Secondhand Gems: $40,000 Four Seat Convertables

By Christopher Smith

August 17, 2010

Once upon a time, topless cars came in all shapes and sizes, and by that we mean all sizes. At 4500 pounds and sporting a wheelbase of 130 inches, the gloriously finned 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible was just a few inches behind a modern full size pickup truck in size. Its convertible top used enough canvas to cover a mobile home, and four people could fit comfortably in the back seat alone, never mind the wide bench up front and the endless trunk space out back. That was a convertible—drop the top, load up the family, the dog, the neighbors, and your in-laws, and head out for a day of windburns and suntans.

The 1970s threatened to take all the fun out of driving, and with the convertible all but eliminated from manufacturer lineups, open-air motoring teetered on the brink of extinction. Fortunately, the 1980s showed manufacturers that sunroofs and T-tops were not sufficient replacements for a wide open roof, but absent among the topless revival that followed were truly large convertibles. So, with summer waiting in the wings, we decided to take a look at a relatively limited segment of cars that we consider to be true four-seat convertibles. We’re not talking about cars with tiny, molded buckets pretending to be rear seats, so you won’t find models like Mustang or Eclipse on this list. Nor do we want tiny runabouts like the Mini Cooper or Volkswagen Beetle. And because this is Winding Road, we don’t want sleep-inducing rides like the Toyota Camry Solara or Chrysler Sebring. This is a tough category to fill, but we do have three nearly-new vehicles in mind to placate this need for size, status, and driving satisfaction. They all show up on eBay Motors for around $40,000, they’re all outstanding touring vehicles, they seat four people with at least some measure of comfort, and while they aren’t necessarily performance-oriented asphalt destroyers, they still know how to have a good time.

2006 BMW 650i
Going strictly by the numbers, the 650i offers essentially the same interior space as the much cheaper 3-Series. In fact, rear seat passengers actually have a bit more legroom in the smaller Bimmer, but the difference here lies in width, which definitely goes to the 650. This bigger BMW definitely feels more spacious inside than the 3er, though six-footers will still find rear seat accommodations something of a challenge, especially if there are a pair of six-footers sitting up front. Beset with a 50/50 weight distribution, this no-so-diminutive grand touring machine is both sure-footed and supple at the same time, delivering driving dynamic that, while isolated and a bit numb, is still plenty engaging for driver and passengers. It’s also the technology king of this comparo, packed with everything from DVD navigation to multi-adjust heated seats, active cruise control, night vision, and our personal favorite, a heads-up display. We also prefer the sports package, which adds Active Steering, sport seats, and larger wheels to the mix.

The 650i sports a 4.8-liter V-8 generating 360 horsepower, which is enough to move the two-ton convertible to 60 miles per hour in roughly 5.5 seconds, making it plenty quick enough for cheeky grins. Three six-speed transmission options are on tap for shifting—a traditional manual, an automatic, and a sequential manual gearbox for folks wanting the best of both worlds. BMW’s four-year/50,000-mile warranty means most of these cars are near or beyond their factory coverage, and with some reports of electrical/sensor issues floating around the World Wide Web, having an extended warranty might be a good idea. A little more room in back would’ve set the 650i to the top of our want list, but as it is, the combination of features, comfort, and performance wrapped into a deliciously elegant exterior make the 650i a fine choice for a grand touring convertible.

2009 Volvo C70 T5
The newest car in our comparison is also the one bringing a knife to a gun fight. The Swede’s 2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder isn’t bad by any means; in fact we rather like that I-5 muted growl and turbo whoosh. But with 227 horsepower turning the front wheels, the Volvo is well and truly outmatched by the German V-8s of this comparo in every performance category imaginable.

That’s okay, because this review isn’t a straight-up street fight, but a case study in how four people can enjoy a top down afternoon on the roads of America, and in that respect the C70 acquits itself rather well. The Volvo can be a fun ride when equipped with the optional six-speed manual transmission, and though the handling falls a few notches short of pure bliss, it’s still composed enough to be entertaining for anyone not aspiring to be a Formula 1 driver.

Most importantly for this comparison, however, is that the C70 offers the most rear-seat legroom despite having the shortest wheelbase, and though its lateral space is a bit more cramped, the C70 holds the distinction of being the most comfortable four-seat convertible on this list. That’s not to say there’s enough room to hold a dance party in the back, but the C70 can be livable for adults relegated to the rear seats. Of course, being a Volvo, the C70 has just about every safety device on the planet. Airbags galore, blind spot monitoring, traction and stability assists, pop-up roll bars, and about 100 other various systems spider through the C70’s leather-wrapped innards, along with a full host of luxury options designed to make life just a little bit easier. A complex folding hardtop—the only hardtop convertible on this list—does an admirable job of not taking all the trunk space when down, while providing fixed-roof solidity when the sun isn’t shining. Factor in the front-wheel-drive layout, and the C70 becomes the perfect choice for an all-season daily driver that can double as a summertime beachcomber. The vast majority of 2009 C70s on the market should also be well within their factory warranty envelope, though with Volvo’s reputation for reliability, it probably won’t even be needed. If Volvo could just see fit to inject a bit more enthusiasm into the C70, it would be hard to beat.

2008 Mercedes Benz
CLK550 Cabriolet In short, we like the Merc because it does an admirable job of combining the best points of the 650i and C70, while adding a bit more thrust and a lot more sex appeal.

We love the lines of the Benz, the stance, the look, the feel; there are few convertibles on the road with such a classy-yet-sultry look. Having a 5.5-liter, 382-horsepower V-8 on tap doesn’t hurt either—60 mph in the CLK 550 happens in 5.2 seconds, making it a few tenths quicker than the BMW, and the quickest car on the list. We love our manual transmissions, but given no alternative to the matter, the CLK’s seven-speed automatic is a superbly shifting unit that’s crisp and smooth under just about any circumstance. It does come with paddle shifters for control freaks, but this is one of those instances where it’s usually best to just hang on and let the car do what it does best.

Fortunately, the CLK550 is very good at what it does. Adjustable suspension underpins this 3800-pound ragtop, and though it doesn’t quite have the balance of the BMW, it might offer a bit more in the way of driver feedback in sport mode (a very small bit). Body roll is managed well enough to be satisfying for all but the most hardcore driver, but then again, this car wasn’t designed for hardcore duty. Even in full-on sport mode, it has a bit of a soft side, reminding everyone on board that the 550 is a grand touring car, and in that role, it is superb.

The elegant interior is just as inviting as the exterior, what with its blend of leather, wood, and aluminum accents. The seats are the epitome of comfort, and while back seat passengers don’t have quite the same space found in the Volvo, it’s an improvement over the cramped BMW. The simple gauge layout is properly refined for this level, and actually it’s a bit refreshing from the brightly colored, busy instrument clusters to which we’re accustomed. Most of the controls are fairly easy to operate, though the joystick interface for the navigation and audio systems is a bit like learning calculus to balance a checkbook. Still, it’s a small gripe for an otherwise outstanding convertible that manages to find a near-perfect blend of comfort and performance.

Modern convertibles may not offer the same endless back seat accommodations as their chrome-laden counterparts from the golden age of motoring, but these snazzy droptops certainly have the class, the moves, and the style to usher in an all-new golden age. This time, let’s hope they stick around.