Meenie, Meinie, Moe 

A trio of sunny drop-tops to tempt the unsuspecting aficionado

A trio of sunny drop-tops to tempt the unsuspecting aficionado

It’s summertime, and all you can think of is tooling around in a sexy convertible. Like that guy over there...see? The one with the white daub of sunscreen on his scorching bald pate. Or that gal yonder whose sweaty tank top looks like it’s been tie-dyed with salt stains. All that freedom of the road; all that wind in your hair; all those bugs in your teeth and bird poop in your back seat.

Convertibles are a pleasure that must be earned. They must be justified for their impracticality. They must be endured for their vulnerability to the elements. They must be tolerated for their structural infelicities. But the convertible is also one of life’s great feasts of self-indulgence; and the sequence of justifying, enduring, and tolerating a convertible represents an essential rite of passage for any aficionado seeking to become an adept of the automotive experience. The three convertibles that follow are each, in their own ways, open-air masterpieces whose sole reason to exist is to beguile the unwary with enchanting melodies of windsong.

Volkswagen Cabrio GLX

Behold the girlie-car par excellence. Understand, now, this isn’t a putdown. It’s just that Volkswagen’s lovely Cabrio comes as close to being practical, sensible, cute, and endearing as it’s possible for a convertible to be. After all, she seats four and features an 8-cu.-ft. trunk that’s about 67 percent as large as a compact sedan’s. OK, in terms of muscle, the front-driving Cabrio’s 2.0-liter four is decidedly on the wimpy side with its 115 horsepower and 122 ft.-lbs. of torque. But this gal certainly knows how to throw overhand: She corners like a sprite and brakes like a banshee.

In top-of-the-line GLX trim, VW’s Cabrio costs $22,300 (base) and includes a power cloth top with rear glass window, leather seating, HVAC, and an 8-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system. An optional 4-speed automatic transmission adds $875 to the sticker, but it detracts immeasurably from the car’s sporting potential. Just the same, the as-tested total of $23,175 is quite reasonable, as baubles go. If you forego the leather seats and various other amenities, a GLS Cabrio saves you $1,680; while an entry-level GL version, with a vinyl top, costs $2,680 less than the GLX.

It’s too bad not to have four-wheel independent suspension, and the 14-inch wheels are certainly unsporting. The Cabrio brushes these indignities aside, however, to glory in her four-wheel anti-lock disk brakes and extremely rigid cabin structure owing largely to the basket-handle roll bar. Safety in the form of standard side airbags is another plus. In all, the Cabrio is a charming go-getter whose natural gift is to improve the company she keeps.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Let’s call Mazda’s Miata the Lance Armstrong among roadsters. Just looking at the car, you’d never know there was so much grit and gristle just waiting to shame all rivals. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder is the smallest of the three motors considered here; but thanks to twin-cam architecture and new-for-2001 variable valve timing, it’s by far the pluckiest with its 79 hp-per-liter output (compared to roughly 57 hp-per-liter each for VW’s Cabrio and Chevy’s Z28 SS). What Miata gives away in straight-line speed, it more than makes up for along sinuous backroads; so that by the end of any given barnstorming tour, the Mazda, like Armstrong himself, is poised to dominate all comers with a burst of latent talent.

The Special Edition Miata tested here costs $25,715 and includes all of The Right Stuff: four-wheel disk brakes, four-wheel independent suspension with Bilstein shocks, strut-tower brace, rear drive with Torsen limited slip differential, six-speed close-ratio manual transmission. There’s even an Italianate Nardi steering wheel and shifter knob. ABS brakes are a $480 option. So the as-tested total comes to $26,745. A nearly identical LS version shaves $1,785 off this price, however, while the entry-level Miata with 15-in. wheels starts at only $21,180.

Weighing only 2,387 lbs., the Miata is an ideal companion for a toss through the twisties. Its tuned exhaust note and sky-high redline of 7,000 rpm translate into an induplicable bugle fanfare. With seating for only two and only 5.1-cu.-ft. of trunk space, this is definitely a car for purists. But a purer expression of face-in-the-wind exhilaration is impossible to imagine.

Camaro Z28 SS Convertible

It’s hard to know what to make of the sea change in automotive taste that now relegates Chevy’s Camaro Z28 SS convertible to the outer shores of relevancy. This he-man of open-top muscle cars, this priapic potentate of performance is so little enticing to today’s gadabouts that Chevy has all but confirmed it will conclude Camaro production with the 2002 model year, after 35 years of existence.

So it’s high time to savor the tire-shredding thrill of a high horsepower, rear-drive V8 for old time’s sake. Actually, the “basic” Z28 is good for 310 hp and 340 ft.-lbs. of torque in 2001; but with the application of the “SS performance/appearance” package, costing $3,950, the SS convertible is good for 325 horses and 350 ft.-lbs.

As tested, Chevy’s SS convertible totals $34,225 for 2001, although in standard Z28 trim, base price is only $28,750. With seating for four and a 7.6 cu.-ft. trunk, the SS makes a pretense toward practicality. The standard automatic transmission and puny exhaust note do nobody any good, certainly—except for the clutch-foot- or hearing-impaired, of course. But ultimately, this is a middle-aged babe magnet whose powers of attraction are decidedly on the wane. A zero-to-60 time of about five seconds, and a rip through the quarter-mile in 13.5 are both plenty fast; but clearly they’re not fast enough to keep pace with changing tastes in a performance climate that’s trending toward subtlety.

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