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updated 4/4/2008 10:18:38 AM ET 2008-04-04T14:18:38

Improvements in folding tops and other technology make convertibles much better suited to year-round driving than in the past. You now have fewer excuses not to buy one.

Based on our test drives of the latest convertibles, it’s obvious that automakers have invested time and effort in improving retractable tops, whether they’re the traditional fabric kind or the newfangled multi-sectioned metal variety. Most of them now raise and lower at the touch of a button, usually in about 30 seconds or less.

Convertible tops are also much better at sealing out sound and weather than before so that when they’re up, the experience is almost like driving a regular car — no more leaks, with far fewer creaks and rattles.

Safety has also improved, with the addition of side airbags that deploy from the window line to create a protective cocoon in a collision or rollover.

The latest crop of new and significantly revamped convertibles highlighted in our list of Hottest Convertibles of 2008 brings even more refinement, performance, and comfort. Click on the “slide show” link below to see the full list.

“There certainly are a lot of interesting choices out there, even if the market isn’t particularly growing,” says David Wurster, president of Vincentric, a market research firm based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Sales of convertibles held steady in 2007 at 324,000 units, according to R.L. Polk and Company based in Southfield, Mich. “The demand in the overall segment is pretty flat — it's still a niche market," says Lonnie Miller, R.L. Polk's director of industry analysis.

As is typical in the automotive market, newer models like the Saturn Sky and Volkswagen Eos have sold well over the past year, while convertibles that haven’t been refreshed in a while, like the Honda S2000, Lexus SC 430, and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class, saw annual sales slide by nearly a third in 2007, according to CNW Marketing Research.

Many of the new convertibles this year fall into the high-performance category. Except for the all-American, 600-horsepower Dodge Viper SRT10, the hot performers are from German automakers. The most notable ones include the Audi RS 4 Cabriolet, BMW M3 Convertible, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster, and Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet.

At the top end of the price spectrum is the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, a handcrafted ultra-luxury convertible that seats four and costs more than $300,000. At the other end is the smallest and least expensive convertible on the market, the $16,590 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet.

Analysts expect more convertibles with folding hard tops to hit the market in coming years. “Hardtop convertibles are popular in Europe, where traditional soft-tops are often vandalized,” says Francois Gravigny, an advisor with R.L. Polk.

“There are fewer compromises to be made when you buy a hard-top convertible and that gets it onto the wish lists of a lot of people,” says Vincentric's Wurster. “If you live in the Midwest like I do, that actually makes a convertible a practical car.”

However, hard-top convertibles are often less practical when it comes to trunk space because the bulky folding mechanisms take up more space than a traditional fabric top.

One of the first convertibles with a retractable hard top was the 1957 Ford Skyliner, whose massive trunk could swallow the entire top in one piece. It wasn’t until 1997, when Mercedes-Benz introduced the SLK-Class with its revolutionary two-piece top, that rigid, retractable roofs really emerged. Now there are nearly a dozen to choose from, including the BMW 3 Series, Cadillac XLR, Chrysler Sebring Convertible, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes SL-Class (in addition to the SLK-Class), Pontiac G6 Convertible, Volkswagen Eos, and Volvo C70.

Notable features abound: The BMW 3 Series and Chrysler Sebring Convertible’s roofs can lower remotely using the key fob, while the VW Eos’ three-piece folding top incorporates a glass sunroof.

Something to keep in mind when considering a convertible is that the novelty of owning one may soon wear off. More than half of convertible owners (53 percent) surveyed by CNW Marketing Research said they drove their droptops “regularly” during the first month of ownership. But interest peaked in the fourth month of ownership, with 60.4 percent driving them regularly, and then plummeted to 21.5 percent by the end of the first year.

After two years, just 17.2 percent of owners surveyed by CNW Marketing Research still drove their convertibles regularly.

Fortunately for fickle owners, convertibles hold their value well over time, says Vincentric’s Wurster. Their high resale values add a dash of logic to an otherwise emotional purchase.

“It’s a limited-supply thing — they don’t build a lot of convertibles, so you don’t really have a lot of choices in the used market relative to sedans” Wurster says.

See what new choices you'll have this year in our list of the hottest convertibles of 2008 (see “slide show” link above). The lineup includes all convertibles that are either new or significantly updated for the 2008 model year, plus any 2009 models set to go on sale during the current calendar year.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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