Indian Summer means late convertible fling
Ah, Indian Summer. Not sure where the name came from, or if recent political correctness requires us to call it “Native American Summer,” but it’s that wonderful stretch of fall that comes after September, when the temperatures make one more summer-like climb after the autumn leaves already have started turning.
Those of us who live where it snows in earnest during the winters can enjoy Indian Summer more than those from more temperate climes, but one of the greatest features of the annual late warm-up is the reappearance of convertibles. Yes, we thought we’d seen the last of drop-top, open-air vehicles when the first chill followed traditional summer, but when my mind wanders to the perfect scenario of a convertible, it is of a top-down roadster approaching around a gentle curve, sweeping past, and disappearing, leaving only a flurry of fallen leaves fluttering in its wake.
An earlier column gave an overview of various luxury convertibles, including the Jaguar XK, the BMW 6-Series, the Corvette, and the Mustang-challenging Camaros. But there are more, many more, taking advantage of the current trend toward specialty cars, and not all of them cost from $40,000 to $120,000. There are some convertibles-on-a-budget that meet all the requirements of open-air enjoyment, while also delivering impressive fuel economy, and starting at a price that any new-car budget could manage.
To start with, we have a couple of traditional icons, in the Mazda Miata MX-5, and the Nissan Z-Roadster. Add in the new Chrysler 200 Convertible, which is a bold exponent of what used to be the Sebring Convertible — a four-seat vehicle that didn’t sell as well as Chrysler would have hoped, but made up for it as the No. 1 rental convertible offered anywhere, because of its four seats. While Fiat now owns Chrysler and Dodge, and has had a major impact on the Chrysler 200 inside and out, we can’t overlook the new Fiat 500 Cabrio, which is only cheating a little on the convertible theme with a flexible sunroof that slides all the way back and down to meet the requirement for open-air driving.
- Mazda MX-5 Miata.MX-5. Always popular as a 2-seat roadster that recalls the great British sports cars of the 1950s in style, but without the need for getting to know your serviceman on a first-name basis, the newest Miata is an uncompromising thrill to drive. It has a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine — the engine Mazda once shared with Ford, which still is Ford’s base engine for everything including the new EcoBoost — with 167 horsepower and 140 foot-pounds of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission brings it all to life, and the willing-to-rev aluminum engine drives the rear wheels with traditional sports-car dash. The car stays flat no matter how tight the curve, and refinements such as limited-slip, front and rear stabilizer bars, a brace between shock towers, and an aluminum powertrain frame make the new Miata the best one yet, and if you ease off and focus on mellow driving, you can top the EPA estimated 28 miles per gallon and reach 30. But driving a Miata mellow is difficult to imagine. We are giving in to Mazda’s curious insistence that all its cars have alpha-numeric designation, which means giving up the worldwide recognition the name Miata generates, but at least now Mazda adds the iconic Miata name to
- Nissan Z Roadster.Nissan has come since it first made the 240-Z three decades ago. The original was a bargain sports car, while the new model, which was the loaded Touring model, is crammed from its tires to its soft top with goodies and gadgets that boost it up to compete with much costlier sports cars, but also boost the price from a base just over $40,000 to $47,370. The performance of the Z is closer to exotic cars than lightweight roadsters, courtesy of Nissan’s newly enlarged 3.7-liter V6, which has 332 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque. The engine used to be 3.5 liters, so the sports car was called the 350Z, but apparently Nissan didn’t like the sound of “370Z,” so the new car is simply the Z Roadster. The new engine has a microfinished crankshaft and camshafts, continuously variable valve timing, independent aluminum double-wishbone suspension up front and multi-link rear, with front and rear stabilizer bars. That means that more power is accompanied by better fuel economy (EPA 25 mpg highway). The Touring version has a Sport package with SynchroRev Match on the stick shift, a device that electronically causes the revs to blip whenever you downshift. Nissan knows that knowledgable drivers tap the throttle whenever they downshift, but with this model, it’s unnecessary because it’s done for you, precisely and automatically. The test car is a show of how far
Chrysler 200 Convertible.The restyled 200 offers two versions of its convertible, the Touring and the Limited. A sportier S model will be last to the showrooms. The test car I drove was the Touring model, which came with the base 2.4-liter Global engine, built in Dundee, Mich., after first being designed by Hyundai in a joint-venture arrangement that also included Mitsubishi. The Limited, which comes with Chrysler’s excellent new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, starts at $32,000, but the Touring model can be obtained for a mere $27,000. Performance with the aluminum 2.4, which has two counter-rotating balance shafts, is smooth and satisfactory, if not as thrilling — at 173 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque — as the 283-horsepower V6. But the 4 has an EPA estimate of 29 mpg on the highway with its 6-speed automatic transmission, and the Touring car’s attitude proves it is more into cruising than sporty driving with a mild suspension, which has been retuned, but leaves room for firmer updates. The full four seats are a plus, and the roof fits neatly and disappears in 27 seconds at the touch of a button. Interestingly, the 200 also comes with a retractable hardtop. The interior is a big improvement over the Sebring, and the overall fit and finish of the whole car is an impressive improvement under Fiat’s watchful standards. The 62TE automatic will be phased out by a new dual dry clutch 6-speed automatic, available on the 200 Touring models with the 2.4. The new transmission is built in concert with Fiat, designed for lighter vehicle applications, and th dual dry clutch design eliminates the torque-converter and should improve fuel efficiency.
** Fiat 500 Cabrio.**The Fiat 500 is a fun little car to drive, with mileage in the high 30s, and either a 5-speed stick or 6-speed automatic works well. The stick makes for the sportiest driving, because with only a 1.4-liter 4-cylinder with 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque, there’s not a lot of potency available. The car is light enough, however, to work well with that engine and the transmissions. The Cabrio has the added feature of being a convertible — almost. Actually, it has a fabric soft roof that runs on tracks set into the horizontal side framework above the doors. There is a sunroof in the fabric roof, and a spoiler on the rear lip of the roof. When you push a button, the sunroof slides back, stopping when it gets to the rear spoiler. Push it again, and it accordions down into a bustle that sits low above the trunklid. Even when it’s fully down, you have the security of the side pillars connecting to the upper framework. That means it’s not really a convertible, but a sunroof that retracts all the way down. A neat engineering trick is that with the roof all the way retracted, it partially blocks the trunk, so if you attempt to open the trunk, the top rises to its spoiler position to get clear of the trunk. I found that with the top all the way down, it interfered with rear-view mirror vision a bit, but it was workable, and I spent most of the week with it retracted.
For those who drive their convertibles year-round, even in the snow-belt, the recent trend toward having a hardtop on a convertible is a real benefit. A strong heater can allow survival with a soft roof even when it’s cold, but when you try a retractable hardtop model, you realize they are far more secure against the fierceness of winter than any fabric top. A tight-fitting hardtop makes you as secure inside as a coupe, and it’s nice to not always need the heater on full-blast. Along with Mazda and Chrysler, hardtop convertibles are offered by Infiniti, Lexus, BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes, and it seems that more are popping up — and down — every day.