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Car Corner
Why we Love/Hate Convertibles

March 2, 2014
By Scott Lewis

In March, here is South Central Texas the weather gets very nice. Sunny days in the low to mid 80s. Perfect weather to put the top down on a convertible. You Northerners will probably have to wait another month or two before dropping the tops on a regular bases.

Granted, you Northerners probably won't have to deal with weeks of weather over 100 degrees that keep the top up and the A/C on for most of the summer. 

April here will start to get hot. Days will go over 90 degrees here and there, but there is usually still a little bit of Spring left. By May it is HOT. You can expect it to be over 90 degrees any day the sun is shining, and it will start to go over 100 a few times. June - September is too hot for convertibles.

Yet we love convertibles. Even with this short window of time that it is a true pleasure to drive them. About a month and a half of really nice weather for top down motoring.

Oh sure, in May you could go out to a late dinner with the top down, but if you were going out to a late dinner... with a woman... she most likely doesn't want her hair too messed up. A commute (45 minutes in my case) home at 5:00 PM in May done with the top down leaves you with the back of your shirt drenched with sweat. Forget June - September, it is just too hot for anything more than an early morning drive, or very short drives.

So why do we have such a love affair with the convertible?

Let's look at it from a practical standpoint. Convertibles are heavier than their coupe counterparts. This may seem odd initially, I mean a cloth top should weigh less than a metal roof. Ah, but the manufacturer has to add extra structural integrity to the chassis and body to handle lopping of the top. For an example try this. Take an empty shoe box. Hold it at either end and twist it. Notice how much resistance there is. Now take the top off and twist it again. Big difference.

Even with the extra weight that gets added to stiffen a convertible it is still not a sound as a coupe. This leads to a decrease in handling capability... after adding weight which decreased handling. Extra weight also means the car is slower, takes longer to brake, and gets worse mileage. And those soft tops are not as aerodynamic either, causing another double penalty for mileage. And the big kicker... convertibles (soft top ones) are much less secure than a car with a solid roof. One switch-blade is all it takes to break into a convertible.

Let us not forget.. we pay extra for all these deficiencies.

Most convertibles are sporty cars (or outright sports cars). Top down and windows down, puts your head at about the same height and the exhaust pipe on some SUVs. So expect exhaust smell to be present... and on the highway you have big trucks adding to the smell and noise. In fact, in a convertible you will be second guessing if some of those weird smells are coming from your own car.

There is no practical reason for a convertible. So why do we love them so much?

Most convertible owners fall into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. They have another car... so they are not relying on a convertible every day. This means they have the luxury of driving their car top down only when the weather is just right. And they probably put more miles on it top down, relative to miles spent top up than anyone else.
  2. It is their primary transportation and it rarely gets driven with the top down.
  3. It is your primary transportation and you "convince yourself" that putting the top down more often is worth doing even if you are cold, or hot & sweaty, or your hair is messed up.

Group 2 above is the most common. When I drove a convertible for daily transportation (more below) I counted the number of convertibles I saw on the road with the top up vs. top down. It was always a landslide, far more cars with the top up. I think I only saw 1 or 2 days in a year where the tops down outnumbered the tops up. What a shame. Yet these people paid more for a convertible, get less performance, worse gas mileage, etc., etc. and use it for what they paid extra for rarely.

Back in 2006/2007 I had a Mini Cooper Convertible and I made a point to drive with the top down as much as possible. So that put me in the 3rd group above. I forced myself to enjoy the top down motoring even at a cost to comfort, and laundry for cleaning all those sweaty shirts.

Why do we do it? Why do we love convertibles? They are impractical. You can't use them for what they were designed for all that much.

I can tell you this... one sunny, Sunday drive with the top down and not a care in the world will be enough to convince a lot of people they want a convertible. The convertible is the car that says freedom more than any other. Freedom on the open road is a wonderful thing. When it happens.

Convertibles account for just slightly less than 2% of car sales. Cars with manual transmissions is about double that in the 4% range. Here is one I suspect the underdog will win. I suspect we will always have some choice for a top down vehicle. But the manual transmission is almost certainly to go away soon. But that is for another article.

Conclusion

The joys of driving free on a curvy road with the sun in your face, and the wind in your hair. Oh the sweet life with a convertible.

Or...

The pains of driving a rattle filled car with wind noise with the top up, noise filling your ears so you can't hear the radio, and smells that make you wonder what you were thinking.

Yes, we have a love/hate relationship with the converible.

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