SLEEK BEASTS - JSE MAGAZINE

SLEEK BEASTS

In SA, the number of cabriolets and convertibles has risen, thanks mostly to developing technology that ensures ragtops are both safe and adaptable without compromising their appeal

SLEEK BEASTS

Convertibles, particularly in the luxury segment, speak to a need for individuality. Beyond that, however, the more powerful reason is the nostalgia factor, tinged with a dream of freedom. There is simply no better way to enjoy a weekend beyond the concrete than to drop the top, find the B-roads and turn up the sound system. Individuality indeed.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Compelling is a word that comes to mind with Aston’s Vantage, the baby of the stable, and all the better for that. Less weight, more purpose and a price tag that may temporarily tranquillise the accountants, mean it is a persuasive Brit.

An interesting point is that the much cheaper 4.7l V8 is arguably the nicer car. The V12 is heavier with less finesse, and loses some of the Vantage’s admirable sharpness. Equally, the V8 somehow manages to sound better. Add all this to the Aston’s peerless cool factor, its old-school, fabric roof harking back to the 1960s, impressive sub-five second 0–100 km/hr time, a ride that is surprisingly comfortable, and you have a winner.

Inside it’s also cool Aston: luxe, hand-stitched Connolly leather alongside more contemporary tech and wireless gadgetry. It all comes together so very well – the cabin is magnificently handcrafted, right down to the bevelled glass key that slots into the dashboard. It is a library, club lounge, cockpit and control centre all in one.

Porsche Boxster
It seems even the immoveable are not immune to the vagaries of fashion. At long last, Porsche – which traditionally holds turbocharging in low regard – is embarking on a programme of down-sizing their engines and adding turbochargers. Expect a six-cylinder turbocharged 911 soon enough and this – a turbocharged four-cylinder, under the bonnet of the soon-to-be-launched updated Boxster.

It’s a brave move. This model, with its naturally aspirated six-cylinder boxer engine, has a fanatical following – petrolheads who love its low-tech, old-school approach to engineering. The new engine puts it into more direct competition with a host of other fast cabriolets, notably the latest Audi TT. Other changes, in typical Porsche style, are minor… a few tweaks to bumpers and lights.

Mercedes-Benz SL
Before Stuttgart began their global blitz with the current generation of ‘younger’ cars, there was a handful of patently old-fashioned models that, in the rush to bring the average age of the marque’s customer base down, were unfairly tainted with images of retired plutocrats and ageing playboys. The SL was one such model. Thankfully Mercedes hasn’t ended its life or changed too much – the latest incarnation retains the elegance but raises the design temperature.

The new car is beautiful to behold – a delicate balance of prestige and pace. It’s also supremely easy to live with yet capable of bouts of hooligan-ism if pressed, whether in base-model V6 SL 400 or continent-crossing V12 SL 65 AMG. Of the four derivatives, the V8 SL 500 perhaps makes the most sense – fast and fluid sans the pimp-on-a-mission additions or soundtrack of the AMG versions.

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A delicate balance of prestige and pace, it’s also supremely easy to live with yet capable of bouts of hooliganism

Regardless of the model, floor the accelerator and the landscape soon blurs, the proverbial fist in a velvet glove. Boulevard cruiser it is not but it will waft if required, at the touch of a console-mounted, suspension-setting button. It will also knife down the Outeniqua Pass, again, with a tweak of its electronically adjustable adaptive suspension.

Inside, the new SL reflects Merc’s current trend of over-designing smaller detail. It lends their interiors a less-than-appealing air: very busy and seemingly untidy. But it all works well enough and is a comfortable place for a long journey.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabriolet
The latest E-Class changes have found their way into the cabriolet, making it one of the most technically sophisticated cars on the market.

The roof is still fabric to save weight, but lights, chassis and engines have been updated. Outside, the redesigned front end is the car’s most obvious difference – new headlamps and all functional elements are now behind a single lens.

The four-eyed E-Class look remains despite the absence of four actual lights. Instead indicator, position and daytime-running lamps above each pair of headlamps give the impression of old ‘four eyes’.

Lights are important to the E-Class. LED technology is used and makes a world of difference, especially when used together with the smart lighting system, which detects oncoming traffic and dips lights accordingly.

Inside, even with the roof down, things are rarely ruffled. The Mercedes-patented Aircap system deflects buffeting eddies away from the passengers and keeps the cabin quiet. Under the bonnet, a new E 250 petrol engine (a 2l) is available, as well as the V6 E 400 and the V8 E 500 AMG.

BMW M4 and M6
Currently, all is not biscuits-and-Earl Grey at BMW, thanks to the collective Wagnerian storm from fellow Goths Audi and Mercedes-Benz battering the Munich manufacturer and doing plenty of damage.

Part of the problem is a diluting of the brand, which sees it moving away from the key sales points of power, driving pleasure and sportiness. The likes of the bloated GT series and the new 2 Series have received mixed reviews.

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BMW, however, has remembered some of its heritage in the ever-developing range of M-badge cars on the road today.

Two of the best feature here – the M4 and M6 convertibles. Neither is exactly lean, but BMW has managed to cut the fat in both by using composite materials not available in their less illustrious brethren. The 4 Series, which replaces the 3 Series Coupé, is a true GT, meaning it has a boot and two doors, and is sizeable enough to cross continents.

In convertible M-guise, it gains a turbocharger and the iconic BMW six-cylinder engine – cranking out 317 kW of power – and a highly efficient folding metal roof and the ability to frighten armies with its soundtrack. Less exciting is the ride, which is often lumpy and sometimes harsh, despite the requisite ‘comfort’ setting on the adaptive suspension.

For the true master of the long-distance lope, look instead to its big brother, the 4.4l V8 M6. A cruise missile hewn from granite, it is as elegant as it is truly outstanding.

The leviathan is always comfortable – corruga-tions and cavities are dismissed imperiously – and it is capable of indecent turns of speed as well as impressing with its understated, under-the-skin ability. The V8, churning out 412 kW, sounds meaty, while the refined interior is unquestionably the most effective and beautiful of the BMW cockpits.

Audi RS 5 cabriolet
As the Americans are fond of saying, there’s no substitute for cubic centimetres. Audi, though good at building large-turbo, small-displacement engines, have retained – against the tide – their steaming V8 engines for the performance models. That makes sense. Few machines manage Audi’s alchemy of tractable ease and outright power.

Arguably the best example is the bahnstorming Audi RS 5, made even more fun in the cabriolet version. The 4.2l V8 engine works elegantly at most inputs but sheds Jekyll in favour of Hyde if circumstance dictates.

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The bahnstorming Audi RS 5 V8 engine works elegantly at most inputs but sheds Jekyll in favour of Hyde if circumstance dictates

Handling and balance is up to the power, as is comfort and safety. Suede seats, a frankly awesome sound system and more room than almost any other convertible on the market mean it is an usable, everyday car as well as a track tearaway.

What’s more, the only downside of the previous model has been seen to – where there was once a noticeable turbo-lag on light throttle in the city, now there is a seamless flow of torque and power. The active four-wheel drive system has also been tweaked. It’s less intrusive and more instinctive, reading both the road and the driver’s inputs to react accordingly. A magnificent car.

Maserati GranCabrio
Maserati owners Fiat have worked hard to align the marque with Alfa Romeo rather than Ferrari (which it also owns) in a bid to make the manufacturer cool. It seems to have worked; numbers are up and in SA, Maserati is the go-to brand for the hip hyper-earners.

The secret is simple: indulgent luxury. Few cars cosset quite like a current Maserati, and in the line-up the GranCabrio is the most indulgent of all. The large car is a four-seater limousine, but decent to drive as well as be seen in, thanks to a reinvigorated, sonorous 4.7l, naturally aspirated V8 that is good for a five-second 0–100 km/hr time.

There are, however, a few notable downsides. The boot is miserly – well-heeled tourers with large wardrobes will have to send staff ahead with the luggage. The ride, too, is less than exemplary; harsher than expected.

Still, one look and the negatives vanish. The GranCabrio is all about carnal emotion – a visceral need, rather than mundane practicality.

Nissan Infiniti Q60 coupé
Nissan’s luxury arm, seeing good growth with the recently launched Q50 BMW 3 Series buster, is represented in the luxury cabriolet market by the Q60. Unlike its sister car – the Nissan 370Z coupé – it aims for grace rather than grunt, though it makes use of the same engine and is not, therefore, short of shove. The emphasis, however, is on luxury.

Inside, the car is an amalgam of unashamed, overstuffed opulence and typical Oriental practicality. The seats are some of the most comfortable in the business, while the Bose sound system is engineered to take into account the open-air environment. Speakers are in the seats and the system monitors ambient noise and sets the equaliser accordingly.

On the road, the Infiniti is a substantial drive – heavy and planted – which gives the impression of authority, even as it takes the edge off ultimate performance. As to be expected, scuttle shake is minimal and the roof itself – steel – folds down rapidly and stores in the well-sized boot.

By Peter Frost
Images: Maserati, Audi, Quick Pic, BMW