It might be a niche market, but there are enough elegant convertibles to please the wind-in-the-hair aficionados


The soft top (always down of course); the look an edgy, sleek racy shape. Adventure and finesse in abundance. That is the image that springs to mind when you hear the word convertible. The association is Hollywood, road trip, freedom; a spirit of rebellion and a statement of style. But in the booming era of motoring comfort and functionality, where does it leave the niche, labelled convertible that for decades stood as a symbol of leisure and fun?

Well, it leaves the niche smaller than ever before. And in a market where even the ever-popular business sedan is struggling to keep up with the SUV and crossover craze, convertibles are nearly being consigned to the history books. According to a CNBC report, convertibles accounted for less than 0.5% of US new car sales in 2021, while according to the International Energy Agency, nearly 50% of new car purchases globally in 2022 were SUVs. And you needn’t look to buying behaviour but rather just your city streets to realise that the appeal of ‘wind in the hair’ has been overtaken by a desire for ground clearance and bigger boot space. A panoramic sunroof is good enough, many would argue from the seats of their BMW X5s and Mercedes GLEs.

Yet a segment so iconic in the history of motoring and pop culture can’t simply be put out to pasture. Despite the global movement towards more pressing demands – such as electric mobility and bigger and better SUVs – there are still those manufacturers intent on preserving the relic, and in the year 2024 there remains a select family of cars, styled for those who are still seeking an open-top ride.

It must be said, though, that you won’t be finding a roadster on the cheap, and the market that still exists for new convertibles will be played by the affluent. While options are dominated typically by luxury manufacturers (and sports cars at that), there is a shortlist that tries to speak to some variation – in both price and style – within the soft-top segment.

A UK manufacturer timelessly associated with style, MINI Cooper introduced its first proper convertible car in 1992, at the NEC Motor Show. The soft-top silhouette got its first update in 2004 and then received another one in 2015, which has remained largely untouched until now. To be fair, you would be hard-pressed to find any MINI Cooper that has made major stylistic changes over the years. At the beginning of 2023, at the Shanghai Motor Show, MINI introduced the world to its first emission-free convertible, the MINI Cooper SE Convertible, to be built in a limited batch of 999 vehicles and, unfortunately, not sold in SA. The drop-top that local MINI enthusiasts can get excited about, however, is the MINI Convertible Seaside edition, announced at the end of 2022 and built to celebrate, according to MINI’s description, ‘30 years of top-down excitement’. Outside of the special edition Seaside convertibles, the standard MINI Convertible and MINI Convertible S configurations are available to the SA market. MINI’s work on an emissions-free convertible, as well as updates to the existing MINI Convertible models, represent a statement of intent from the British manufacturer to keep the soft-top dream alive.

Seventy years ago the first SL 300 was released by Daimler-Benz as a racing car, with no intentions of taking to the street. Well, it became an icon among the Mercedes-Benz portfolio and in mid-2023 the all-new SL 43 was announced for SA markets to continue the legacy of the roadster. The Mercedes SL-Class is a classic among the sporty soft tops that characterised the early convertible boom, and after many updates and iterations, the seventh-generation model hit the market stylishly and unashamedly. Albeit, expensively. Developed under AMG guidance, the SL has returned to its sportiest roots, with the SL 43 being the entry point, and the SL 55 and SL 63 offered above that. A retractable rear spoiler, long bonnet, short tail and big wheel arches ensure the SL retains its classic sports cabriolet look, while its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine combined with a world-first electric turbo, leaves nothing to be desired in terms of performance. Powered by Mercedes’ latest MBUX system, an 11.9-inch touchscreen decorates the centre console, complemented by a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. Nappa leather seats for added comfort (even for those unlucky enough to be crammed into the back row). The electronically operated folding fabric roof opens or closes in just 15 seconds, even at speeds of up to 60 km/h.

Probably not the first vehicle that comes to mind in the convertible segment, but think about it… Since debuting in 1987 the Jeep Wrangler – inspired by the legendary Willys Jeeps – has developed cult status among rock-crawling off-road enthusiasts and, in more recent years, promenade-cruising city folk. What these two types of buyers do have in common is that the roof of their Wrangler is often removed. Jeep sold its 5 millionth Wrangler in late 2023 and, in SA, three models are available for purchase – the Unlimited Sport, the 3.6 Rubicon and the Unlimited 3.6 Rubicon. Shortly after the sale of its 5 millionth Wrangler, Stellantis (which owns Jeep) announced plans for an all-electric Wrangler close to 2030. Like MINI, Jeep’s move towards electric mobility should ensure a long and happy life for its convertible vehicle. For now, South Africans can continue to enjoy the V6 petrol engine that powers the current Wranglers.

FIAT 500c
We’ve mentioned the Jeep, so might as well get the other less-conventional cabriolet out the way – the Fiat 500c, that little Italian hatchback you’ve most likely seen cruising around with cream paintwork and a red soft top (it does come in other colours). The new Fiat 500 Cabrio comes with plenty of technology, including daytime-running LED lights, tyre-pressure sensing, a 7-inch touch-screen radio and hands-free Bluetooth functionality, while steering-wheel controls add functionality and safety. Powered by a 0.9-litre, two-cylinder turbo petrol engine, your driving experience may be more breeze than wind in the hair, but a claimed fuel economy of 4.5 l/100 km is an enticing counterpoint to the lack of power. There’s no reason to believe that Fiat’s endearing, diminutive convertible will be dying out any time soon, especially considering it has been given electric treatment abroad, though the petrol model is still the only one available in SA.

Back to the stereotypical open-air aesthetic. Three redesigns and 30 years later, the Mazda MX-5 Miata continues to uphold the spirit of the soft-top roadster. The two-door drop-top has been given some refreshing for 2024, with the introduction of an 8.8-inch infotainment system running Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, tweaks to suspension and steering and new LED headlights incorporating daytime-running lights flanking an updated grille design. Also called the MX-5 Roadster, the lightweight sports cabriolet is safe for another few years at least, with electrification expected to be the next step after 2025.

It’s hard to talk about the Mazda MX-5 without immediately thinking about the BMW Z4, and the German firm delivered food for thought when it quietly added a refreshed Z4 roadster to the SA roster. Just more than 20 years old, the Z4 roadster has retained much of the same character, hardly deviating in styling cues and still prioritising the typical grunt of a BMW performance car. SA buyers will have two options to choose from – the Z4 sDrive20i, powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder petrol engine; and the flagship Z4 M40i, whose twin-turbo 3.0-litre, straight-6 petrol engine will appease those not interested in the new fashion of downsized motors. A redesigned grille with a horizontal inner structure and updated side air intakes leads the styling changes, while the M-sport package that ships standard in the Z4 sDrive20i includes Vernasca leather upholstery, a leather-trimmed M-sport steering wheel, M-sport seats, M-sport suspension and the BMW Individual high-gloss Shadow Line package. Essentially, all those luxury-styled ingredients that roadster owners have historically championed. Finished in bold new colour ways, the updated Z4 pays homage to the touchstone elements of the classic convertible – daring, luxurious, sleek, stylish and unique.

By Oliver Keohane
Images: Courtesy of BMW Group, Stellantis Media, Mercedes-Benz