Image: Ferrari California
David McNew / Getty Images
The Ferrari California convertible was unveiled in Paris but made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/26/2008 3:25:56 PM ET 2008-11-26T20:25:56

Yes, the automotive business is in the midst of its industrial version of one of those frontal crash tests we see on television, and yes, Los Angeles is the epicenter of the automotive ecological responsibility movement.

But Southern California is also the legendary font of American postwar hot-rodding, and its sunny climes make sporty convertibles more popular here than perhaps anywhere in the world outside the Miami airport rental car lot. And carmakers know that the exciting, sporty cars that get customers’ motors’ running are more profitable than drab transportation modules.

That’s why carmakers flock to the annual Los Angeles auto show to tout their high-performance sports cars — even in these troubled times. Consider this year’s roster of drop-top world debuts: Bentley Azure T, Ferrari Scuderia Spider 16M, Infiniti G37 and Lamborghini Gallardo LP-560. Plus the Ferrari California convertible, unveiled at the Paris show but debuting in America in its namesake state.

Fun cars don’t necessarily have to wear a monokini to thrill, so there are also a smattering of non-topless sportsters revealed at this year’s show, such as the restyled Ford Mustang and Nissan 370Z, each of which draws additional inspiration from their classic original incarnations.

These new convertibles are all open-roof versions of already lusted-after vehicles. The Ferrari Scuderia is already a blindingly fast missile whose roughly quarter-million-dollar price is largely irrelevant because if you are eligible to purchase one of the 499 convertibles that will be built, you already know it. 

Ferrari promises that it is the fastest convertible car it has ever built, in case the Scueria’s styling, sound and brand image weren’t enough to make you envious of the fortunate few buyers who will be able to park one in their garage. The “16M” in the name refers to the company’s just-won 16th Formula One constructors championship, not to the 16 gigabytes of memory in the Ferrari-badged Apple iPod Touch that is built into the car.

The Bentley Azure T boasts a more powerful 500-horsepower turbocharged V-8 engine that boosts the car’s top speed to 179 mph. But know this: Driving it that fast is likely to blow your hat off, so it may be difficult to use all of that potential without sunburning your head.

If that’s not fast enough for you and you aren’t on the Ferrari guest list, relax, you can still order a folding-roof Lamborghini Gallardo LP-560. The number in its name refers to the 560 horsepower of its V-10 engine, which propels the switchblade-sharp Lambo through the air at up to 201 mph. And it has all-wheel-drive for those winter drives to the ski chalet.

If the global economic meltdown has put these European lovelies momentarily out of your league, cast an eye on the comely Infiniti G37 convertible. Sleeker and more powerful than ever, with 325 horsepower from its V-6, the G coupe now features a folding hardtop roof for a combination of security and exhilaration, as needed.

In addition to the choice between hard roof and no roof, the G37 can be skewed toward sport or luxury, depending on your predilections. Transmissions are a seven-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. Luxury touches like adaptive headlights (the kind that steer into the turn) and intelligent cruise control that uses radar to maintain the gap to the car ahead, vie with sport options like monster brakes and 19-inch wheels with track-ready tires.

The G37 has a pretty cousin over at the Nissan stand, the new 370Z. While the Z-car arrives first as a closed coupe, fear not, it will shed its top in due time, with a convertible option slated to arrive in the 2010 model year. The new car is lighter and tauter than the 350Z it replaces, with a particular trimming of the car’s tail, giving the Z a rear end that harkens back to its much younger self of 1970 — an accomplishment others would no doubt like to emulate.

Al Castanets, vice president of sales for Nissan, accurately identifies the new style as “respectful but not retro,” as it evokes the original Z-car without aping it. The V-6 engine muscles up to 332 horsepower — a 10 percent increase — while boosting fuel economy by one mile per gallon. This is thanks to a weight loss program that slimmed the Z down by an astounding 225 pounds.

Ford’s Mustang has a few years on the Z-car (which went by its maiden name of Datsun back when the 240Z arrived in 1970), but as with the new Nissan, the fast Ford aims to portray a fresh version of its original self.

The 2010 Mustang carries the signature “hockey stick” crease along the sides first seen in the ’64½ model (as they called it that back then, when new models didn’t arrive in the fall as God intended). It also has sequential rear turn signals that flash in series from the inside to the outside of the car when turning, though these are borrowed from the Thunderbird of that era, or the Mercury Cougar, if you prefer, not the Mustang.

As is expected, the 'Stang’s V-8 engine is more powerful with 315 horsepower, up from 300. The suspension is revised for improved ride and more precise handling. The body sculpting includes the addition of a front splitter that blocks air from getting under the car for reduced aerodynamic drag and less lift at high speeds for improved stability.

As with the Z-car, naturally, a convertible Mustang will follow this hardtop, so stock up on sunscreen and bide your time if that’s what you really want.

But if this celebration of wind in the hair and internal combustion seems a bit anachronistic in these anxious times, automakers are also thinking the days of such cars are numbered. That doesn’t necessarily mean an end to sexy lines and sporty handling.

Honda exhibited the FC Sport Design Study, a compact two-seat coupe that evokes the company’s popular CRX runabout of the 1980s. But this future sports car is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that emits only water vapor for its exertion, no pollution.

The FC Sport Design Study is only the beginning of socially responsible sports cars, and one day we will surely marvel at the stunning performance provided by similarly powered machines.

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