When it comes to top-down motoring, Britain has a weird love-hate relationship with it thanks to our indecisive weather cycles. But, if you’re in the love part of that relationship, here are our top 10 convertibles that will get your juices flowing.
There’s something pure and elemental about driving a convertible. On the right day, in the right scenery, you can feel truly at one with the machine beneath you while the multi-sensory whooshing of nature itself serves to amplify the hedonistic experience. The roar of the engine, the artful rearrangement of your barnet, there’s nothing quite like it.
Now, summer is just around the corner, and you know what that means: the roof goes down, the tunes go up, life is sweet. We know it may seem hard to imagine right now – at the time of writing, the weather is pinballing undecidedly between glorious sunshine and random unexpected snow – but the sun will come, we promise. Remember how ludicrously tropical the summer of 2020 was? Get ready for that again, we’re offering you a bulletproof Fast Car meteorological guarantee. And if you want to grab yourself a desirable rag-top to see you through the season, now’s the time to strike – after all, when the roof comes down, the price goes up! So crack out the factor 50 and maybe invest in some manner of hat – we’ve split our top ten convertibles into five affordable cars (sub-£10k) and five aspirational ones (£10k+) so there’s something for everyone… and there’s not a sniff of scuttle shake in the bunch, every single one is a proper roofless icon.
Top 10 convertibles
One of the best things about a convertible is that you can hear the engine better. And when you’ve got an engine as sweet as the F20C, you may never want to put the roof up again. It’s an absolute screamer of a motor, a VTEC four-pot serving up 237bhp at a howling 8,300rpm, redlining at 9,200rpm, and featuring clever cam timing, forged pistons with ultra-low-friction skirts, and all sorts of other clever race-car tech. It sounds utterly glorious.
Honda’s iconic S2000 enjoyed a ten-year production run; designed from the off to be a drop-top with strong sporting credentials, the company developed a chassis that was super-light and incredibly stiff, and the cleverness of the engine is complemented by a fancy digital dash, allowing you to observe the rapid building of revs in a colourful streak. And while the body is crisply styled in a way that really hasn’t aged too badly at all, the relatively sober lines mean that it flies under the radar of the average motorist, which is good news for the likes of us. It’s basically a race car underneath, and no-one suspects a thing.
There were two generations: the AP1, from 1999-2003, featured that revered layout of F20C engine, six-speed manual gearbox and Torsen LSD; there was a minor facelift in 2002. The AP2 was built from 2004-09, with a variety of significant alterations; it had revised suspension to reduce oversteer as well as 17in wheels (replacing the old sixteens); spring and shock rates were altered and toe-in reduced along with the addition of a softer rear ARB, the steering ratio was reduced, and the subframe was strengthened. A number of exterior changes signified the reworked model: oval tailpipes, redesigned bumpers, new headlights and LED taillights. But all S2000s are cool, you really can’t go wrong.
Price today: £9,000 (be quick, this is an appreciating motor in 2021)
Top mods: The chassis leans a little more toward the GT spectrum in stock form, but you can sharpen this up with a set of anti-roll bars from Eibach. The stock brakes are good but the pedal feel could be better, so a set of Goodridge braided lines is your friend here. There are a lot of induction options, with K&N’s FIPK being regarded as offering decent gains for the S2000; this can be paired with a Milltek cat-back to help the F20C find its voice. And for those rare (ahem) days when it’s drizzly and bleak, why not grab yourself a Seibon carbon-fibre hard-top? It’s a pricey move, but the quality speaks for itself.
Buying Guide: Honda S2000
Porsche 997 Carrera 2
The so-called lesser 997s are looking like tremendous value at the moment. ‘Lesser’ is a loaded term, of course; it’s easy to get caught up in the lunacy of the GT3, the laser-guided terror of the Turbo, or even the everyday mischief of the C4S, but the Carrera 2 is still a formidable machine that most of its peers would struggle to keep up with on the right roads. Indeed, many prefer the base model for its relative simplicity and uncluttered purity – it’s the classic 911 formula: that swoopy, generation-spanning profile, with a perky engine sitting over the only driven wheels, no fuss, no messing. And the fact that you can find really attractive-looking examples for a smidge under £30k makes them a viable and entertaining alternative to that shiny new SUV you may have been eyeing up. The days are gone when you can pick up a 997 C2 for £20k (well, unless you fancy the gamble of netting one that “needs work”), but that value trajectory merely reinforces the fact that now is the time to strike. They won’t be this inexpensive again.
The 997 (built from 2004-13) is unusual in that it was the first generation of 911 to be designed as a convertible first, with the coupe design following – the thinking being that it’s harder to engineer a drop-top to be stiff, so they might as well do the tricky job first. In Carrera guise, you get a 3.6-litre flat-six serving up 325bhp, a really sweet gearbox, rear-wheel drive and a chassis to die for. Bit of a looker too, isn’t it?
Price today: £30,000
Top mods: Stock brakes don’t last long, which is all the excuse you need to upgrade – get yourself a set of grooved discs and YellowStuff pads from EBC for that all-important extra bite. BC Racing offers a set of quality coilovers for the 997 at a surprisingly affordable price, and that tech is hardy and proven. A lightweight flywheel is a good idea, as the stock item is needlessly heavy – the guys at Porsche Shop can help you here. GT3 seats occasionally pop up on eBay too, and they’re well worth a punt.
Mazda MX-5 2.0 (NC)
Through all generations of MX-5 development, Mazda followed the concept of ‘jinba ittai’, a term that loosely translates as ‘rider and horse as one’. Like the NA and NB, the new-for-2005 NC had to follow five specific criteria: to be as compact and light as possible, to comfortably accommodate two people with no wasted space, to have a front-mid engine layout and RWD for a 50:50 weight distribution, to have wishbone or multi-link suspension at each corner, and to have an engine frame that provided a solid connection to the diff for sharp throttle response.
The NC’s body offered a radical new look, with bulging arches and an up-and-at-’em stance. And whereas the NA/NB had a canvas roof as standard with the option of a removable hardtop, the NC could be had with either canvas or an integrated folding hardtop – which added 36kg to the weight, but impressively didn’t intrude upon boot space.
The NC was a clean-sheet design, sharing nothing with its NB predecessor. Suspension was revised from a four-wheel double wishbone setup to the RX-8’s front wishbone/rear multilink arrangement, and the engine was the new MZR 16-valve four-pot (sourced from Ford) – 1.8-litres for 126bhp, 2.0-litres for 160bhp. It’s the latter we’d go for, and the six-speed manual version came with an optional LSD for maximum awesomeness. Mazda released the folding hardtop variant in mid-2006, naming it ‘Roadster Coupé’ (commonly referred to as ‘RC’). A facelift arrived in 2008, known as the NC2; the rev limit was raised slightly, and the front roll-centre was lowered to improve turn-in. A larger grille and restyled headlights brought the design in line with the rest of the model range, and power increased to 167bhp. A further facelift, the NC3, came in 2013, again redesigning the nose. So there’s a lot of choice out there, and the used market is flooded with ’em.
Price today: £7,000
Top mods: Power is easy to find with the 2.0 – BBR’s Super 180 package will give you an easy 24bhp gain, with just a 4-into-1 manifold and a remap. Milltek are the go-to guys for a fusion of power and noise from the pipework, and the suspension is an important area to address: the OEM dampers wear out surprisingly quickly, and the stock ride height is comically high anyway, so you want to get it on quality coilovers – talk to Skunk2 about their Pro ST option. And how about a bit of forced induction? BBR’s turbo kit for the NC will give you an extra 104bhp and 85lb ft – it includes a Garrett GT turbo, manifold, Starchip, intercooler, bigger injectors, and everything else you need.
BMW M3 (E46)
The E46 M3 is a desirable option, being recent enough to be solid and dependable, yet old enough to provide a classic and (relatively) analogue driving experience. It’s the archetypal M formula – brawny straight-six up front, drive to the rear, sublime handling and plenty of readily exploitable power. When the model broke cover in late-2000, it boasted an engine of such awe-inspiring firepower, it provided the highest specific output of any mainstream BMW engine thus far. A robust 343bhp from its 3.2-litre six meant that it went like stink and had muscle in spades, adding a whole lot of adrenalised, pumped-up aggression to the standard coupé’s sober lines. For moneyed purists, the Coupé Sport Leichtbau, or CSL, of 2004 is the dream-garage car – limited to just 1,400 examples, it enjoyed race-derived suspension, a tighter steering ratio, E39 M5 brakes, a 110kg weight reduction thanks to copious use of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic and the junking of anything unnecessarily heavy (sound deadening, seat motors, sat-nav, etc), thinner glass, racy bucket seats, a simplified steering wheel that lost all of the stereo and phone controls and had just one button for ‘M Track Mode’, and a handful of extra horses under the bonnet. Externally, you’ll find the single eye-catching addition that most E46 owners crave: that ducktail spoiler. But as collectors start to shell out silly money on CSLs (£40k is the entry point, low-mileage examples are creeping towards six figures), the ‘mainstream’ E46 M3s are starting to look like remarkable value. Available as either two-door coupé or cabriolet, buyers had the option of a six-speed manual or SMG-II transmission to go with their hugely powerful S54; standard kit included 18in M wheels, leather upholstery, xenon headlights (bi-xenons on post-2001 cars), sports seats, sports suspension, Dynamic Throttle Control, cruise control, titanium interior trim, Cornering Brake Control, ISOFIX points and a trip computer. Well-appointed, practical and sumptuously comfortable, yet also able to lap the Nordschleife in 8:22, all available today for the price of a new base-model Fiesta. What’s not to like?
Price today: £13,000
Top mods: Got the brass neck to fit a CSL ducktail to a cabrio? If so, SSDD Motorsport can sell you the requisite bootlid. The E46 M3 came with ITBs as standard, so you’d be crazy not to fit a set of velocity stacks, right? Status Gruppe can help you bring the noise there. (Ignore the naysayers complaining about heat soak, the sound will make you grin like a loon.) HSD coilovers are a proven choice to sharpen up the handling, and you’ll probably want to be getting a set of Rotiform BRU wheels on there won’t you? Go on, shake things up a bit.
BMW Z4 (E85)
The Z4, it has to be said, is quite a weird little car. These roadsters generally pass reasonably unnoticed today, thanks to the inherent cushioning system of Father Time’s mighty pendulum – the fact that they’ve been around a few years means that we’re used to them, we’ve accepted them. Radically designed cars don’t stay radical for long – the Ford Ka, the Peugeot 206, the Fiat Multipla, they seemed outlandish and alien and daft-as-a-brush at launch, but now they’re just other cars to blend into the mish-mash of day-to-day traffic.
The E85 Z4 very much belongs in that list too. As a replacement for the Z3, it was a pretty bold step; the Z3 had the classic roadster profile – long bonnet, rearward cabin, stubby tail – and the Z4 built on these design touchpoints, but added in a whole heap of strangeness. Look at it side-on, for example, and try to work out what the thinking was behind the front wings; there’s quite a wide variety of lines and angles vying for attention there, isn’t there? The rear bumper appears to be wearing a droopy moustache like a pantomime Mexican villain, while the front end looks remarkably like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This, of course, is all very good. Life’s too short to drive boring cars, after all, and BMW’s decision to infuse a whole bunch of weirdness into a model they knew would be a volume-seller ought to be robustly applauded. The roadster launched in 2002 with either 2.5- or 3.0-litre engines, but the ones we’d steer you toward would be the post-2006 models. The LCI facelift replaced the six-cylinder M54 engine with the newer N52, and there were a few tasty styling tweaks; find yourself a 3.0si and you get 261bhp!
Price today: £7,000
Top mods: Job one is to get it remapped – AmD Tuning are your guys for this, their easy and affordable map whacks a 3.0si straight up to 284bhp. Eibach Pro-Kit springs are well regarded for sharpening up the handling without radically altering anything. There are a lot of exhaust options, but connoisseurs often gravitate toward Eisenmann – their stainless performance systems really liven up the already perky N52. And scouring your favourite online auction site could net you a set of multispoke Alpina Classics, which will look boss under your rag-top.
One of the coolest Vauxhalls ever built? Most definitely. And don’t panic if griffins aren’t necessarily your bag, because the VX220 is essentially a Lotus Elise under the skin, to the extent that it was even built at the Lotus Cars plant in Norfolk… although very few parts are actually interchangeable between the two and, crucially, the VX220 has the right engine: whereas the Elise of this era used a Toyota motor, the VX is packing a full-fat Z22SE 2.2-litre Ecotec or, in VX220 Turbo form, the Z20LET 2.0-litre turbo.
The reason this car came to exist in the first place is that crash legislation had killed off the first-gen Elise, and Lotus couldn’t afford to develop its replacement without the cash injection of a big corporation; enter General Motors from stage left, offering to bankroll the project in return for receiving their own Opel- and Vauxhall-badged variants on the same platform. So the VX220 (badged as the Opel Speedster in Europe) came to exist, featuring a lightweight aluminium chassis tub, GRP body, and all-aluminium 2.2-litre motor. It weighed 875kg and had 145bhp, which made it a riot to drive – but there were calls for more power, hence the addition of the VX220 turbo to the line-up. This was slightly heavier at 930kg, but it had 200bhp and went like it had a missile up its backside.
Second-hand prices today start at around £12k, which is markedly cheaper than the Lotus equivalent. Pop out that roof panel and go and have some fun!
Price today: £12,000
Top mods: The single greatest addition to a Z22SE-engined VX220 is a Larini exhaust system – these supercar-spec pipes are of impeccable quality and sound truly apocalyptic; you can grab them from elise-shop.com. If you’ve got a VX220 Turbo, that Z20LET can be easily remapped by Courtenay Sport to liberate a juicy 237bhp, which will give a startling power-to-weight ratio. The stock seats are light, but carbon fibre Tillett seats will be even lighter. And since the front wheels are skinny, a lot of owners swap them for 7.5-inch-wide rims which can run wider tyres. The PCD is 5×110 so you have a lot of options – how about a set of Speedline Type 2110 five-spokes?
VW Beetle TSI (A5)
You could call it the New New Beetle, but people might look at you funny. Launched in 2011, the fresh Bug for the 2010s was internally designated ‘A5’, so that’s the name we stick with despite it also confusingly being the name of an Audi.
What was different about the A5 Beetle? Well, while retaining a basic silhouette that called to mind the original classic Beetle, this one was lower and sleeker and meaner; whereas the New Beetle of 1998 was cute, the A5 was angry. Which was kind of a confusing position to take, but somehow it worked brilliantly.
Sharing its basic A5 platform (hence the code) with the Jetta and the Golf estate, it was a bigger and more imposing thing – and interestingly, rather than coming out of Wolfsburg like your neighbour’s Golf, A5 Beetles were all built in Mexico. So the German efficiency has a frisson of Latin flair baked right in. A variety of petrol and diesel engines were offered, but you don’t really want a derv in your cabrio do you? So TSI is the way to go; 1.2, 1.4 and 2.0 options were available, the latter packing a handy 197bhp, and we all know how tuneable those motors are. And now that the Beetle has gone out of production after all these years with no replacement in sight, there’s no better way to celebrate those decades of heritage.
Price today: £7,000
Top mods: Induction sound is a key area to address with TSI engines, and Forge do some lovely carbon-fibre items to pretty up the bay while also providing some useful gains. You’ll be wanting to get a remap too – a Stage 1 map from Revo will take the 2.0 TSI up to a thoroughly amusing 250-270bhp (and hey, they can even get the 1.2 up to 140bhp). Convertible Bugs look great when they’re bagged, and there’s plenty of Air Lift kits available to get the thing down on the ground. And people are going to see that interior when you’ve got the roof down, aren’t they? Retrim that drab VW cloth with a tasty custom redesign by Plush Automotive.
MINI JCW (F57)
This is the only brand new car in our round up. Naturally the benefit of picking up a shiny new motor is that you’re able to spec it however you want it, and you’ll be the first pair of hands (near enough) to grip that steering wheel. And as long as you’re not too worried about tearing up your warranty, it’s game on for mods as modern MINIs are extremely well served by the aftermarket.
The third-generation MINI hatch/cabrio platform, designated F57 in drop-top guise, has been with us since 2013, and has seen a few detail revisions over the years. The cabrio you really want is the John Cooper Works, or JCW, as this has the truly exciting engine and chassis package. The 2.0-litre turbo four-pot brings a vivid 231bhp to the party, with 0-62mph despatched in a brisk 6.6-seconds, and your hair can get really amusingly messed up at 150mph. As has been MINI’s modus operandi for some time now, the exhaust comes factory-fresh with raucous pops and bangs on the overrun. The Intelligent Adaptive Suspension ensures an entertaining steer through the twisties, and the seats are just brilliant.
Having buggered about with the configurator for probably slightly too long, we’d be tempted to have one painted Island Blue, with the 18in two-tone wheels… although Rebel Green with red mirrors is making a strong case for itself too.
Price today: £32,000
Top mods: Naturally the first thing you’ll want to be doing with your brand new car is to start unbolting bits of it. Start with a Quaife ATB diff, then talk to Airtec about a front-mount intercooler and induction kit. The B48 engine will respond very happily to a Burger Motorsports JB4, the plug-and-play kit throwing an extra 40bhp to the wheels – you can get this from Orranje. A Forge short-shifter is a great addition as well.
Audi TT 2.0 TFSI (Mk2)
Launched in 1998, the Audi TT quickly grew into a bona fide modern classic. It’s not just a beautifully engineered and engaging sports car, it’s a style icon with a bulletproof drivetrain, gorgeous appointments, and a genuinely entertaining driving experience.
Throughout its evolving generations, there has always been a variety of spec options to choose from, ranging from the modestly-powered seafront cruiser to the hairy track-monster, meaning that there’s bound to be something in the range for you, whatever your motoring proclivities. The VAG model strategy through the 1990s and into the new millennium really was inspired; their generous platform-sharing and parts-swapping meant they were able to offer a staggering array of cars which were all fundamentally the same underneath, so if the oil pump went on your Golf and your mechanic didn’t have one on the shelf, they could just grab one labelled ‘Octavia’ or ‘Léon’ or ‘A3’ instead. And that versatile A4 (PQ34) platform also spawned the TT, a slinky little roadster and coupé that immediately became a hero, able to harness proven engines from across the VAG-o-sphere.
In 2006, the Mk2 (8J) TT arrived, and it moved the game on by introducing lightweight aluminium front body panels, fully independent multi-link rear suspension (with Magnetic Ride as an option), an active rear spoiler and optional DSG transmission. A number of engine choices were offered, and we reckon the 2.0 TFSI is the sweet spot in today’s used market – 200bhp is enough to keep you entertained for starters, and there’s oodles of them about so you can be fussy.
Price today: £5,000
Top mods: As with any VAG product, remapping it is your first port of call to beef up the numbers. A Stage 1 Revo remap can get you comfortably over 250bhp, which is much more like it. Suspension options are plentiful; we’d go with a set of KW V2s. A RamAir induction kit is an affordable way to help the TFSI sound tough, and a Cobra Sport exhaust system will ensure that the other end’s sounding cool too.
Buying guide: Audi TT Mk2
Ford Mustang GT V8 (S550)
The world’s best-selling sports car of all time, the Mustang has been an integral part of the motoring landscape since its big reveal at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Various attempts have been made to Europeanise the ’Stang over the years, but the S550 generation is the first to really do it properly – it follows the traditional Mustang format of being a big, brawny coupé with a rumbling V8, but the S550 also comes in right-hand drive for the UK market, so there’s no need to compromise.
It’s interesting to note that you can choose a four-cylinder Mustang these days, and it’s a really good one – there’s Focus RS DNA wrapped up in the 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine, and with 310bhp on offer it’s not exactly shy. However, purists will always zero in on the model that’s packing the 5.0-litre Coyote V8, as this engine format has always been a central part of the Mustang story, and this is the one we’re gently angling you towards today. In the UK market, the earlier cars (from 2015-17) offered 415bhp; from 2018 the displacement increased slightly from 4,951 to 5,038cc, with a resultant power hike to 444bhp for the current showroom model. And yes, they’re all receptive to tuning. Very receptive. In fact, given the legacy and heritage of the decades-old cult of the Mustang, it would most likely be a federal crime to buy a Mustang and not modify it.
Price today: £25,000
Top mods: Start with a chassis bracing pack from Steeda that includes jacking rails, a G-Trac brace and a strut tower brace, these really help stiffen things up and improve the ride and handling. Next up, the CP640 package from Collins Engineering is a superb setup, comprising a Steeda exhaust and induction, plus the CP iflash ECU programming tool with level 1 software, all of which has been honed on Collins’ in-house rolling road. And if you want to go really mental (why wouldn’t you?) how about a Stage 2 Whipple supercharger kit? That’ll give you a raucous 825bhp and endless hero points.
Buying guide: Ford Mustang S550
Tuning guide: Ford Mustang S550