After one of the most brutal winters ever for many parts of the country, it’s time to put away the windshield scraper, swap out the snow tires, and think about sunny days ahead. And nothing says warm weather like a top-down ride in a convertible. Teenagers call them “ragtops,” the Brits “dropheads,” and continental Europeans “cabriolets,” but for most of us, they’re just plain fun. None too soon, here are my top 10 picks for driving around with the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your hair.
Best starter: VW Beetle
Since acquiring a convertible is like starting a relationship, it is best to begin on familiar ground. The Beetle combines a familiar shape and non-threatening ergonomics with decent performance and true open-air motoring. Caution, men with low esteem issues: VW Beetles are often stigmatized as “chick cars,” meaning guys with something to prove should opt for the turbo-charged R model or even the available diesel. Prices start at $26,395.
Best fabric top: Ford Mustang
Having not been fully redesigned since 2006, the Mustang is overdue for the makeover that it is getting in 2015. In the meantime, aging baby boomers can enjoy a ragtop that reminds them of their youth, while still enjoying the pleasures of a roof that retracts after releasing two latches. Ford (F) gives buyers a choice of engines, ranging from a sedate $28,000 V-6 to a pavement-ripping, supercharged V-8 GT producing 420 horsepower that goes for $20,000 more.
Best hard top: BMW 4-series
You can’t beat the convenience of a metal-roofed convertible like the 4-series, whose top goes up or down in 20 seconds and sets itself in position automatically. The tradeoff is weight, cost, and the odd rear-end proportions that come with having to store all that folded-up metal. The new 4-series coupe is a hit, and the convertible should be equally successful. Prices start at $49,675 for the four-cylinder model and $55,825 for the 435i that is powered by BMW’s incomparable inline six.
Best convertible in disguise: Jeep Wrangler
In addition to offering unmatched off-road capability, the Wrangler goes topless in a number of different ways. The standard soft top can be folded down and the available hard top taken off. In addition, a three-piece modular hardtop allows panels to be removed above the driver and passenger, while the doors are removable and the windshield can be folded down. Expect to pay anywhere from $22,395 to $35,295 for this long-running favorite.
Best stick-shift, entry-level: Mini Cooper Roadster
Mini Coopers are no longer the novelty they were when the brand was revived in 2002, but their charm remains undimmed. The Roadster manual connects a slick-shifting gearbox with six speeds to a perky engine and tight suspension that create Mini’s signature skateboard feel. Its short wheelbase can make for some upsets on bumps, however. Coming up with $25,550 gets you in the driver’s seat.
Best stick-shift, mid-price: Chevrolet Camaro
The Camaro has been burning up racetracks since the brand, first introduced in 1966, was revived in 2009, and now it has been refreshed for 2014. The car has near-unbeatable curb appeal, but reviewers complain about the slow-moving roof with clunky latches. Go for the entry-level Camaro (GM) with a standard 323-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, and it will set you back $33,000. Move all the way up to the 580-hp ZL1, and you’re looking at almost twice that.
Best stick-shift, high end: Porsche Boxster
Everybody’s favorite-driving sports car, the mid-engined Boxster was designed as a convertible so there are none of the usual compromises or add-ons. The power-operated soft top folds in 10 seconds, and it can be opened or closed while the car is traveling at up to 31 mph. Redesigned a year ago, the Boxster’s lines are tighter and its handling quicker — if that were possible. The base Boxster has a 2.7-liter engine that generates 265 hp. Its price starts at $50,400 but can rise steeply after that.
Best living-legend: Ford Mustang
Only this classic could make our list in two different categories. Now nearing the end of its fifth generation, the original pony car has been with us since 1964 and remains widely popular. In March, it outsold the newer Camaro. An all-new Mustang is coming in 2015 that will ditch the slow-moving hydraulic top and antiquated rear suspension, but for now, the 2014 ‘Stang offers a winning combination of style, performance, and price, beginning at $28,520.
Best impossible dream: Mercedes SL
Even older than the Mustang is the SL (for “sport lightweight”) that Mercedes has been making since 1954, beginning with the legendary 300SL. Supposedly, Steve Jobs leased a new SL every six months; it enabled him under California law to avoid having to affix a license plate. At a time when Mercedes is setting sales records, the plush SL remains a genuine rarity. Just 7,007 were sold last year. Prices help limit exposure. They start at $107,625 and go all the way up to $214,500 for high-performance models.
Best all-around: Mazda MX-5 Miata
The best-selling two-seat roadster in history, the Miata has been winning hearts and minds since 1989. The third-generation model could benefit from more frequent updating, but the agile behavior and easy drivability are already maxed out. An automatic transmission and hardtop are available, but true Miata fans go for the six-speed manual and canvas roof. Just $23,370 gets you membership in the club.