What’s going on? Just two years ago, the open-top market in South Africa was a wasteland and most pundits were bemoaning the demise of the segment. Now, there are no fewer than 16 new models either on the floor, or coming soon. Mercedes-Benz alone has five new drop-tops, including the ballistic GTS Roadster, soon on our shores. Audi throws caution to the wind with the R8 Spyder, Porsche releases the new 718 Boxster, and BMW takes the top off the i8 to bring us the Spyder. And so it goes on. Happily, there’s good stuff down at the reasonable end of the market, too. Sunscreen, people: SPF 50.
Mazda MX-5 RF
How do you improve on perfection? Simple, really. Offer more practicality, but leave the essence unchanged. Cue the new RF (retractable fastback), which genuinely improves the breed, offering both a coupé version of the already-sublime MX-5 drop-
top and a targa. How so? The fixed metal roof folds away, storing in the boot under a lid that incorporates high side buttresses and an upright rear window. A classic targa, much like the Porsche 911 Targa. This also gives it the overall look of a coupé – another bonus. A master stroke by Mazda: three cars in one.
As for the rest, the RF has an optional six-speed automatic gearbox that’s not available in the standard car, but that is the only nod to the cruiser brigade. The good news is the core traits remain intact – it’s still as immediate and sharp as the drop-top, with the lovely 2.0ℓ naturally aspirated unit upfront driving the rear wheels. It just ticks all the right boxes. What a car.
Folks who want the MX-5 excitement, but need more security
Retains the addictive dynamics, adds long-distance ability
Not so sure
Not everyone will fit in it – this is one tiny tot
Porsche 718 Boxster S
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ they say, but Porsche apparently didn’t have a choice. They have replaced their iconic flat-six engine with a very modern four-cylinder twin-turbo unit, due largely to emissions regulations in Europe. The result, as we have reported before, is less tragic than it might have been – indeed, Porsche’s new ‘entry-level’ cabriolet (this S gets the larger-bore 2.5ℓ four-pot engine and a 22 kW increase over the base-model two-litre Boxster) is every bit a genuine Porsche. Fuel economy is decent, in-gear acceleration is excellent and the drive is textbook Porsche – fast, seamless
It looks better, too; subtle changes to the body have worked well, especially at the rear. The new interiors reference its big brother, the 911 – no bad thing – and the quality is peerless. There is a lot of new stuff in there – especially the infotainment screen and the lack of buttons (which were once upon a time a Porsche tradition). There’s only one real disappointment with which to contend. With the roof down, you will find that much-loved Porsche flat-six thrum is absent. But get past that and the new 718 is a thoroughly modern, efficient, and utterly engaging car.
Everything: effortlessly fast, addictive racing – or the daily commute
Massive ability at speed, new engines, comfort, quality
Not so sure
No flat-six noise. Boo
Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet
It’s something of a disappointment to see that Merc’s basic four-seater drop-top is so expensive – recent adjustments have made a bunch of their other options really competitive. A pity, too, because it’s pretty good – like the donor C-Class, it has a great chassis and classy interior, both of which feature here. The extra weight does blunt the acceleration, but the general character is laid-back rather than hurried, so no harm done (and the upcoming AMG43 Cabriolet will see off the boy racers).
As you would expect, comfort levels are right up there, whichever of the three drive modes you select. Again, there’s not much point getting all drag-racery down the strip: it just makes for a lot of revs and not much progress. Best to leave the car in Comfort and let the plethora of systems take over. Car knows best. Space is tight in the back (headroom, particularly, with the cloth roof up) but the electronically deployed AirCap wind deflector keeps things unruffled at almost all speeds. An excellent entry-level ragtop Merc, but sadly overpriced.
Laid-back weekends away
Elegance itself, solid and genuinely spacious upfront
Not so sure
Hugely expensive, infotainment not touch-sensitive, lethargic in base model
Mini Cooper Convertible
The bigger, grown-up Mini Convertible uses BMW’s turbocharged three-cylinder engine in Cooper guise (a real little miracle), though here, the extra weight of the underpinnings does take its toll. If you can afford it, choose the S model for added vooma. Nonetheless, on the road, the little tyke is a total delight – brilliant fun in the twisties with Mini’s trademark fast, well-weighted steering, a grippy front end and satisfying power delivery. There is, however, a lot of scuttle shake over bad surfaces, even at low speeds, meaning that the bracing is not as good as it could be. That’s the penalty you pay for a true convertible rather than a hatch with bits of its roof taken out.
Space is decent inside, although the two individual seats at the back – instead of a more useful bench – and their very upright backrests are disappointing. The car is a quality build and full of neat little touches, such as the roof that still raises in two stages, offering the choice between a sunroof feel or complete cabriolet style. And how’s this? Select Sport mode and the message on the massive central dial suggests: ‘Let’s motor hard!’ Gimmicky, but fun.
Useful everyday fun chariot
Big improvement in quality, dynamics on the road
Not so sure
Boot space negligible with roof down, visibility poor
Mercedes-Benz SLC 200
The evergreen SLK becomes the SLC and gains a nominal boost in power across the range. If you think it looks rather like its big bro, the SL, spot on, but the similarities end there. In its base-model 2.0ℓ guise, this little Merc is a cruiser, not a bruiser, meant to carry the smart folk to their soirées in as much comfort as possible. The steel roof
is a big drawcard, of course, safety being paramount for SLC owners, and the good news is that engaging it’s an even quicker process than before. The ride is compliant – unless you’re silly enough to select Sport mode, in which case it gets jumpy and harsh. The steering is curiously distant too, but the interior is a bespoke drawing room, elegance itself. Great looker, but less impressive on the road.
Its quality and longevity
Not so sure
Still not a sports car, even if it now looks the part
Sadly, the Mercedes-Benz pair are too expensive for what you get (other vehicles in the range, such as the GLC, offer great value). The Mini Convertible is a tempting package, but a mite underpowered here in base-model guise. So, if money is no option, Porsche’s new Boxster wins hands down for all-round ability, energy and seductive reputation. But Mazda’s MX-5 RF is the ultimate winner; it now makes, even more, sense with the hard-top targa roof – and the decent price seals the deal. Orders in now.