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Top Down on the Cheap


If you've never owned a convertible, you owe it to yourself to try one. Sure, they're not the most practical things. You can't carry much in them. The wind seeps in and whistles around you with the top up, and  at times you'll get tired of hearing all the racket through the thin fabric. Rollover protection on most models is by nature quite poor. The tops need replacing every few years, and they’re not inexpensive.

We could go on, of course, about all the reasons not to buy one. But on a warm summer evening with the top down and the stereo playing your favorite music, somehow the stresses and hassles of life melt away. Irrational? Perhaps. Still, why not find out for yourself? You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a pretty nice convertible.

We've selected what we think are the 10 great values in older convertibles.  Buy these as an affordable, fun weekend car.  The criteria? Value, reliability, performance, and the all-important fun factor. Remember, we're not buying family sedans here!

miata 1. Mazda Miata, 1991-94. The cute little Miata is everything a sports car should be. It's completely tossable, reasonably quick, makes great sounds and looks and feels just right. Being a "proper" sports car, it only seats two, so it's not everyone's cup of tea. Bonus: it's very reliable, and there are thousands available that have been used sparingly.
Toyota Celica Convertible 2. Toyota Celica GT, 1991-92. Possessing typical Toyota quality and reliability with a dose of everyday usability, this one can serve as your only car.  Truth be told, the Celica is not terribly exciting. It is however, a very nice car.
Saab 900S 3. Saab 900, 1991-92. Saabs are hip. Another car on the list that can be used every day in all seasons, the Saab's fully lined and tight-fitting roof is wonderful. Probably because these things are made in Sweden, where much of the country resides in sub-arctic conditions. When, exactly, do they actually put the top down up there? Service costs can be on the expensive side. Buy the nicest, lowest-mileage example you can.
4. Volkswagen Cabriolet, 1991-93. A neat little car. Seats four, but limited luggage space. Stiff chassis and a nice, though not powerful motor add up to a pleasant driving experience. Like the Saab, a comfortable, upright driving position.
5. Ford Mustang 5.0, 1991-93. If this thing didn't rate so high on the fun meter, it probably wouldn't make the list. The ride is stiff, the car rattles, chassis flex is a constant companion, and most of them have had hard lives. The burble of the V8 and the feel of the endless torque against your back negates all the bad stuff, though.  Absolutely, positively take the time to find a good, unmolested example owned by an adult.
6. BMW 318i, 1991-92. So, you need an image boost for little coin? Here you go. The 318, with its 4-cylinder motor is kind of a slug, really, but it's well built, looks good and will help with your social life -- a key requirement of any convertible! Take your time looking for this one, too. There seems to be an equal number of poorly, and lovingly, maintained examples. Parts and service are steep.
7. Chevy Cavalier/Pontiac Sunbird, 1996. If the Celica isn't terribly exciting, these are downright boring. Cute in there own way, they made this list mainly because of their modern design and the fact that they are the newest convertibles available at our price cut-off. The engines are buzzy, but the top is first-rate. The interior, while saddled with somewhat cheap looking materials, is well designed.
8. Jeep Wrangler 1991-94. Totally impractical. Known to give spinal injuries to its owners because of its stiff, bouncy ride. Loud. Not very comfortable. And way cool with the top down and the doors off. A simple, reliable vehicle that makes a great toy. The top is manually operated and a pain in the neck to raise and lower. A big, thick, full roll cage makes rolling over less of an event than other convertibles. And unlike many of today's slick SUVs, this one will handle tough outback stuff with ease. Like the Mustang, the Wrangler has dozens of aftermarket suppliers ready to sell you everything from suspension lifts to refrigerated consoles. Get the 6-cylinder engine and avoid examples that have seen heavy off-road use.
9. Chrysler LeBaron 1991-95. Introduced in 1987, the attractive styling of the LeBaron held up nicely right into the nineties. Headlamps went from retractable to exposed in 1993. The Achilles heel of these vehicles is their 4-speed overdrive transmission (on the 6-cyl). They have improved over the years, but are just not all that durable. Still, the cars are attractively priced, and you might even find a manual transmission model mated to one of Chrysler's respectable later turbo motors (dropped after ‘93). You can get one in great shape for very little money.
10. Alfa-Romeo Spider, 1991-93. Yeah, we know this one's risky. If it breaks you'll be spending your grocery money to fix it. But it's loaded with character and so unlike anything else on the list that we had to include it. An ancient design (remember The Graduate?) that still looks great, it also possesses a measure of exclusivity. It's best to think of this one as a sunny day toy. Like the Saab, buy the nicest one you can afford.


Looking for a Toy?  Consider One of These

The cars above not unique enough?  If all you want is a fair weather weekend toy, you might want to consider something really distinctive -- an old sports car.  These two popular models are modern enough to be easy to drive while still retaining the charms of yesteryear.  Both have all their parts still available, and they probably will even appreciate a little in value over the next few years.  Be prepared, though, for frequent maintenance.


MGB, 1964-74. Simple and handsome cars that return a lot of bang for the buck.  Very susceptible to rust, so make sure someone who knows these cars checks it out before you buy.  Avoid the later models with rubber bumpers -- they're ugly, don't perform as well and they will be tougher to resell.  See our profile.
Triumph TR6, 1970-76. A bit more sophisticated and upscale than the MG, these feature a torquey inline 6-cylinder engine and independent rear suspension.  Another ruster, though, so be careful!  See our profile at Collector Car Market Review


(C) Copyright 2000, VMR International.  This article first appeared in the Summer 00 issue of Used Cars.

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