Image: Nissan’s Murano CrossCabriolet
MikeDitz  /  Nissan
Nissan’s Murano CrossCabriolet, derived from the original 5-door SUV, is one of the more unusual entries into the convertible market this year — a segment that is starting to show signs of life.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 4/13/2011 10:04:15 AM ET 2011-04-13T14:04:15

Warm sunshine delivers a much-needed respite after a long, gray winter, and there’s no sensation more thrilling to many drivers than toggling a switch on a vehicle console and setting a chain of events into motion.

With a whir and a series of clicks and thumps the top of the new Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet lifts up, folds like canvas origami and tucks itself neatly away.

The CC, as it’s more commonly known, is one of the latest — and one of the more unusual — entries into the convertible market this year. It’s a segment that has seen some surprising innovations in recent years.

That may be critical to maintain demand, industry analysts say. There was a time when the convertible was one of the dominant automotive body styles, but in recent decades it has become little more than a minor niche. Some forecast a revival, but others warn that as fuel economy becomes ever more critical, many motorists will have to abandon the idea of driving “al fresco.”

Nissan’s CrossCabriolet has generated a fair bit of controversy. Some have called it a stroke of genius, while others are wondering whether it’s the answer to a question nobody has asked.

The original Murano five-door broke with tradition. Instead of trying to make the Murano look like a conventional SUV, Nissan opted for a decidedly curvaceous exterior. The CC gets a canvas top — indeed, it has the largest convertible roof on the market.

“We think there’s a small but viable market for a convertible like the CrossCabriolet,” especially in sun-challenged segments of the country like the Northeast, said Mike Drongowski, Nissan’s senior product planning manager.

Innovations like the hardtop convertible also have been aimed at building demand in regions where convertible sales traditionally have lagged behind the Sunbelt States. A hardtop design offers several advantages. Vehicles are quieter when a top is up and offer more protection against break-ins, among other things.

Demand for models like the BMW 3-Series and Infiniti G hardtop convertibles has generally exceeded expectations, but the hefty cost and extra space required to store a folding metal roof has convinced many carmakers to stay with traditional canvas designs instead.

The number of convertibles on the market has risen modestly in recent years, with new offerings like the Murano CrossCabriolet and the upcoming Fiat 500 convertible, among others, hitting showrooms.

Still, the recent growth in the number of convertible offerings is a far cry from the 1950s and '60s when a convertible option was the norm and nearly as common as coupe and wagon body styles.

Indeed, the ragtop nearly vanished by the late 1970s, in part due to tightened federal safety regulations for cars. But it wasn’t safety that nearly killed the convertible, notes automotive historian Jim Wren.

Instead, the culprit was poor sales.

The near-fatal blow to convertibles, Wren contends, came in the form of the interstate highway. After the establishment of the interstate network Americans began to drive faster, and as a result convertibles were no longer comfortable rides.

What’s more, by 1972 three-quarters of all cars sold in the U.S. came with factory air conditioning, rendering convertibles less desirable.

But it proved harder to keep the ragtop down, so to speak, than anyone might have imagined. Starting in the mid-1980s a few convertible offerings — starting with the Chrysler LeBaron — made a comeback.

Today, the ragtop redux is a small segment of the automotive market. Indeed, North American sales of convertibles peaked at just 247,519 units or 1.5 percent of total vehicle sales in 2005, according to research firm IHS, plunging to just 112,914 or 1 percent of sales in 2009.

The sharp decline outpaced the overall slump in the American new car market, with cash-strapped motorists resisting the added cost of purchasing a convertible option. Ford, for example, saw sales of its convertibles slip from nearly a quarter of Mustang sales in the mid-1990s to barely 13 percent of Mustang sales in the first quarter of 2011.

But now that the U.S. car market and the economy have started to recover there are signs of life in the struggling convertibles segment.

U.S. sales of convertibles rose more than 9 percent to 122,949 units last year, according to IHS, and the research firm forecasts demand for convertibles could nearly double to 223,224 by 2015 — a pace of growth that would outstrip the overall automotive recovery.

Or perhaps not, warns IHS analyst Aaron Bragman.

“The problem [with driving a convertible] is that when you have the top down, fuel economy drops,” he said. “That could become more critical as mileage becomes more important” to the average American motorist, Bragman added.

There’s no easy way to overcome the added aerodynamic drag of having the top down, Bragman said. It’s “why you don’t see any hybrid convertibles” and likely won’t see any battery-electric vehicles with convertible tops, he added.

But even with gasoline at $4 a gallon, the lure of the open air continues to beckon some. And car manufacturers will likely spotlight innovations like the hardtop convertible, which can improve aerodynamics when the top is up.

So while the convertible will never rebuild the demand it had in decades past, few expect it to vanish entirely.

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Explainer: What’s old is new again: Muscle is back

  • GM  /  Wieck

    What’s old is new again.

    The year 1969 seems to be in the air in Detroit these days, as crosstown rivals Ford and Chevrolet have revived respected high-performance versions of their popular pony cars that originally debuted the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

    There are other revival cars out there too, though they may have been here for a couple years already.

    Here’s a look at the old and new versions of Detroit’s well-loved muscle cars.

  • OLD: 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302


    In the late 1960s Ford sought to shore up the Mustang against its rivals in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan racing series, known as Trans-Am. The result was the Boss 302, a model sold in 1969 and 1970 for the sole purpose of bringing a high-powered, sharp-handling Mustang to showrooms that could win on the racetrack. Stiff springs, adjustable shocks, fatter tires and a high-revving engine delivered the goods. Ford sold 8,641 Boss 302 Mustangs during the two years it was produced, making it one of the most collectable versions of the car. Advertised horsepower was 290 hp, with the 302 cubic inch (5.0-liter in modern terminology) backed by a four-speed manual transmission.

  • NEW: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Today’s Boss 302 was built with a new mission: defeat the fearsome BMW M3 on the racetrack. Ford execs vowed to approve the project only if the resulting Mustang could lap circuits like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca faster than the Bavarian rival.

    As they had 42 years earlier, Ford engineers braced the chassis, stiffened the springs and reworked the engine to rev faster than ever. The new 302 V8 is rated at 444 hp. And again the result is a stunningly fast car considering some of the proletarian underpinnings, such as the solid rear axle.

    A test driver for Motor Trend magazine posted a Laguna Seca lap time in the car that was a slim 0.01 seconds slower than that of the exotic Audi R8 V10 by rival Road & Track magazine. The Boss is faster than the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 4.2 (the V8 version of the car), Chevrolet Corvette Z06, BMW M3 and Porsche Cayman S.

  • OLD: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1


    Ford wasn’t the only one with a track-centric pony car that debuted in 1969. Chevrolet rolled out the Camaro ZL1 the same year.

    This car was more the result of ingenuity than planned intent. Unlike the Boss, the ZL1 wasn’t designed by anyone to do anything. Instead, it was the result of a creative Illinois Chevrolet dealer who ordered 50 Camaros equipped with the company’s aluminum block 427 cubic-inch racing engine code-named ZL1.

    A few other dealers caught on to the idea and 69 of the cars were built with then engine which was officially rated at 430 horsepower, but which was tested to produce more than 500 hp.

    The $4,200 racing engine doubled the price of the Camaro, so they weren’t terribly popular with regular customers, but drag racers appreciated the car’s ability to rocket down the strip in just 11 seconds.

  • NEW: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM  /  Wieck

    The new Camaro ZL1 will hit showrooms early next year, and like the new Boss 302, it packs even more power than the original, even taking the fudge factor on the old car’s rating into account.

    The 2012 Camaro ZL1 uses a supercharger to produce at least 550 hp (the official number hasn’t been finalized yet). The 6.2-liter V8 and six-speed manual transmission are similar to those seen on the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V, and the adjustable magnetic ride shock absorber technology also carries over from the Corvette.

    The result is the most technologically advanced Camaro ever, and while the company hasn’t announced a specific performance target, it is safe to assume that Chevy’s engineering team would very much like to unseat the Boss 302’s lap times at the track.

  • OLD: 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06


    In the early 1960s, American car makers had agreed not to officially back racing with “factory” teams. But the companies had customers who still wanted to race their cars, and so they wanted for those teams to win.

    Sports car racing teams wanted the fastest possible Corvette to challenge Ferrari and Carroll Sheby’s Cobras, and Chevrolet obliged by offering Regular Production Option code Z06 for the Corvette. Checking that option on the ‘Vette’s order sheet caused the factory to install a 360-hp 327 cubic-inch V8, M21 four-speed manual transmission, stiffer springs, shocks and swaybars, racing-grade drum brakes (the Corvette didn’t yet have disc brakes), aluminum wheels and a huge 36.5-gallon gas tank for endurance races.

    At $5,975, Chevy found just 199 customers for the Z06 in 1963.

  • NEW: 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM  /  Wieck

    By 2001, Chevrolet was ready to roll out a higher-performing version of the Corvette to defend the car’s reputation against the Dodge Viper, which had claimed the performance high ground. The company reached into its archives and dusted off the Z06 moniker. That meant the usual steps of installing a more powerful engine and stiffening the suspension to upgrade track performance, while leaving the base model with its softer springs and available automatic transmission for the boulevard cruisers.

    Today Chevrolet still offers the Corvette Z06, though its position as the pinnacle of Corvette performance has since been superseded by the supercharged Corvette ZR1. So the 2011 Z06 is the top-performing normally aspirated Corvette model, with a 427 cubic-inch V8 (7.0-liters) cranking out 505 hp, propelling the car to a top speed of 198 mph. Widespread use of lightweight carbon fiber and magnesium whittles the Z06’s mass to 3,175 lbs. a total that is unheard-of among today’s crop of porky performance models. If that’s not enough, an available performance package brings the wheels, tires, shocks and brakes from the ZR1 for maximum handling and braking.

  • OLD: 1968 Dodge Charger R/T


    Dodge debuted the fastback-styled intermediate-sized Charger in 1966, using a design originally planned for Chrysler’s turbine car, which did not reach production. But a refreshed design in 1968 tripled Charger sales, and along with the new sheetmetal came a new high-performance option, the R/T, which stood for Road/Track.

    The R/T’s base engine was the 375-hp 440 Magnum, but the optional 425-hp 426 Hemi with two four-barrel carburetors was the legendary pinnacle of the line, with a top speed of 156 mph, according to a test of the car by Car and Driver magazine.

    With modest changes the following year, the 1969 Charger gained later fame in garish citric paint as the street-going racecar “General Lee” on the popular weekly 1980s television drama “The Dukes of Hazard.”

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T

    OWEN  /  Dodge

    To the widespread dismay of enthusiasts, when the Dodge Charger returned to the company’s lineup, it was not as a swoopy coupe, but as a pug-faced four-door sedan. Dodge assuaged the ruffled feathers with an R/T model meant to confirm the Charger’s faithfulness to the original in terms of performance, if not appearance.

    For 2011 the Charger R/T is powered by a 370-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that, in a nod to modern realities, switches to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all those horses aren’t needed. Another modern reality is customer disinterest in manual transmissions, so in a divergence from the original as shocking as the new car’s blocky styling, there is no manual transmission available.

    But there is all-wheel-drive, giving snow-plagued drivers their first realistic opportunity to own a normally rear-drive American muscle car as a year-round daily driver. And for those who feel today’s R/T is lacking in power compared to the original, there is always the 425-hp 6.1-liter SRT8 version.

  • OLD: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T


    The midsized Charger was a good muscle car, but was too big to be a natural competitor to Ford and Chevy’s Mustang and Camaro “pony” cars, so in 1970 Dodge launched the smaller Challenger to take them on. As with the Charger, an R/T high-performance model led the way.

    In addition to the Charger R/T’s two engines the 1970 Challenger added a third option: a 390-hp version of the 440 Magnum engine topped by three two-barrel carburetors in place of the single four-barrel on the 375-hp engine.

    The Challenger survived in this form only until 1974, but its legend was strong enough to spawn a new Challenger modeled after the original in 2008.

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Bill Delaney  /  Dodge

    The 2011 Challenger R/T is a stirring tribute to the original car, mimicking its styling cues. Gearheads will appreciate that Dodge stuck to the original’s attitude in making a six-speed manual transmission available to go with the 376-hp 6.2-liter Hemi V8 engine, though there is also an automatic transmission available.

    Even with the ability to rocket to 60 mph from a standstill in less than six seconds, the Hemi-powered Challenger scores 25 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test thanks to cylinder deactivation technology that lets it cruise on four cylinders.

    But if passing competitors is more important than passing gas pumps, a new top-of-the-line Challenger SRT8 392 Hemi edition offers a stunning 470 hp that brings 60 mph on the speedometer in less than five seconds.

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