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The top 10 most practical convertibles

/ Source: Forbes Autos

Even an auto-industry expert can end up regretting a car purchase — particularly if that car is a convertible.

“I owned a convertible in the 1980s, and that’s probably the reason I will never buy another one. It was pretty primitive by comparison to today’s models,” says Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power and Associates in Westlake Village, Calif.

Convertibles of that era were notorious for their shakes, rattles, creaks and leaks. But things have changed a lot in the last 25 years.

For starters, the latest convertibles are just plain built better than their predecessors.

“The quality of convertibles has improved significantly in recent years, especially in terms of fit and finish, reduced noise, vibration and harshness, and the design and engineering of the convertible top,” Libby says.

Improved folding tops, advanced safety technology and solid substructures make some new convertibles nearly as comfortable and practical as "regular" cars.

With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of 10 models that present the fewest compromises to achieve top-down fun. We considered only models with useable rear seats and took into account interior space and layout, trunk size and how well the folding top works, among other factors. See the full list of most practical convertibles by clicking on the “slide show” link below.

The fabric tops on some new convertible models are so well insulated that they rival many solid-roof sedans and coupes in the way they keep out weather and noise.

Drive the Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Cabriolet with its multi-layer fabric top up, and then take a spin in the CLK-Class Coupe. You’ll be hard pressed to tell a difference in road and wind noise. Even with the top down, the CLK-Class Cabriolet’s interior is immune to serious wind noise and buffeting while cruising at 80 miles per hour — as long as the side windows are up.

But an excellent power-folding top isn’t the only reason the Mercedes CLK-Class made our list of the most practical convertibles. A rear seat large enough to accommodate average-sized adults in relative comfort for short to moderate-length trips and a trunk that swallows an impressive amount of stuff help make it more practical than other Mercedes models, like the two-seat SL-Class and SLK-Class.

The Audi A4 Cabriolet and Saab 9-3 Cabriolet are direct competitors to the CLK-Class and also made our list, thanks to their similarly spacious interiors and well-crafted fabric roofs.

But as good as those cars’ tops are, they pale in comparison to that of the priciest model on our list, which is “practical” only for those wealthy enough not to flinch at its $407,000 base price: The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe boasts a fabric roof with five separate layers of insulation and a cashmere lining.

This showboat’s archrival, the $320,000 Bentley Azure, has a similarly impressive top and a rear seat that is slightly more spacious. But the Rolls ultimately edged out the Bentley on our list because of its unique side doors that are hinged at the rear — often called “suicide doors” by industry insiders and car buffs. These special doors make accessing the coddling rear seat easier than with conventional side doors.

While soft tops have steadily improved over the past couple of decades, the retractable hardtop burst on the scene in the late 1990s and revolutionized convertibles.

Mercedes-Benz was the first contemporary automaker to popularize a retractable metal roof with its 1997 SLK-Class and 2001 SL-Class roadsters (neither of which made our list because they only have two seats). But it was French automaker Peugeot that pioneered the hardtop convertible idea with its “Electronique Transformable” concept in 1936, and Ford followed with a mass-produced version, the Skyliner, made from 1957 through 1959.

Current folding hardtops are marvels of engineering: A series of complex pistons and hydraulics fold the rigid roof into sections that get sandwiched in layers and hidden in the trunk.

Hard tops are prized for the way they create what is essentially two cars in one: a sleek drop-top and a practical hard top coupe. Three models on our list have folding hard tops: the BMW 3 Series Convertible, Volkswagen Eos and Volvo C70.

Each vehicle uses a slightly different method of folding and stowing the top, but all have significantly less trunk space when the top is stowed. That and the considerable complexity and weight hard tops add over traditional fabric tops are their main disadvantages.

However, because these models are based on conventional sedans, the trunks are spacious enough to allow useful storage with the top down.

Like the best soft tops, retractable metal roofs typically open and close at the touch of a button and can be raised or lowered in less than a minute. For added convenience, some models like the BMW 3 Series Convertible allow owners to raise and lower the top from outside the car via an optional key fob remote.

The VW Eos’ folding hard top is unique in that it incorporates a power sliding glass sunroof so drivers can enjoy the sky even if they don’t want to drop the top.

The Volvo C70 includes a button in the trunk that raises the layered pieces of the roof to allow easier access to the storage area below.

A fourth model on our list, the Chrysler Sebring, can be ordered with a soft or a hard top. “A retractable hard top makes for a no-compromise convertible,” says Eric Andrew, a brand and marketing manager for Chrysler. “If you live in cold-weather places like Chicago, Detroit or New England, having a retractable hardtop makes it less of an intellectual exercise to try and talk yourself into buying a convertible. On the other hand, those who live in warmer climates are still choosing a traditional cloth top.”

Besides being more complex and heavier, hard tops also cost more than soft tops. Specifying the hardtop option on the Chrysler Sebring adds $2,000. The Mazda MX-5 Miata, which didn’t make our list by virtue of being a two-seater, costs $2,800 more with an optional folding hard top. Click on the “slide show” link below see our list of the other convertibles that came close to making the most practical list.

On the upside, convertibles — including retractable hard-top models — have a slightly better resale value than regular cars, says David Wurster, president of Vincentric, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based research firm that specializes in tracking long-term ownership costs.

“On average, convertibles enjoy about a 1 percent better residual value after five years than the typical sedan,” Wurster says. “This is primarily due to their inherent limited supply in the resale market compared with sedans, coupes, SUVs, vans, trucks and wagons.”

Most four-seat convertibles skimp on rear leg- and headroom compared to conventional models, but all of the vehicles on our list have rear seats large enough to accommodate adults in moderate comfort on short trips. And unless a convertible is strictly a third (or fourth) car in a family’s fleet, we find that having four seats versus two is one of the key attributes necessary to make a convertible practical enough for everyday use.

Cargo space on four-passenger models is also typically more generous than in two-seaters, and you will also find the rear seat useful for carrying more than just people.

The model on our list with the highest storage capacity is an unconventional choice for a convertible: The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has more than 45 cubic feet of cargo volume. Some might not consider a Jeep to be a true convertible, but its top can indeed be removed, even if it has to be taken off the old-fashioned way — by hand.

Which brings up another important point: A top's mechanical operation affects practicality as well. Tops that retract automatically and store beneath power-operated lids are much more convenient than those that require the driver to get out of the car and snap a flexible cover into place. Of the 10 models on our list, only the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and Toyota Camry Solara Convertible require a soft cover to be installed separately.

A folding rear seat or a pass-through to the trunk can help maximize a convertible’s cargo-carrying ability by allowing drivers to carry long items like skis. The BMW 3 Series Convertible and Volvo C70, among others, offer pass-throughs to their trunks. And fold-down seats, like those available on the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, can make bringing home a large appliance easier than expected.

Our list of 10 practical convertibles is limited to four-passenger models, all of which offer greater utility than two-seat roadsters across the board, even if the rear seat is used only as additional storage space. We also looked at rear-seat legroom and headroom in order to evaluate each model's people-toting abilities. Cargo space (both with the top up and down) was another primary consideration.

With multiple variables, we decided to present a selection of practical convertibles from different price ranges instead of ranking them and calling one model more practical than another. While the majority of our selections cost less than $50,000, we also included selections from the $50,000-$100,000 segment, as well as the mid-six-figure range, for the benefit of affluent open-air aficionados.