By ANNA PRIOR
Russell Wild can still picture his first convertible: a 1968 Mustang that he tooled around in as a 20-something, with the top down and Supertramp blasting on his stereo. So when the 56-year-old investment adviser from Allentown, Pa., started car shopping earlier this year, he couldn't help but take a peek at today's drop-tops.
But while he remained drawn to the cars' sporty look, Wild soon realized he wouldn't be reliving his youth. Shopping around, he didn't see a single model that managed to tick off all the must-haves on his list: reliability, affordability and gas efficiency. What's more, he began to remember that his Mustang wasn't all tight turns and warm breezes; the car was also broken into -- not once, but four times. In the end, Wild brought home the anticonvertible, a sensible Subaru sedan. "Sometimes I think it'd be fun to own one again, but then I think about all those stereos I lost," he says.
Can you feel the wind in your hair? It's hard to think of anything that screams "summer!" louder than a convertible. But while Americans might still fantasize about tooling around the neighborhood with the top down, they're not opening their wallets to make that dream a reality. Convertible sales, which typically make up a minuscule 2 percent of the car market, fell even further in 2011, to just over 1 percent. And the drop-off comes as sales should be accelerating; new-car sales turned around last year and are expected to hit 14.4 million units this year. The problem, say analysts, starts with the sticker price. A convertible Ford Mustang, for instance, costs about $5,000 more than the standard coupe. The cars have also stalled when it comes to design and innovation -- which might be one reason they're not drawing younger buyers. Indeed, less than 5 percent of convertible buyers were under the age of 35 last year. "Convertibles are a symbol of the baby boom generation," says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds .com. "Gen X and Y don't feel the same."
Not surprisingly, the economic downturn has prompted drivers to home in on practicality and affordability -- not exactly the biggest strengths of a model that's often a second (or third or even fourth) car. The struggles of the automotive industry have also played a role in the convertible's fall from favor, say analysts. During tough times, makers often scale back on things like how many different body types they'll produce for a single model, and convertibles are often the first to get chopped, says Tom Libby, senior analyst at Polk's North American Forecasting Practice. The cars have also proved to have their own particular -- and persistent -- design bugaboos, from mechanical weak spots to limited trunk space (that top has to go somewhere, after all).
Still, car companies maintain that the days of pulling into the driveway with a freshly tanned bald spot are far from over. A handful of makers are trying to inject some new life into the model, tweaking the design to appeal to more-modern-car buyers (think electric models). Others are tackling the convertible's graying image; Chevy, for one, splurged on a Super Bowl commercial this year that features an ecstatic college grad who is under the (mistaken) impression that his parents are giving him a topless Camaro. It all boils down to a simple question, say industry watchers: Can the convertible pull off a U-turn?
The convertible has taken some hard corners over the years. Americans fell in love with the cars during the "Mad Men" era, when Detroit was cranking out everything from cheap and tiny drop-tops like the $2,000 Studebaker Lark to boatlike classic Caddies, and convertibles accounted for a record 6 percent of all car sales. Then came the spiking gas prices and new safety standards of the '70s, which nearly spelled the end for the model. (Cadillac even marketed the 1976 Eldorado as "the last convertible in America.") The model has edged back since then, but experts say it hasn't regained its place as an industry pace car.
Nissan is hoping to challenge that idea with its Murano CrossCabriolet. The car, which starts at $45,400, is a mash-up of a convertible and an SUV -- a two-door with an actual trunk and surprisingly roomy seating for four. Mike Drongowski, senior manager of product planning for Nissan, says the company wanted to create a practical car that would appeal to empty nesters and young families, and purposefully swapped sporty looks and handling for an all-wheel-drive model that rides high off the road like a typical SUV. Analysts say they've never seen anything like it -- though, admittedly, not everyone thinks that's a good thing. "It's a polarizing car," says Edmund's Caldwell.
Other automakers have stuck to more-gentle tweaks. Hardtop roofs, which used to be seen mostly in luxury cars, are now starting to trickle down into somewhat more-affordable models, such as the Chrysler 200 ($27,600) and the Volkswagen Eos ($35,100). Hardtops boost a car's practicality factor by sealing up the cracks that can make convertibles a winter driver's nightmare. They can also deliver a quieter drive and, since they're more substantial than fabric models, can help prevent break-ins, says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at auto site TrueCar.com. Meanwhile, brands like Fiat and Mini Cooper have focused on the aesthetics, hoping to revamp the convertible's dated image and target hipper buyers with playful designs and celebrity-studded ads.
Gerardo Acosta-Meza says his new Fiat 500 convertible manages just the right mix of good looks and technical firsts. The San Diego hairstylist says he was originally drawn to the car's classic lines, but it was a Fiat innovation that really won him over: The 500 has a retractable roof that the driver can slide back with the push of a button -- even when the car is zooming down the freeway at 50-plus miles per hour. "That's my favorite thing, that I can open it when the feeling strikes," says Acosta-Meza.
Still, some experts say the convertible has a rough road ahead. For one thing, the move toward hardtops has, in some cases, made the model's persistent space problem even worse. The hardtops are generally bulkier than the fabric versions, eating into precious trunk or rear-seat real estate. Building a convertible has also remained more complicated (read: expensive) than building other vehicles, so drop-tops often cost $5,000 to $10,000 more than their sister models -- an issue that has become more noticeable as overall car prices have soared in recent months.
For Steve Berenbaum, the issue is even simpler: Just how often are you actually going to convert your convertible? The retiree, who splits his time between the Toronto suburbs and Florida, owned a BMW 328i Cabriolet convertible for four years and says he was planning to replace it with a similar Beemer this year -- until he did the math. Berenbaum, who says he drove the car nearly every day, ran a few mental numbers and realized he put the top down only about 20 times last year. "It wasn't worth having less space and comfort," he says.
Of course, for some drivers, the flash and freedom of the convertible will always outweigh any practical concerns. Little wonder that there's one market where the drop-top still reigns supreme: "A convertible just screams midlife crisis," says Subaru owner Wild.