Carmakers Hit the Brakes on Convertibles

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WASHINGTON (TheStreet) — When the Mercedes-Benz E-class sports a quiet and comfortable convertible, the days of the low-end, loud and light-weather ragtop are numbered.

By giving its new four-seater V6 engine-powered E350 and burlier E550 V8 a wind-deflecting spoiler above their windshields, a wind screen and draft stop between the rear seats and an Airscarf ventilation system that blows heat directly onto passengers' necks, Mercedes has joined its fellow luxury automakers in crafting convertibles for all seasons — if not for all consumers.

"I actually drove it in a rainstorm and didn't get wet with the top down," says Jean Jennings, editor in chief of Automobile Magazine. "You can use the air conditioner with the top down when it's hot and, because of the management of the vents and airflow across the car, it's not about getting the side windows up and the heater on and hoping you can get somewhere fast."

Starting at $57,000, the soft-top E-class is representative of a practical, all-weather convertible market in which only five models — the Chrysler Sebring (starting at $20,000), Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet (starting at $16,990), Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder ($21,000), Mazda MX-5 Miata ($22,960) and Mini Cooper ($24,250) — are available for less than $25,000. Even the underpowered V6 version of Ford's (Stock Quote: F) latest Mustang will cost drivers a minimum $27,000 if they want to put the top down.

"The reality is that companies don't make a lot of convertibles and they don't sell a lot of them, so they're going to be at a premium," Jennings says. "They're statement vehicles and they're that for a manufacturer as well, and that's exactly why you see them now across luxury car lines where people have more disposable income."

Improved climate control and retractable hardtops are making convertibles more convenient, but in a stormy economic climate, they're also becoming less popular. In 2008, automotive marketing company R.L. Polk noted that convertible registrations were down nearly 9% from the boom years of the mid-2000s and comprised only 1.9% of the total marketplace. Since then, five of R.L. Polk's top 10 convertible models — the Toyota (Stock Quote: TM) Camry Solara, Pontiac Solstice and G6, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Saturn Sky — have evaporated, with Fiat threatening to drop the Sebring as part of its Chrysler overhaul next year.

This year's sales results for convertibles have been mixed at best. Sebring sales have doubled year-to-date over the same period in 2009 and Mitsubishi Spyder sales were up 4% last month over 2009. Meanwhile, the Mazda Miata's sales are down more than 42% and Mercedes' SL and SLK convertibles are down 41% and nearly 47% this year.

"Convertibles never have been big sellers because they're inconvenient if the weather's not perfect," Jennings says. "I live in Michigan and we have two convertible days a year. The rest of the year it's either expletive snowing or it's too hot."

Yet automotive technology has made weather far less of an impediment for convertibles today than it was during its populist revival in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Chrysler LeBaron's economical K-car ragtop opened the door for other cheap, noisy rides like the Chevrolet Cavalier and the Oldsmobile Cutlass. The loose doors and rattling frames of those used car nightmares gave way to wind screens behind the seats and, in 1995, the retractable hardtop as the Mazda RX-7 and Mitsubishi 3000 introduced technology later utilized by dream cars from BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar and Porsche.

Now, if you're willing to surrender more than $30,000, convertible hardtops like the Volkswagen Eos (starting at $32,390), Infiniti G ($33,250), Volvo C70 ($40,000) and Lexus SC 430 ($68,405) present ironclad alternatives to popular ragtops like the Audi A5 and the Mini Cooper. With even the Sebring and Miata sporting rigid retractable tops, cost-effective convertibles are similarly practical — just not as plentiful.

"You can have everything," Jennings says. "You can have a fun, top-down car and have a totally responsible car for all kinds of weather."

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