From the June 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
Forty-something? What’s up with that? Bucks, for one. These sun-optional rides roll in luxury territory, most with prices well above $40,000-something, in fact. And in that price class, it’s a good bet they attract 40-something buyers
All five cars are rated for four passengers, as distinct from the two-plus-two designation (claustrophobes need not apply). Just what level of comfort those rear seats might actually provide—all day? tolerable for a quick cantina run? Torture by the end of the driveway?—is something we set out to quantify.
One other something, of a linguistic nature. Ragtop, a uniquely American term that emerged in the early ’50s—probably from the world of hot rods, and predating Henry Gregor Felsen’s 1954 novel—is on its way to becoming anachronistic. Since the launch of Mazda’s folding-hardtop MX-5 Miata, which proved these devices needn’t diminish trunk space or cost a fortune, cloth tops are going the way of the Klaxon and carburetor.
Thus, unlike our last luxo four-seat-convertible comparo [“Four Showstoppers,” December 1998], we can no longer call ’em ritzy ragtops. That roundup was almost 10 years ago, and there certainly have been changes since. For one, three of the five players this time around have folding tops fabricated from solid materials. For another, all the cars have gone through at least one major makeover since ’98, BMW’s 3-series the most recent of them.
The makeup of this all-European field is similar to the ’98 group, but far from identical. Three of the brands here—BMW, Saab, Volvo—were entered in the ’98 contest, but Audi missed out, and VW is a 40-something-convertible newcomer. Mercedes, meanwhile, has left the building. A CLK-class Benz finished second 10 years ago, but since then its pricing—$54,975 base—has vaulted above our test group’s $50,000 ceiling.
Beyond that, the news is predictable: Sporty luxo converts are, at least on paper, more capable than those of a decade ago. Stiffer chassis. More power. More features.
And what were our expectations? In terms of thrust, pretty modest. To stay within our pricing boundaries, we wound up with so-so power—the VW was the only car that arrived with an optional engine. And with seats for four, only the innocent would call them sports cars. In fact, a friend who indulges himself in rides such as the BMW M3 and Audi S4 convertibles reviewed this lineup and dismissed them all as “chick cars.”
Be that as it may, these are Euro droptops, which means we expect communicative steering, limited body roll, brisk transient responses, and minimal chassis flex. Who would you expect to post top marks in these scoring categories? Hint: In our ’98 comparo, a BMW prevailed even though it was an eight-year-old design (E36). In this quintet, the BMW is the newest, the only rear-drive car in the group, and one of only two with a manual transmission.
Still, it’s never over till it’s over, and in any case, a review of this classy convertible class is overdue. Since late February in Michigan doesn’t lend itself to topless frolic, we headed for the sunnier climate of Southern California. Here’s how the test shook out.
Fifth Place: Volvo C70 T5
The last Volvo convertible had more jiggles than Daisy Duke at a cheerleading tryout, so we expected improvement. And that’s what we got. Based on Volvo’s S40, the new C70 has stiffer sinews, and its living spaces are sheltered by a slick new folding hardtop. Good-looking, too, with its aggressive snoot and shrink-wrapped sheetmetal. Yah, shoor, Sven, real pretty, and looks real sporty.
But as we all know, looks are sometimes deceiving, and this is one of those times. When we put the C70 in motion, cosmetic infatuation made an abrupt descent into dynamic reality, like a guy dreaming he’s on the front row of the grid, only to wake up at the back of the pack and losing oil pressure.
HIGHS: Impressive grip, smooth ride, real room for four, best-looking Volvo ever.
LOWS: Spooky steering, rubbery chassis, do-you-really-wanna-do-this handling.
As noted, the new unibody has a higher rigidity index than the previous C70—but not high enough. The logbook was filled with remarks about steering-column shivers and chassis quivers. Like all convertibles, particularly those with folding hardtops, chassis flex is magnified by mass. The C70 was by no means the pudgiest, but mass plus elasticity dilute handling, and in this sense the C70 suffered more than most.
Yeah, yeah, the Volvo put up the second-best lane-change run, beating the BMW in the process, and it tied the Bimmer for the second-best skidpad performance, a tribute to its fat Pirelli P Zero Rosso rubber. But on real-world mountain roads, the C70 had a tendency to wallow and pogo, a function of spring and damper rates selected for boulevard ride quality. But in lumpy going, the blend of limited travel and soft tuning added up to thumps and bumps that were magnified by chassis shudders. Power rack-and-pinion steering that was both quick (2.7 turns lock-to-lock) and as numb as a missing finger didn’t help, either.
Despite the presumed advantage of its standard six-speed manual gearbox and midpack power-to-weight ratio, the Volvo’s 218-hp, 2.5-liter turbo five delivered the slowest zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times in the group.
But if the C70’s dynamics were disappointing, its livability index was pretty good. It was quiet in most operating modes, including speeds over 70 mph (more on that when we get to the VW Eos). And it was the only car of these four-seaters that could actually accommodate four persons in comfort. Add the lowest as-tested price, plus seductive good looks, and the C70 is an attractive proposition, provided haste is not a priority.
THE VERDICT: Pretty to look at, not that much fun at a dance.
2007 Volvo C70 T5
218-hp turbo inline-5, 6-speed manual, 3800 lb
Base/as-tested price: $39,785/$40,400
Trunk volume, top up/down: 13/6 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.3 sec
100 mph: 18.9 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 92 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g
Roof time, down/up: 27/26 sec
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
Fourth Place: Volkswagen Eos 3.2
In our first road-test date with the Goddess of Dawn [“The Goddess Goes Topless,” C/D, January], our response was cautiously positive. But when we pitted the Eos against a quartet of its contemporaries, we found our collective assessment drifting down toward, “So what makes you think you’re a goddess?” It can’t be her figure, which suffers from odd proportions.
But the Eos has its strong suits, one of which is price. Playing in a 40-something field meant this VW, with a base price of $28,750, could hit the line loaded with stuff, including its most potent engine option—a 250-hp, 3.2-liter V-6—which also happened to be the most potent engine in these games.
HIGHS: Lots o’ punch, great exhaust music, DSG, solid chassis, handsome interior.
LOWS: Squishy suspension, squishy brakes, high-speed wind roar, odd proportions.
Mated to VW’s Direct Shift Gearbox automated manual, this robust power source hurried the goddess to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, best in test, and the quarter-mile in 15.1 at 94 mph, also tops. Sounded sweet doing it, too; mark it up as best exhaust note.
There were also non-dynamic assets. The VW has a big sunroof integrated into its folding hardtop, nice for days when conditions mitigate against toplessness. The interior décor—a fetching blend of black and cream with wood trim—was very uptown, and the steering wheel is cleverly shaped to put the driver’s hands exactly where God and Bob Bondurant say they should be.
Then there’s the top. All these self-folders are engineering marvels, but the Eos is arguably the most entertaining in action—sort of like seeing time-lapse movies of bridge construction. Never mind that it’s the slowest down and up.
But that top is also the source of a big demerit: wind noise. Okay, the Eos posted the lowest decibel readings at a steady 70 mph. But this changed dramatically when speeds crept above 70, and the logbook was lacerated with comments such as “deafening.”
The VW’s structure measured up well versus its rivals, but the mission concept apparently didn’t envision the kind of athletic responses we value in cars such as the GTI and Jetta GLI. Flabby suspension tuning made the Eos a reluctant player in the high-country portions of our convertigames, a shortcoming aggravated by brake feel that was closely akin to stepping in a peat bog.
Conclusion: Like the C70, the Eos is happiest as a café cruiser. This goddess is not programmed for frolic.
THE VERDICT: One man’s goddess is another man’s Phyllis Diller.
2007 Volkswagen Eos 3.2
250-hp V-6, 6-speed automated manual, 3740 lb
Base/as-tested price: $37,480/$40,930
Trunk volume, top up/down: 11/7 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 17.0 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 @ 94 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
Roof time, down/up: 28/30 sec
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Third Place: Saab 9-3 2.0T
The 9-3’s most recent ground-up makeover was in 2004, when its rubbery old bones were swapped for GM’s Epsilon architecture, the same hardware supporting the Saturn Aura.
These foundations rank midway on the great scale of structural rigidity—in cars that leave the assembly line with conventional tops covering the passengers. But in this rare convertible application, rigidity suffers. Bumpy going provoked more shudders in the 9-3’s bones than most of the other cars’, leading us to wonder how well it would resist squeaks and rattles over time.
HIGHS: Unerring predictability, supple suspension, supportive seats, willing to play.
LOWS: Quivery structure, wind noise, so-so braking, high cowl, space-challenged rear seat.
There were updates for the 2007 model year, in particular an interior makeover that included increased size for the major instrument cluster, upgraded audio, a body-color trim panel surrounding the entire passenger compartment, and seats that drew positive logbook comments from all hands for their support and general comfort.
We would have been even more impressed with the interior revisions if the cowl height had been reduced—there were complaints of neck craning—and the rear seats tied with the BMW’s for the least habitable of the group.
The 9-3 entered the games looking like an also-ran. We specified a 250-hp, 2.8-liter V-6. But Saab couldn’t locate a car answering that spec, so our tester arrived with a 210-hp turbo four and a five-speed auto. The manumatic function was prompt and obedient, but it didn’t feel like it enhanced acceleration.
Saab’s chassis elves have done a good job with the convertible’s suspension. Spring and damper selection is on the soft side, to mitigate the forces going into the relatively flexible chassis, a combination that yields very good ride quality and, predictably, plenty of rock and roll in spirited maneuvers. In our mountain road, uh, research, abundant body roll was complicated by modest grip (0.79 g) and indifferent braking (182 feet from 70 mph) that got worse as heat built up in the tires, rotors, and pads.
For all that, the Saab won friends as the mountain miles accumulated. Flog as we might, the 9-3 hung in through all sorts of abuses and kept coming back for more, like a puppy fetching an old wadded-up sock as long as you’d be willing to throw it.
The 9-3 was one of the noisier top-up rides in the group at high speeds, particularly in the gusty conditions encountered in this test, and it looks just a little dowdy compared with most of the other droptops.
But it has a certain charm that some of the others lack, a willingness to please. Just as important, Saab has been offering big incentives to help move 9-3 convertibles out the door. With a few grand on the hood, this car looks very attractive indeed.
THE VERDICT: Youthful spirit in an aging design.
2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T
210-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed automatic, 3660 lb
Base/as-tested price: $37,515/$42,660
Trunk volume, top up/down: 12/8 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.1 sec
100 mph: 19.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.6 @ 92 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
Roof time, down/up: 19/21 sec
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Second Place: Audi A4 2.0T
To a gambler assessing this field just before the start of the event, the A4 would look like a bad bet. Highest curb weight in the group (3860 pounds). Lowest horsepower. Front-wheel drive. Continuously variable transmission (which we associate with asthmatic engine sounds). Conventional convertible softtop. And predictably, tepid power-to-weight—the Audi’s 2.0-liter turbo four is rated for 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque—held the A4 back in the basic test-track sprints: zero-to-60 mph in 7.1 seconds, the quarter-mile in 15.6 at 90 mph. Only the Volvo was slower.
HIGHS: Quick on its feet, best CVT going, strong brakes, elegant interior décor.
LOWS: Tepid acceleration, occasional quivers, high wind noise, stern ride quality.
But if blistering acceleration is your automotive raison d’être, this is the wrong roundup to begin with, and anyway, there’s more to life than zip to 60. For one, there’s transient response—the ability to change direction without excessive drama. For all its mass and hefty forward weight bias, the A4 proved to be very quick on its feet, pulling the best skidpad number—0.87 g—and the best speed in the lane change. It went on from those exercises to record the second-best stopping distance. Wow.
On public roads, the A4 drew a couple chassis-quiver comments in lumpy stretches, and low-profile tires with high inflation rates (46 psi!) made ride quality a little stern for some. But at the end of the test the Audi’s excellent body control, outstanding steering feel, and indefatigable braking inspired confidence none but the BMW could top. Similarly, although the 2.0-liter turbo labored to keep pace, Audi’s CVT made the most of its output, and its paddle-shift seven-speed presets made it a pleasure to use. This is the best CVT in the business.
The other element that made the Audi popular was an interior voted most elegant and comfortable in this collection (with an asterisk, though, for the cramped rear seat). And dropping the cloth top produced the least sacrifice in trunk space—just one cubic foot, giving the Audi the roomiest top-down trunk of nine cubic feet.
The Audi’s as-tested price—$48,245—was second highest, trailing only the BMW’s. Some may feel there should be a little more go power for that kind of money. But if absolute haste isn’t an issue, the A4 looks like the best of the four front-drive droptops here.
THE VERDICT: A surprising first among the front-drivers.
2007 Audi A4 2.0T
210-hp turbo inline-4, CVT, 3860 lb
Base/as-tested price: $39,820/$48,245
Trunk volume, top up/down: 10/9 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.1 sec
100 mph: 20.2 sec
1/4 mile: 15.6 @ 90 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 163 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
Roof time, down/up: 21/24 sec
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
First Place: BMW 328i
Not surprisingly, BMW’s first hardtop convertible cruised easily to victory over its front-drive rivals, hard- and softtop alike. This rear-driver didn’t post top numbers in all the instrumented test categories, but it was a clear favorite in the popular vote. The more sinuous the road, the more the BMW took charge—as expected. If its 3.0-liter inline-six couldn’t quite match the VW’s sprints, it was smooth, sweet, and willing, and the crisp action of its six-speed manual transmission made the shift throws of the Volvo’s gearbox seem a bit vague.
The BMW’s precise steering was another dynamic trait that met our expectations–“lubricated and communicative,” observed one tester—and if the brake feel wasn’t quite as positive as some might have wished, performance was outstanding: best stops from 70 mph (155 feet) and fade free.
HIGHS: Expected BMW virtues: precise steering, crisp shifting, feline agility, sports-car seats.
LOWS: Unexpected mass, gloomy interior, stiff pricing.
BMW says this droptop, the fourth generation of 3-series convertibles, is 50 percent stiffer than its predecessor, suggesting the previous version employed willow branches as structural elements. Wholesale gains make us skeptical, and we were intrigued to note that the BMW picked up its inside front wheel during the extreme transients of the lane change.
There was also a logbook notation reporting a hint of chassis tremor following a particularly nasty stretch of pavement. But that remark had the flavor of an entomologist encountering a beetle species previously thought extinct, and there were no repeat citings. The BMW delivered precisely what we’ve been conditioned to expect of the 3-series: the grace of a ballerina and the reflexes of a duelist, albeit tempered to some degree by mass.
Which brings us to the BMW’s non-ragtop. Convertibles are hefty; hardtop convertibles even more so. The BMW’s steel three-piece roof is no exception. The 335i coupe tested last November weighed 3557 pounds, this 328i, 3820. Only the Audi was heavier. We also found that the folding hardtops had a significant effect on weight distribution. In the BMW, the bias was 46.1/53.9 top up, 44.5/55.5 top down.
With longitudinal trim strips running down the edges, punctuated by a pair of hinge gaps, the BMW top wasn’t pretty. But it did a good job of noise isolation, and it could be operated with the key fob, part of the $500 Comfort Access option.
The BMW’s rear seats were distinctly snug, and headroom suffered with the top up. The dark interior left testers cold, as did the Bimmer’s tops-in-test pricing. But the 328i prevailed on a parley of traditional BMW virtues: classic good looks, superior dynamics, autobahn ride quality, and an exceptional sense of partnership with its driver. “Feels like a proper BMW,” wrote one tester, “which is the whole idea. Bravo!”
THE VERDICT: In the 40-something class, it’s in a class by itself.
2008 BMW 328i convertible
230-hp inline-6, 6-speed manual, 3820 lb
Base/as-tested price: $43,975/$49,575
Trunk volume, top up/down: 12/7 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.6 sec
100 mph: 17.5 sec
1/4 mile: 15.2 @ 94 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 155 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g
Roof time, down/up: 22/23 sec
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
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