Dropping the Tops on Convertibles

Say what you will about the ubiquitous SUV, the quintessential American car is a shiny convertible, preferably in red, and nothing, it seems, can disrupt Americans' love affair with drop-top driving. Over the years, safety concerns and fuel economy issues have clouded the future of motoring under the sun, but as we ease into a new millennium, the skies have parted, and the convertible has remained an American icon.

A look at some statistics tells part of the tale. In both 2001 and 2002, total convertible registrations for the U.S. topped the 300,000 mark, the first two years in the last 30 that convertible sales were over 300,000 units. Last year's sales of 302,320 convertibles represented a drop of 2.7 percent from 2001, but convertibles made up a larger percentage of the total passenger car market last year, accounting for 3.8 percent of total passenger car registrations in 2002 compared with 3.6 percent in 2001.

While 3.8 percent doesn't seem like much, convertibles have an effect that belies their numbers. Many manufacturers use convertibles as "image vehicles," cars that create a positive aura for the brand. From the Mercedes-Benz SL to the Ford Mustang, convertibles are used to spice up what otherwise might be a mundane image. That fact is not lost on R.L. Polk & Company, the industry's statistical caretaker.

"Convertibles continue to be an important and growing part of the automotive market in the U.S.," said Lonnie Miller, director of analytical solutions at R. L. Polk & Co. "Car companies use them to build showroom traffic, evolve brand image and attract new buyers into a franchise."

Just as a good-looking convertible can stop traffic on the street, it can also build traffic in the dealership. Because of that, the American market has seen an influx of new convertibles like the Audi A4, the BMW Z4, the Ford Thunderbird, and the New Beetle Convertible, all designed not only to sell, but also to attract buyers to the entire model line.

"The growing number of new convertible offerings gives evidence of the strategic importance they play both for consumers and manufacturers," Miller said.

After a lull, Polk reports the convertible market in the U.S. has been very healthy since the mid-1990s. The Mazda Miata helped lead the charge way back in 1989, and since its introduction a number of marques have added drop-top models. Some, like the Mercedes SL and the Lexus SC 430 have gone the Ford Skyliner route with steel tops that disappear instead of the standard folding fabric, but all bring a joy to driving that a closed car just doesn't offer.

What was the top-selling convertible in 2002? Well, don't be embarrassed if you didn't know it was the Chrysler Sebring, which regained the title as the top-selling ragtop in 2002 after a two-year hiatus, with 43,809 registrations. The Ford Mustang, which had been in first place, came in second in 2002 with 42,418 registrations, but Ford could take some solace in the fact its Thunderbird jumped to third place from its introductory level of 22nd in 2001 with 19,356 registrations. Rounding out the top 10 convertibles in 2002 were the Mitsubishi Eclipse (15,887 units), Lexus SC 430 (14,925), Mazda Miata (14,089), Mercedes SL (12,415), Chevrolet Corvette (11,959), Porsche Boxster (10,300), and Honda S2000 (9,728).

While it might be natural to assume that sunshine cities garner the biggest chunk of convertible sales, the facts don't back that up. Though Los Angeles leads cities in convertible registrations, cold-weather cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit are all among the top 10. Other top 10 cities for convertibles include San Francisco-Oakland, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. But when you look a bit closer, smaller cities in sunny climes boast the highest concentration of convertibles among their overall vehicle mix.

By that measure, the convertible capital of the U.S. is the Ft. Myers-Naples area on Florida's beautiful west coast where 7.3 percent of the cars on the road are convertibles. Palm Springs (7.1 percent), Monterey/Salinas (6.3 percent), San Diego (5.6 percent), and Santa Barbara-San Marcos (5.5 percent) fill out the top places on the list. Oddly, Bend, Oregon, in what many consider the rainy Northwest, is also in the top 10.

A convertible fan since his days in Italy, auto journalist Tom Ripley studies the industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.