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Pop-up roll bars are standard on many new convertibles, including the 2011 Volvo C70. (Volvo)
Pop-up roll bars are standard on many new convertibles, including the 2011 Volvo C70. (Volvo)

Ask Joanne

Soft top versus hard top Add to ...

I've decided this is the year I finally buy a convertible. I am wondering whether it is worth paying the extra money for a hard top so I can drive it year round and if it's really such a better option for safety, comfort, etc.? - Don in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Mention convertibles and many of us are dreaming of cruising roads in California, not Canada. Dealers in Ontario and British Columbia say convertible sales are healthy, but is the reality of driving north of the 49th parallel with the top down a practical one?

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Summertime in cottage, lake or wine country is fair game for open-air drives. The west coast notwithstanding, some Canuck motorists do get away with driving hardtop convertibles year-round.

Remember, you have to consider that security, noise and weather protection are reduced in a soft-top. As you pointed out, hardtop convertibles are more expensive to buy, and their complex electronically controlled retraction mechanisms are more costly to repair. Because the retractable hardtop roof folds into the boot, there's also a loss of space.

Conventional wisdom would have us think that retractable hardtops are safer, but is this actually the case?

"There are inherent risks with driving a convertible versus an actual hardtop vehicle, and those risks aren't really reduced by the so-called folding metal tops on convertibles. They don't make it safer in a rollover than a soft-top," says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"What does help, what we recommend, is that if you want a convertible and safety is a high-priority, get one with a good crash rating and make sure that it has some sort of rollover protection system."

Many new convertibles have rollover protection, which includes electronic stability control to prevent rollovers and systems that can help reduce injury if a rollover does occur.

Pop-up roll-bars are typically installed behind the rear seats, and automatically deploy to provide headroom for the driver and occupants if the vehicle rolls. These roll-bars are standard on many new convertibles, such as the Saab 9-3, BMW 3-Series, the Volvo C70 and Volkswagen Eos.

In the event of an accident you'll also want maximum airbag protection, so look for side-curtain airbags. Side airbags are relatively new as standard equipment on all vehicles, but head-protecting side airbags are an even newer feature in convertibles. Most new convertibles have been designed with special side airbags that pop up from the side of the seat to protect the occupants' heads in side impact crashes. If you're looking at a used convertible, though, this feature may not be an option.

"In terms of side airbags, the Volvo C70 actually has a curtain-style airbag that deploys from the door, so it has a much larger airbag than most typical convertibles. In addition to pop-up roll-bars, ESC and side airbags, the C70 has a rollover sensor that will deploy the side airbag if the car senses an impending rollover, to provide some additional protection," says Rader.

Crash-test ratings for popular convertible makes and models are posted on the insurance-institute's website - iihs.org.

A convertible is fun, and even realistic - but if it's your sole vehicle, a hardtop is the way to go. If you aren't relying on a convertible for your transport year-round - and especially if you have a garage for storage - a soft-top is a cheaper way to get your open-air thrills.

E-Mail Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com


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