If you’ve ever wondered why rainy old Britain is one of Europe’s hot spots for convertibles, it’s because it’s not too hot. Driving roof-down in sunnier climes can be a recipe for sweltering sticky car seats and sunburn, but here in the UK we combine an often dreary climate that provokes a strong urge to make the most of what sunshine comes our way with occasional balmy summers just made for open-top drives through the countryside. Even the UK’s generally mild spring and autumn can offer delightful opportunities for driving roofless, when it can be a genuinely exhilarating experience to waft along accompanied by the twitter of birdsong and the risk of an occasional cloudburst.
We Brits have always been outdoorsy in our transport choices, and at the dawn of motoring it was simply natural to continue where horses and open carriages left off. Early Rolls-Royce and Bentley models were typically open to the elements with phaeton and landaulette bodies from coachbuilders of old.
It wasn’t just the exotics either. Across last century marques such as MG, Austin Healey and Triumph made hay out of the British love affair with open sports cars, when light weight and agility were key to the best performance.
Nowadays, even the best convertibles tend to be considered less sporting than their coupe brethren by purist drivers, largely because a unibody with a roof is typically more rigid than a roadster. That means better suspension control, and ultimately faster cornering potential – although some modern-day makers of convertibles like McLaren with their super-rigid carbonfibre body tubs would beg to differ.
Which convertible should you choose?
McLaren and fellow supercar makers like Aston Martin, Ferrari and Lamborghini sit at the top of the convertible tree, but there are a multitude of options available to open-air enthusiasts at all budget levels.
For the ultimate in relaxed cruising, there’s the Rolls-Royce Dawn, which qualifies as the largest and most expensive convertible on sale. At the other end of the scale is the diminutive Smart EQ ForTwo Cabriolet, and in-between there’s a vast range of convertible models based on superminis, hatchbacks, coupes and saloons. Thanks to the demand for SUV and crossover models, nowadays you can even get convertible versions of the Range Rover Evoque and Volkswagen T-Roc – proving demand for convertibles isn’t confined to drivers with sporting aspirations.
That’s not to say sporty drivers aren’t well served with the best convertible options, of course. There’s a vast array of fabulous open-topped sportscars available, from the Audi R8 Spyder to the BMW, Mercedes and Jagaur all vie for enthusiast’s cash with their convertible sports models like the Z4, AMG GT and F-Type, and how could we forget the near iconic Mazda MX-5, Mini, Golf, or even the Caterham 7?
There’s also a strong contingent of more middle-of-the-road options with four seats like the Audi A5 and Mercedes C-Class cabrios, and even for drivers on a tighter budget there are city car and supermini options that allow you to sample the delights of going topless: the Citroen C1, Peugeot 108, and Toyota Aygo all offer canvas roofs that roll back, and so does the Fiat 500.
Our round-up of the best convertibles isn’t a true top ten list, because the sheer diversity on offer means not all these cars can be fairly compared. Instead it’s our pick of the cars that will give you the wind-in-the-hair thrills of open-top motoring, while still delivering everyday usability that means they’re no hardship to run. And who knows? Some of these cars are so effective at keeping the cabin warm on a cold day that you could consider lowering the roof even when it’s cold outside…
1. MINI Convertible
The MINI Convertible has grown up a lot since earlier generations – it’s less cute and cuddly than before, and a bit more focused too. It retains MINI’s trademark ‘go-kart’ handling, and the addition of wind-in-the-hair thrills just improves this further.
The roof folds quickly and neatly into the rear of the car, but it does impact boot space and rear legroom quite significantly – and the MINI didn’t have a lot of this to sacrifice. Treat it as a two-seater with occasional luggage room and the MINI Convertible could be perfect for you.
It has pedigree too. The MINI Convertible won our coveted Convertible of the Year prize in 2016, and claimed it again in 2018 and 2019. The new MINI Yours Customised service allows buyers to add another level of personalisation, with 3D-printed panels both inside and out, while bespoke puddle lights are offered too.
2. Mazda MX-5
The fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 had some big boots to fill. Unprecedented success over the last 25 years has elevated Mazda’s roadster to become the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car. We especially love them here in the UK, with around half of all Mazda MX-5s sold in Europe going to British buyers.
Smaller, and over 100kg lighter and more efficient than its predecessor, the latest Mazda MX-5 has gone back to its roots in a bid to offer genuine lightweight sports car thrills for buyers whose pockets aren’t deep enough for a Porsche Boxster.
The fabric roof stows manually behind the driver and passenger – although if that’s too much effort for you, there’s the electric hard-topped MX-5 RF – while the boot and cabin offer more space, despite the car’s smaller footprint on the road.
3. Mercedes E-Class Convertible
Step up in size again from the Audi A3 Cabriolet, and you’ll come across the Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet. Undeniably stylish both inside and out, the plush cabin – inspired by the S-Class – contains high quality materials and an advanced infotainment system.
In many ways the E-Class feels like a baby S-Class, offering genuine four-seat comfort thanks to the fact that it’s wider and taller than the previous model. A surprisingly big boot is another mark in the E-Class Cabriolet’s favour, although with a starting price in the region of £45,000, it’ll be a little pricey for some buyers.
The fact that there are sharper cabriolets to drive must be factored into the equation, but admittedly, few are as nice to be in or offer as much sophistication on the road, either with the roof up or down. If you’re more likely to be cruising along a boulevard than a winding B-road, this is the drop-top for you.
4. Porsche 718 Boxster
Convertibles don’t get any more fun than the Porsche 718 Boxster, even with a switch from flat-six to turbo flat-four engines. Whether you go for the 296bhp 2.0-litre Boxster or more powerful 345bhp 2.5-litre Boxster S, you’re guaranteed driving thrills, even if the four-cylinder engines can’t quite match the old flat-six for sonorous charm.
Both models come with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed PDK automatic gearboxes, and the latter reduces running costs. Fuel consumption is a claimed 38mpg on the manual – amazing considering the performance on tap – while 168g/km emissions mean competitive company car tax bills.
While the update to the 718 models mainly focused on the engines, the dimensions remained the same. That means there’s plenty of space inside for two – driver and passenger have decent room in the well-built two-seat interior. There’s also a decent sized glovebox, and the Boxster impresses with its luggage capacity: there’s a 150-litre boot and another 130-litre space in the nose. Plus, the soft-top folds in nine seconds, and can be operated even at low speeds, while pop-up rollover hoops boost safety.
5. Audi A5 Cabriolet
The A5 Cabrio’s fabric roof is a sophisticated multi-layered item that keeps noise at bay to the extent that refinement is not much different to the Coupe when you want to keep the weather out. When you want to let the weather in, the top drops in an efficient 15 seconds.
The handling is not quite as sharp as the Coupe, thanks to a softer suspension set-up. In Comfort mode we think the ride quality is marginally nicer than the Mercedes C-Class Cabrio, one of the Audi’s key rival.
The A5 has a decent range of engine options, with a torquey two-litre four-cylinder diesel still making a lot of sense thanks to 50+mpg. There’s also a two-litre petrol, and a 245hp quattro-only option for the power-hungry. That said the A5 Cabriolet is no sports car, but it’s a terrifically practical cruiser that’s fun to drive, has plenty of kerb appeal and is luxuriously trimmed and specified.
6. Mercedes C-Class Convertible
Mercedes has a history of building classy convertibles, and the latest C-Class Cabriolet maintains that tradition. It’s helped by the fact it’s based on the cool looking C-Class Coupe, which is an elegant four-seater already. But the Cabrio gets a thickly insulated folding fabric top that lets you choose between closed roof refinement or wind-in-the-hair fun.
The engine range stretches from mild to wild, with the C 200 and C 220 d models offering cruising comfort and efficiency, while the C 350 d raises the performance stakes before you get to the proper fast C 43 AMG and mental C 63 AMG high-performance versions.
While the AMG cars are fun to experience, you’re better off with the smaller engines, because they deliver the kind of comfortable pace that makes top-down driving fun, but without particularly heavy running costs.
7. Porsche 911 Cabriolet
Buyers looking for the sharpest handling four-seat convertible should look no further than the Porsche 911 Cabriolet. The price is high – entry-level models will set you back over £80k – but this car is as good to drive as the latest 911 coupe – and with a flick of a switch, even at speeds of up to 35mph, the fabric roof folds in 13 seconds.
As with the regular 911, the Convertible comes in 380bhp 3.0-litre Carrera and Carrera 4 guises, or as a Carrera S or Carrera 4S with 444bhp. All models offer exhilarating performance, although that means steep running costs – even the basic cars manage fuel consumption of only 26-28mpg, while insurance group ratings are high, too.
The interior feels reassuringly expensive, though, and buyers can expect to have few problems with their car. That said, the 911 Cabriolet isn’t particularly practical – the luggage space in the nose is 132 litres, and the dimensions and engine layout mean the rear seats aren’t much use for passengers. They do double as handy extra room for luggage, however.
8. BMW Z4
With three generations now under its belt, the BMW Z4 has been a great success story for the German car maker. While the previous model was a bit of a boulevardier with its folding metal hardtop, the latest version has a traditional feel once more thanks to its canvas soft-top.Format and fun-factor aside, there’s not much else that’s traditional about the Z4 which has sharp contemporary styling and efficient, powerful engines for all the performance you need. Or in the case of the 335bhp Z4 M40i, more than you probably need.
Previously only available with a paddle-shift eight-speed auto, there’s a new six-speed manual option for the entry-level two-litre.
While the Z4 in any guise is not as nimble as the Porsche 718 Boxster, it’s still a great deal of fun to drive and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. It’s also a lot more practical, as it has a bigger rear boot.
All versions are well-equipped too, with 18-inch alloys, Live Cockpit infotainment system, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and LED headlights standard across the range.
9. BMW 2 Series Convertible
While it may not have the desirability as some of the other cars on this list, the BMW 2 Series Convertible shouldn’t be overlooked for those seeking a practical, stylish, fun to drive four-seat convertible.
Acting as a replacement for the old 1 Series Convertible, the 2 Series Convertible heaps on the style appeal with its elegant coupe-like lines and long swooping bonnet and is a far cry from the old, awkward-looking 1 Series. BMW has stuck with a soft-top roof to add to the design appeal of the car, with owners able to spec the triple-layered roof in a variety of colours to add a touch of personalisation.
But if you think this is just all talk and no trousers then you’d be mistaken as the 2 Series Convertible drives almost as well as its coupe sibling meaning it is great fun behind the wheel thanks to BMW adding extra strengthening around the body. The Convertible is around 20 per cent stiffer than the Coupe meaning any troublesome body wobble is kept at a minimal.
With a decent-sized boot and enough room inside to comfortably fit four adults, the BMW 2 Series Convertible is a great soft-top. Now that Audi has killed off the A3 Cabriolet, there are not too many direct rivals for the BMW, giving it a unique position by having the class all to itself.
10. Audi TT Roadster
The Audi TT is something of an icon, it’s been popular for so long. The latest version is the best yet, thanks to a chassis that provides agile performance and fun driving characteristics, with the added security of grippy quattro four-wheel drive.
The TT doesn’t offer driving responses that are as sharp or pure as the Porsche 718 Boxster, nor does it have the bruising appeal of the muscular six-cylinder BMW Z4. But on a challenging cross-country route it would keep pace with both, while also being immensely practical, unchallenging and easy to live with. It’s a familiar TT proposition, just done better than ever. The punchy 242bhp 45 TFSI model is especially appealing with its 5.5 second 0-62mph time, and slick-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission.
The entry level two-litre with 197bhp isn’t as quick, but it’s just as much fun. It’s attractively kitted out too, with 18-inch alloys, Xenon headlamps and seductive Alcantara sports seats.
What’s your favourite soft-top? Let us know in the comments below…