Let’s dispense with jingoism right here at the starting line. There aren’t any American entries in this four-seat-droptop derby because there aren’t any that fall into this price category. Okay, almost none. The base MSRP for Ford’s Shelby GT500—$53,575—does slide in below the as-tested ticket for one of our four contestants. But even though it has rear seats, the super-Mustang lacks an automatic-transmission option, whereas our four test cars were all self-shifters with manumatic function.
More significant, we suspect that guys attracted to the Shelby’s overtly outlaw persona and 540 horsepower are unlikely candidates for any of these more sedate rides. Though our four sun dogs are far more sophisticated than the superpony, to someone whose idea of convertible fun involves big longitudinal g-loads every time he tramps on the throttle, the cars in this test look like . . . well, how do you bark in German and Japanese?
We hasten to add that sedate does not equate with boring here. Though none of these cars will cause whiplash, their straight-ahead performance is certainly adequate, and they give a respectable account of themselves dynamically. Moreover, their luxury quotient is distinctly higher than that of any Mustang, and each represents a brand imbued with a healthy dollop of prestige (some dollops healthier than others).
As is our custom, this group consists of one recidivist and three new contenders. The repeater is the BMW 328i, defending champ from our last entry-luxury-convertible tournament [June 2007]. In that one, the 3-series’ folding hardtop was brand-new. This time, it’s the veteran, which tells you something about the pace of change in this game.
Speaking of change, the title of that ’07 test—“40-Somethings”—referred to dinero. The base price of those five cars was right around $40,000, with the Bimmer topping the as-tested chart at $49,575. This time they’re 50-somethings. The lowest base price is $44,715, and the lowest as-tested is $51,865.
As in ’07, Audi is a player, but this time it’s an A5—the A4 cabrio is gone. The new Lexus IS350C and Infiniti G37 round out the field. As mentioned, all four cars are equipped with automatics with manumatic control, none with the dual-clutch variety, and none of them particularly prompt in manual mode. The tops are all power operated, natch, and one—the Audi’s—is fashioned from traditional soft material.
With Jack London weather impending in Michigan, we flew to Arizona, picked up our test subjects at the Phoenix airport, and headed south through a dust storm to the Nissan proving ground near Casa Grande. (It was our first visit to this excellent facility and certainly not our last.) From there, we headed for high country, headquartering in Prescott (elevation: 5368 feet), to see how our droptops would perform on mountain byways and also to see which would be the most comfortable going topless in temperatures hovering near the point where water—and blood—will freeze.
Squire Gillies showed manly disdain for frostbite and thus became an authority on the excellence of Audi’s neck warmer. But the answer to the question of which convertibles were comfortable with tops down in 32-degree weather, in the opinion of your humble narrator, is none. As to our primary mission—naming a winner—read on.
Fourth Place: Lexus IS350C
Despite its fourth-of-four ranking, the IS350C was a pleasant surprise on a couple of counts. Structure, for one. Over the years, the chassis stiffness of convertibles offered by Toyota Motor Corp. has seemed to hover somewhere between that of a good rubber spatula and room-temperature taffy. Cowl shake seemed to be a way of life.
That’s not the case here. The convertible version of the Lexus IS line isn’t in the ship’s-keel structural league of the BMW, but it’s a vast improvement on a long tradition of rubbery droptops and drew backhanded compliments from several members of the test crew, such as, “Where’s the cowl shake?” and “What, no quivers?”
HIGHS: Quick sprinter, slick automatic, cushy ride quality, quiet with the top up, excellent nav system.
LOWS: Lifeboat-in-a-gale handling, vague steering, slippery leather, tiny trunk, huge bustle.
The 350’s straight-ahead performance wasn’t quite as surprising. Its 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is near the top of the charts in output, and with the lowest curb weight in the group—another plus for the chassis design—it smoked the rest of the field in every acceleration category, from 0 to 60 mph on up through a 13.9-second, 101-mph quarter-mile. Stout.
In addition, the six-speed automatic is the epitome of smooth, earning the Lexus top marks in every powertrain scoring category—including observed fuel economy, though 21 mpg doesn’t allow for much bragging.
There were also high marks in areas that were no surprise at all. Ergonomics, for example. Materials, including the glove-soft, perforated leather upholstery. Velvety ride quality. Outstanding nav system. Excellent audio. Ultraquiet operation with the top up.
Obviously, there were low marks, too. The beautifully upholstered leather seats are deficient in lateral support and slippery as well—not a good combination for hard cornering and quick transitions. The rear seats also ranked near the bottom, for space and comfort. Only the Infiniti’s are worse.
Though the potent V-6 made it possible for the Lexus to keep pace in our mountain-road frolics, it had to work hard to do so. The steering was both light and numb. Skidpad grip—0.82 g—was at the bottom of the group; the stability-control system was at the top in terms of willingness to intrude; and braking performance was the poorest: 185 feet from 70 mph. All of the foregoing is thanks to the somewhat perplexing decision to fit all-season Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires, which were launched nearly a decade ago.
While the dynamics drew scattered flak, the styling provoked a barrage. To accommodate the folding hardtop, the design team simply raised the rear-deck height, giving the Lexus by far the biggest bustle. One pundit observed: “It’s hard to look graceful with a big butt,” to which some countered, “J.Lo.”
THE VERDICT: Sporty enough, if the sport is shuffle board.
In the end, the Lexus was judged to be consistent with its brand image—smooth, quiet, powerful, elegant, and as sporty as a Buick. It’s the perfect convertible for the driver who doesn’t want to be involved any more than necessary. As a consequence, it’s out of step with the other Lexus IS models, as well as the other cars in this group.
2010 Lexus IS350C
306-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 3916 lb
Base/as-tested price: $45,265/$52,435
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.2 sec
100 mph: 13.5 sec
1/4 mile: 13.9 @ 101 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
Third Place: Infiniti G37 convertible
While the Lexus delivered a couple of pleasant revelations, the G37’s surprise—chassis flex—was a disappointment. Well, maybe it wasn’t that much of a surprise but a disappointment nonetheless. We noted hints of structural shudder in a Short Take [July 2009], and the hints magnified to full disclosure in the course of this longer experience.
As we say in Arizona, qué pasa? The Nissan 370Z roadster—same basic bones—came across as reasonably solid in another Short Take [November 2009]. But in our Arizona touring, the G37’s logbook was peppered with reports of chassis tremors and shakes.
HIGHS: Robust V-6, defiant exhaust note, precise steering.
LOWS: Rubbery chassis, no trunk room with top down, too much weight.
Ponderous curb weight is a related issue. The body-shell engineers obviously had to compensate for the loss of the roof structure, and the mechanism associated with the three-piece folding hardtop is heavy. But even so, 4162 pounds—heaviest in this group—is bewildering. The G37 coupe in our 2008 Lightning Lap track stampede weighed 3723 pounds. More to the point, the 370Z roadster scaled in at 3495. The 370Z had a softtop, and the G37 is a more luxurious ride, with more goodies, but that’s still a vast disparity.
Aside from magnifying the G’s chassis elasticity and dulling the car’s responses, all that mass inevitably dilutes straight-ahead performance. The convertible’s 3.7-liter V-6 is rated for 325 horsepower, five fewer than in the hardtop-G applications, but it is still tops in this test. That should have made it the Rambo of the roundup, and indeed, extensive exhaust-note tuning by the powertrain team gave it a deliciously menacing tone. But towing so much pork shaved multiple 10ths off the various acceleration results, where the supposedly sporty G37 trailed the not remotely sporty Lexus. Shame.
There were strong points, of course. Despite its relative flexibility, the Infiniti is still more adept at sorting out quick transients and gobbling up decreasing radii. And even though it is somewhat hobbled by mass, the G37 can’t be called slow, which helped it keep pace in the frequently frenetic mountain stretches—proving, once again, that a strong engine will cover for a lot of other shortcomings. The G37 had the only seven-speed automatic in this test, although it drew mixed reviews. It is useful for keeping the V-6 in the sweet part of its power band but only in manual mode. In full automatic operation, it upshifts early and often.
The interior drew a few barbs—some judged the materials to be not quite on a par with the Audi’s. Rear-seat comfort borders on medieval for anyone of adult dimensions, and, with the top down, the trunk space is big enough for perhaps two hamsters. Small hamsters. But the front seats are first-rate, the control layout and instrumentation garnered high scores, and the same is true of its exterior looks. The G emerged in a tie with the Audi for the styling title, but the Infiniti turned more heads as we went our merry way.
THE VERDICT: A handsome car diminished by too much mass and not enough space.
Like plentiful horsepower, good looks will cover up a lot of flaws. Now, if there was just some way to economically seam-weld this body shell…
2009 Infiniti G37 convertible
325-hp V-6, 7-speed automatic, 4162 lb
Base/as-tested price: $44,715/$51,865
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.6 sec
100 mph: 14.1 sec
1/4 mile: 14.1 @ 100 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 178 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
Second Place: Audi A5 2.0T Quattro
If you’re a ragtop man, the A5 would have to be your automatic winner. The folding-hardtop advantage is well known: coupe comfort and quiet with the option of sun-in-face. The disadvantage is added mass, something the Audi clearly didn’t need. With its Quattro all-wheel-drive system, the A5 escaped the el puerco award by just eight pounds, at 4154 pounds versus the G37’s 4162.
HIGHS: Surprising agility, solid chassis, gorgeous interior, great seats, flawless assembly.
LOWS: Snap oversteer available with little warning, coronary-inducing option-package pricing.
Mass is never a good thing, particularly in a contest where power-to-weight is important. With 211 horses, the A5’s pounds-to-horsepower index was worst in the group, but its abundant torque (258 pound-feet) propelled it to third in the acceleration charts, ahead of the BMW: 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and 14.9 at 91 mph in the quarter-mile. And the Audi’s 2.0-liter turbo gave a better account of itself at higher altitudes, as we drove through mountain roads west of Prescott.
The advantage of a boosted engine at altitude was expected. What we didn’t expect was how eagerly the A5 would attack those high-country roads. Substitute canvas for steel as a structural element, and rigidity inevitably diminishes. Add the nose-heaviest weight distribution, and you’d forecast understeer worthy of a Great Lakes freighter, aggravated by reptilian body wriggles.
But that forecast would be wrong. Far from being reluctant to turn in, the A5 is essentially neutral and perfectly willing to step into oversteer. We would have preferred a little more advance notice when this was impending—it gave our man Austin an unsettling moment during the lane-change testing. And the combination of steering that is both quick (2.3 turns lock-to-lock) and a little vague took some orientation before real confidence occurred.
Once acclimated, however, test-crew drivers were impressed by the Audi’s grip, directional certainty, and willingness to make quick transitions. All hands lauded its structural rigidity, and if the cloth top made for a little more noise, plus the occasional ripple, these demerits only showed up at very high speeds or in extreme wind.
Comfort, including composed ride quality, is an A5 strong suit, and the Audi drew top marks in almost all of the “vehicle” scoring categories, including styling, outside and in. The combination of saddle-tan leather and a dark-blue exterior is classy, especially with the top down, a process that requires all of 16 seconds—though 19 going up, both times best in test. The Audi also had the most luggage space with the top down, another ragtop plus.
A lovely car. But optioned up to $61,800—by far the heaviest as-tested price in the group—the A5 lost a lot of its luster. That kind of money would bolt you into a 333-hp S5 cabrio (base price: $59,075). And which of the A5’s option packages would we trim? Drive Select ($2950), which adds an adaptive suspension and Audi’s dynamic steering system? The Sport package ($1450), with firmer suspension tuning, 19-inch wheels, sport seats, and paddle shifters? Those two packages helped put the Audi close to dynamic parity with the BMW, so they’d be hard to broom.
THE VERDICT: Smooth, competent, and classy, but watch those extras.
The biggest hit was the Prestige group—premium audio, nav system, Bluetooth, LED taillamps, heated seats with memory, and more—which added $8300 to the tally. At a glance, that looks easily dispensable. But would the Audi be as appealing without all those extras?
2010 Audi A5 2.0T Quattro convertible
211-hp turbo inliine-4, 6-speed automatic, 4154 lb
Base/as-tested price: $44,925/$61,800
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.4 sec
100 mph: 18.8 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
First Place: BMW 328i convertible
In our 2007 comparo, the Bimmer prevailed over an Audi by a similar points margin and for the same reasons. We cited a “parley of traditional BMW virtues: classic good looks, superior dynamics, autobahn ride quality, and an exceptional sense of partnership with its driver.”
So was it written, so is it now. Though there are some differences. For example, at 3820 pounds, that ’07 BMW weighed 105 pounds less than this one and was equipped with a manual transmission, which made it substantially quicker: 6.6 seconds to 60 mph compared with 7.3 seconds for the current car, the slowpoke of this roundup.
HIGHS: Hewn-from-billet structure, willing responses, gratifying grip, trackworthy seats.
LOWS: Engine anemia at high altitude, proportions out of step with 3-series coupe’s.
What does weight add to braking performance? Distance. In 2007, our test car stopped from 70 mph in just 155 feet. In this comparison, the best the BMW could manage was 170 feet, although we should add that this number was best in test, recorded at a different venue. However, the tires—Bridgestone Potenza RE050A RFTs, sized 225/40-18 front, 255/35-18 rear—are the same, and the latest car laid down a better skidpad number, 0.89 g versus 0.86, which topped the charts in this case.
If the Bimmer felt a little sluggish on the Nissan proving ground (altitude: about 1400 feet)—remember, however, that we correct our test results for atmospheric conditions—it was positively suckin’ wind on the high and winding highways west of Prescott. Yet that environment was precisely where the BMW established itself as top sun dog.
To be accurate, there were portents of the BMW’s dynamic edge before we got to mile-high territory. Not only was it best in braking and on the skidpad, it trumped the others in the lane-change exercise as well. So when the pace picked up, heading out toward the charmingly named Skull Valley, no one was really surprised when the BMW emerged as the car that was easiest to guide through fast corners, decreasing-radius turns, and rapid transitions.
It’s true that the Bimmer required more gear changes than the others to keep up in the occasional straight stretches, and the manumatic responses of its six-speed automatic were somewhat casual (though this is true of all these transmissions). But when real driving resumed, the BMW was the pacesetter.
There were non-dynamic kudos as well. Front-seat comfort and support are outstanding—no surprise there—enhanced by burnt-orange leather that made the football fans among us start humming “The Eyes of Texas.” It is a snappy change from BMW interior treatments that tend toward dour. Rear-seat space—tops in test—was a pleasant surprise, as was trunk volume, which is best among the folding hardtops.
Lukewarm power aside, there was little to dislike. The convertible’s proportions are somehow less attractive than those of the 3-series coupes, and those two longitudinal strips on the top detract from the BMW’s beauty quotient. There are hinges at the rear of each strip, a design forced by the tight stacking tolerances of the three-section top.
THE VERDICT: Even with modest power, BMW dynamic virtues prevail.
But these are minor misgivings. Although the BMW faced a tougher set of opponents in this test, it graded out just as it did in 2007. A logbook comment summed it up: “There’s just something about the way the 3-series goes over the road that’s so magical, so connected, so involving.”
2010 BMW 328i convertible
211-hp turbo inliine-4, 6-speed automatic, 3925 lb
Base/as-tested price: $45,375/$52,650
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.3 sec
100 mph: 18.8 sec
1/4 mile: 15.5 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 170 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
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