VROOM WITH A VIEW - JSE MAGAZINE

VROOM WITH A VIEW

Convertibles continue to gain popularity in SA thanks to new technology that enhances the experience of going topless

VROOM WITH A VIEW

The first modern hardtop convertible, the 1996 Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster, was not quite as innovative as many thought. Some 62 years earlier Peugeot introduced the concept to the world with the 601 Éclipse, an extraordinarily beautiful tourer. But whether invented by the Germans or the French, the hardtop has found new favour in a contemporary world where longevity and multifunction are everyday bywords.

Yet the iconic ragtop stubbornly refuses to die, even as technological advances ensure that tin tops are as light, as fast and as simple. To understand this, look at the history and lore of the convertible.

Today’s family of roofless cars borrow heavily from the icons of the format’s great era, the 1960s, in style and ethos. It figures then that a material roof is de rigueur. Convertibles are as much about nostalgia and attitude as they are transportation.

The most heralded of the new generation is unquestionably the Jaguar F-Type. It was teased for years as the successor to the E-Type, that legendary car so beloved for its looks, power and grace. A hard act to follow then and the reason why it took Jaguar so long to even try (intervening Jag ragtops have been mediocre at best and never associated with the E-Type).

The good news is the F-Type is as great to drive as was promised, beautiful enough too to stop traffic. There are two V6 models, but the best – the heart of the range – is the 364 kW V8 that manages 0–100 km/h in 4.3 seconds.

But more magnificent than any figure or peerless ability in a tight corner is the sound of the engine, Wagnerian opera and a howl of tortured souls all wrapped in one. Fortunately, for suburban détente the sound can be switched off with a button on the centre console. But who would want to?

Further down the scale, though no less important from its manufacturer’s point of view, is the BMW 4 Series convertible. BMW has watched Audi’s carving up of traditional model niches with interest and, along with Mercedes-Benz, now decided to follow suit and offer ‘intermediate models’, first of which is the 4 Series.

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It is neatly placed between the too conventional, everyman 3 Series and the now enormous 5 Series. The 4 will tell a very different story – chic, boutique, elegant, designer and sophisticated are the words being thrown about. Natural then that a convertible is an absolute necessity to the line-up. BMW has opted for a three-piece hardtop with a very impressive, sound-absorbing headliner.

It closes in 20 seconds and rates as one of the quietest mechanisms on the market. Design-wise there is nothing outstanding, despite BMW’s trumpeting. But it is wider, longer and heavier than the 3 Series convertible, giving it a certain presence in the flesh.

Its driving dynamics are typically excellent – BMW’s new ethos of comfort with sportiness is showing real returns. The 4 Series is a pleasure to guide across bad roads, not something that could have been said of previous generation BMWs.

Higher up the BMW ladder, playing to a very different, hard core tune, the new M6 convertible throws hair design into a spin – 680 Nm and 412 kW mean that eyeball crushing g-forces are the order of the day. The V8 takes no prisoners, rocketing to 100 km/h in little more than four seconds.

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This is no boulevard cruiser. Visually it is intended to intoxicate – low flat, menacing profiles both back and front are pure pleasure to teenage boys. Inside, the curves are continued, with surprisingly retrained M Power motifs hardly in evidence. The roof is again a three-piece metal unit, quick and easy, and in place it is hard to distinguish the convertible from the M6 coupe.

With far less fanfare, Infiniti’s latest addition to its SA line-up slipped into the country. The entire range has been rebadged Q, and the Q60 convertible is, like most Infinitis, a thing of real beauty. The 3.7l V6 from the Nissan 370Z makes sure it is never left wanting, but truly it is all about the looks.

This is no boulevard cruiser. Visually it is intended to intoxicate – low flat, menacing profiles both back and front are pure pleasure to teenage boys

Harking back to the glory days of convertible design, it is a blend of sensual curves and forceful intent. Part plaything, part predator, it is a masterstroke of apparent contradictions. The roof, like the BMW, is a three-piece hardtop-folding affair and notably it gives the car as much presence up as it does folded away.

On the road the Infiniti is weighty – or has presence – depending on who is talking, with that planted, no nonsense solidity that has come to typify the marque. The interior is heavily padded, luxurious and bristling with technology, most of which is easy and intuitive to use.

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Harking back to the glory days of convertible design, it is a blend of sensual curves and forceful intent

Intuition is a word much associated with Audi, both in driving and ergonomics, and few companies have managed to meld the two together with quite so much panache and élan. Flagship in the Audi convertible range (there are six cars in total) remains the R8 Spyder, with its lightweight composite aluminium and carbon-fibre body.

There are two engines available, a 316 kW V8 as well as the melodious 386 kW V10 that revs to a dizzying 8 000 rpm and manages 0–100 km/h in a shade over four seconds. The R8’s roof, high-strength fabric, takes 19 seconds to raise and lower and, unlike many of its contemporaries, really is operational while the car is moving. And moving at fair speeds too – on test in a breezy Cape wind the mechanism engaged at just under 50 km/h.

It may sound incidental, but the security advantages of being mobile while the operation happens are profound. On the road the R8’s uncompromising sports car design means it can get decidedly noisy at anything over 80 km/h with the roof down. The engine soundtrack may be a thing of beauty, but the wind roar is less welcome and can be downright intrusive. With the roof up it is a different matter, all quiet in a cabin as elegantly understated as it is easy to use.

And there’s a surprise too. Uniquely, the R8 features a rear window that can be electrically raised or lowered. The idea? You will probably want to hear that beautiful engine and it is right there, just behind your left elbow.

If the R8 Spyder makes no practical sense in a world of speed bumps, golf days and speed cameras, then the grown-up alternative is, Audi would have everyone believe, in its own stable.

There will be those who value relative anonymity. But let the beast roar, mash the accelerator and the velvet surge is extraordinary

The new RS 5 cabriolet has the grunt of the Spyder, but there’s no need to leave the luggage at home or tuck and roll to get out of it. It has a large boot, unlike the R8’s tiny upfront nose arrangement that is hardly good for three shopping bags, much less a weekend away. More interesting is how utterly different the two similar-engined cars are in feel and character. Audi’s 4.2l V8 churns out 330 kW here, a few more than the R8, but battles to achieve the Spyder’s sprint times. That’s due to the heavy bracing along the undercarriage to compensate for the lack of roof.

Yet oddly it feels faster, perhaps because of the glorious noise, perhaps because you are sitting higher. This is a meaty growler, a pit bull, but also a beast that can pass as a pussy cat when the pipes haven’t been opened. As a boulevard cruiser it can go almost unnoticed, unlike a BMW M5, and there will be those who value that relative anonymity. But let the beast roar, mash the accelerator and the velvet surge is extraordinary.

Rear seat passengers will cling on and scream all the way to a governed 250 km/h in less time than it takes a French waiter on the Boulevard Saint-Germain to fetch a Perrier and croissant.

The RS 5’s only real conundrum is why anyone would choose one in the first place. The conventional V6 Audi S5 cabriolet, a car so completely ‘right’ that anything else seems simply silly, is a full R200 000 cheaper. Granted, Audi’s V8 is a work of art, but ultimately the smaller unit makes a great deal more sense.

No convertibles story can be complete without mentioning Mercedes-Benz’s magnificent E-Class cabriolet. Of the raft of executive convertibles available today, it remains the class act – silky to drive and elegant to behold. The roof is material, which is a deterrent for some, but from a noise point of view it is as silent as its fixed top brethren.

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Gone are the days of a garage especially for the convertible. Today’s breed live outdoors, last through countless winters and offer as much – often more – safety as their fixed roof counterparts.

The ability to be all things to all people – coupe, convertible, people carrier, trendsetter – is the current norm. Thank goodness for that.

By Peter Frost
Images: Jaguar Media, Infinity Media, BMW Media, Mercedes-Benz Media