather than lifts up like a traditional liftgate.

This MINI tailgate is designed to hold up to 176 pounds, so long items—properly flagged for safety—can protrude from the back of the car and rest on the tailgate during short travel stints. Just be sure to vent the passenger compartment for exhaust fumes.

Pickup Truck Storage
Chevrolet's novel convertible pickup truck, the SSR, provides another twist on the idea of storage space in an open-top vehicle.

This specialty truck, styled to look like pickups from the late '40s and early '50s, has two seats in the cab under a fully automatic retractable hardtop. Behind the cab is a 4-foot-long pickup bed covered by a hard tonneau cover. Cargo space is 23.7 cubic feet. The SSR is, in essence, a roadster and a pickup.

Best of all, the storage of the hardtop doesn't impact the pickup bed capacity at all. Why? The hardtop uses a "top stack" design where the roof panels move independently to "stack" vertically behind the passenger compartment.

In the SSR, the system operates via one button on the console, and in 25 seconds, the roof panels are neatly tucked rearward in waterfall fashion between the passenger compartment and pickup bed.

Note the SSR tailgate must be opened every time the tonneau is opened; otherwise, the tonneau won't close and latch into place.

Interior Room
There are convertibles on the market that can carry more than two passengers. And they don't just provide second-row seats that look like little perches.

Leaders for rear-seat legroom are the PT Cruiser Convertible, with 40.9 inches, the Toyota Camry Solara, with 35.4 inches, and the Chrysler Sebring Convertible, with 35.2 inches. Note that riders in the Cruiser convertible have an upright seating position, which contributes to the increased legroom because legs dangle downward, not just outward.

In rear-seat shoulder room, the Camry Solara, with 53.7 inches, and the BMW 645Ci Convertible, with 49.4 inches, are the best among the mainstream brands.

And in rear-seat headroom, the Sebring convertible, with 37 inches, and the 645Ci Convertible, with 36.7 inches, are tops.

Special Features
Providing a comfortable driving environment in a convertible requires some attention to detail and some innovative thinking.

For example, depending on how and where a navigation display screen is placed in the dashboard of a convertible, glare from the sun can prevent a driver from seeing the screen clearly when the top is down.

Lexus officials took care of this problem when they introduced their current-generation SC 430 in 2001. This roadster's nav system display screen can tilt 7 degrees up or down to reduce glare. When not being used, the screen and stereo and dashboard controls even can be protected by a discreet wood cover.

These are not the only special touches in the SC 430. The uplevel Mark Levinson audio system automatically adjusts when the roof is lowered to help compensate for open-air driving environment. It automatically returns to its original levels when the top is raised.

Even the climate control system in the SC 430 differentiates between top-up and top-down driving and adjusts accordingly.

Mercedes has a new feature designed to reduce the drafts that riders of convertibles can feel around their necks and heads on cool days when they travel with the top down. Called the Neckscarf, the system is in the head restraints of the 2005 SLK. It blows warm air on the driver and front passenger of the SLK.

Often, people sitting in the back seats of convertibles don't have any overhead lights. Map lights are only provided for front-seat riders. Now, Chrysler's PT Cruiser Convertible adds dome lamps for the back seat, too. The two recessed lamps are incorporated in the fixed "sport bar" that sits atop the body and between the front and rear seats.

Leaks are becoming less common in convertibles, thanks to more durable roof fabrics, multi-layer roofs and special self-sealing side windows. The latter is found on many luxury models and even the more affordably priced PT Cruiser Convertible. They operate by lowering just a fraction of an inch when door are opened. After the door is closed, the power windows go back up on their own to properly seal against the car's roof.

Safety Matters
It's true that open-top vehicles inherently can be less safe than regular hardtop models during some car crashes, such as rollovers. But new safety technology is being incorporated in convertibles to provide improved protection and crash avoidance.

For example, features such as traction control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist and electronic brake distribution can help drivers avoid a crash. Those features can be found on many of today's convertibles, including the Nissan 350Z, as standard equipment.

Other crash avoidance systems, such as skid control, are found standard on other convertibles, such as the Mercedes SL and optional on some convertibles such as the MINI.

Meantime, equipment that can reduce injuries and fatalities in the event of a crash also is found on today's convertibles. For example, the Mercedes SLK features side-mounted airbags that are large enough to provide both head and chest protection in the event of a side crash. The four-seat Mercedes CLK Cabrio includes side airbags for rear-seat passengers.

BMW's Z4 has standard knee airbags for driver and front passenger that help ensure passengers are in the proper seating position so the frontal airbags and seat belts work to maximum effect.

The Z4 also has fixed roll bars behind the seats that, along with the strong, durable windshield frame, help provide a "survival space" for passengers during a rollover. Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Z4 a top, five-star rollover rating.

Best Gas Mileage
Convertibles typically are heavier than their hardtop siblings, because so much reinforcement work is needed to give convertibles a rigid structure.

For example, the Chrysler Crossfire coupe has a curb weight of 3,060 with a manual transmission—the Crossfire Roadster weighs 3,140 pounds.

But careful engineering results in virtually no loss in the car's official fuel economy rating of 17 miles a gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, according to Chrysler. The Crossfire has just one engine—a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V6—that's in both the coupe and convertible.

Looking for something more fuel-thrifty? Many convertibles, including the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Saab 9-3 Convertible and Chrysler Sebring Convertible, have city/highway fuel economy ratings that average in the mid 20s.

A few are up near 30 mpg. The best open-top car for fuel economy in the 2004 model year is the Toyota MR2 Spyder with either 5- or 6-speed manual transmission, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Powered by a 138-horsepower 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, this two-seater is rated at 26 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.

The Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible is another top fuel-sipping open-top model with a fuel economy rating of 24 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway for a manual transmission model using premium gasoline.

The worst convertibles for gasoline mileage are the Maserati Spyder and Ferrari 360 Spider, each with high-performance eight-cylinder engines.

Ann Job is a writer for T&A Ink.

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