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The Garage: Focus on Autos | THE GARAGE

Hardtops enter fast lane

Carmakers are racing to unveil new models with retractable roofs. Convenience and lower prices are winning converts.

June 09, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Ah, the joys of owning a convertible. The road noise. The leaky roof. The fear of knife-wielding thieves.

For these and other annoyances of the ragtop, the auto industry thinks it has found the solution: the retractable hardtop.

At the turn of the millennium, there were two mass-production retractables on the market, both built by Mercedes-Benz. Now, 10 models are being sold under nine nameplates, and more could be on the way.

After decades as little more than a footnote in auto history -- the archetype of the genre being the Eisenhower-era Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, a classic slab of Detroit iron with a vast rear deck resembling a helipad -- the retractable hardtop is hot.

It's popular with people who want to combine the fun and sun of a convertible with the convenience and security of a coupe. And the roof-retracting system -- one punch of a button and the top slides into the trunk -- attracts something automakers crave: attention.

"These are showroom vehicles that draw traffic," said Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for R.L. Polk & Co. "They get people to 'ooh and ahh.' "

Old-school convertibles, coifed in cloth or vinyl, were cool to drive but came up short in the practicality department. Leaky and drafty, they were essentially part-time vehicles outside Southern California and the Sun Belt, sometimes even in sunny climes. Security was such a joke that owners routinely left their cars unlocked rather than face the cost of repairing sliced roofs.

Although engineering and insulation lessened some problems, security remained an issue. Hardtops that had to be removed manually weren't the answer either, except for the extremely well-muscled.

Enter the retractable. Push a button and what appears to be a solid sheet of auto-grade steel rears up and back, folds neatly into three or more sections and disappears into the trunk.

"Convertibles historically have been thought of almost as luxury cars because they're not supposed to be practical," said Rick Deneau of Chrysler Group, which is just now delivering its new Sebring retractable to Southern California showrooms. "That's not the case anymore."

Focus group participants who shied away from traditional convertibles found the new Sebring appealing, Deneau said. They saw it as "more of a 365-day-a-year car" that was practical as well as fun.

The recent run of hardtops began in the late 1990s with the introduction of the pricey Mercedes SLK. Over the years, they've become increasingly affordable. The Pontiac G6, the Volkswagen Eos and the Mazda Miata MX-5 all start below $30,000, and the Sebring has a base sticker under $32,000.

Marna Wood was no stranger to convertibles when she bought a copper-red MX-5 in January. The Highland resident, 52, and her husband have owned a string of Miatas, which are sold only in drop-top versions. The MX-5's retractable roof was something new and appealing -- even though it costs about $2,000 more than a comparable soft top.

"I liked the hardtop from the standpoint that it's nice and easy to put up and down -- you just push a button," Wood said. "And with the top up, it's much more quiet than the soft top."

Wood also appreciates that Mazda, like other hardtop manufacturers, has designed the car so that the retracting top doesn't eat up all of the available trunk space -- a common problem with older models. Mazda boasts that the trunk, even with the top down, will hold a big duffel bag, two sets of golf clubs or a couple of cases of wine.

Of course, we're talking golf bags here, not steamer trunks or mountain bikes. Still, the ability to provide a reasonably sized trunk is another reason retractable hardtops are suddenly popular. The power hardtop on the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, produced from 1957 to 1959, took up so much room when lowered that Ford provided buyers with specially designed luggage to fit the minuscule trunk.

The roof mechanism was fiendishly complicated and prone to glitches. But manufacturers say modern systems work more smoothly and are much more reliable.

There also appears to be a perception that hardtops are safer than traditional convertibles in a rollover accident. But safety experts say roll bars, available on many convertibles, provide more reliable protection.

Despite the general revival of convertibles since their near-death experience in the late 1970s, the style isn't expected to regain the broad popularity it enjoyed during the '50s and '60s, when automakers offered drop-top versions of most of their lineup. The more than 30 convertible models now being sold account for only about 2% of total U.S. new-vehicle sales.

But as Lonnie of R.L. Polk pointed out, they're catnip to car buyers -- and the new hardtops, with their head-turning roof-disappearing act, more so than most.

The VW Eos has quickly become the German automaker's fastest-selling vehicle. And the MX-5 hardtop has spearheaded the best year for Miata sales since 2000.

"It's certainly bringing people to the Miata who would not have considered one prior," Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes said. "Of that we're sure."

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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