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Convertibles

Sexy, topless - and expensive Add to ...

2010 Ferrari California: $249,000

2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI Quattro: $190,000

2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet: $67,900-$77,500

Driving topless in a fast, sexy convertible: Almost priceless.

Somehow, someway, the open-lid car morphed into an extraordinarily expensive toy for the wealthy and the carefree. Where once the convertible world was largely about mainstream escapism dominated by affordable (though not always reliable) little roadsters from Britain (MGs, Triumphs) and Italy (Fiats) with a few American stalwarts thrown in for good measure (American Motors Rogue, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Impala and others), today most convertibles are aimed strictly at the monied classes.

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That's not to say the megabucks crowd isn't getting something for their money. Not at all.

That Ferrari has a 453 horsepower, mid-front V-8 under the hood, a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox and a folding metal roof. The Audi is a powerhouse: 525 hp, six-speed tranny (manual or R-Tronic automated manual), all-wheel-drive (AWD) agility and a sexy-as-hell look. The Mercedes, well, unlike the others, it seats four comfortably, yet still roars about using a 268-hp V-6 or a 382 V-8. If you like gizmos, the E-Class convertible is a techie's dream.

And there are others of this ilk, from Porsches to Lamborghinis. But where are the middle-class convertibles? There are not enough of those.

The cheapest brand new convertible in Canada is the pint-sized smart fortwo ($21,250-$24,900) city car. It's more styling statement than practical ride, but it does have an air of tranquillity and simplicity about it that is valuable in a reverse-snobbery sort of way.

Jeep's Wrangler is not really a convertible car, but it does allow for open-air driving and at a fair price ($20,595-$30,495). There is a youthful exuberance expressed in driving a Wrangler, though putting up and taking down the top is something of a chore. Still, it's affordable and delivers go-anywhere abilities.

The rest of the 30-something crowd ($30,000-something, I mean) is comprised of nothing more than a handful of old reliable brands and nameplates: the Ford Mustang ($31,399-$42,899, 2011 version), Chrysler Sebring ($30,665-$44,070), Mazda MX-5 Miata ($28,995-$39,995) and Mini Cooper ($29,950). Toyota Camry Solara? Gone. And so on and so on.

For under $40,000, if you work at it you might find a leftover Pontiac G6 or even a Solstice ($36,995 and $37,835). The odd one might still be sitting around, a lonely Pontiac on a dealer lot. Surely you'll get either convertible at a massive discount. Same for the Saturn Sky ($33,715-$40,165). But a better choice might be Volkswagen Eos ($36,575-$43,375), which will give you a European-bred convertible with very nice ride and handling characteristics.

And then you start heading into I-have-leftover-money-and-can-afford-a-toy territory. Take the Nissan 370Z ($46,998). Very, very fast and sporty, and good value for a super-racy ride. But realistically, with taxes, bells and whistles, no one is driving away a 370Z for less than 50 large. The sub-$50,000 convertible might be possible if you're really careful with the BMW 128i ($41,000), but not the more powerful 135i convertible ($48,400).

In fact, $50,000-plus is where a lot of convertible action starts. Here we have the likes of the Infiniti G37 ($58,300-$61,600), Volvo's C70 ($52,995), Audi A5 Quattro ($56,300-$58,300) and Audi's TT roadster ($52,350). BMW makes a lovely 3-Series convertible lineup ($56,800-$68,400) and we should never overlook the Z4 roadster ($54,200-$62,200). Lexus has two offerings here, the IS250C ($52,100) and the IS350C ($60,400). Mercedes-Benz has a lineup of SLK roadsters that start at $57,500 and top out at $84,800.

Porsche's Boxster enters the fray at $59,600, going as high as $72,200. BMW's M3 cabriolet lists for $81,900 and it's lightning fast. From the Detroit auto makers, Chevrolet has its standard-bearer, the Corvette ($76,955-$83,655). Oh, and there is the soon-to-expire Dodge Viper convertible to consider ($98,895). That one might be worth a look simply as a collectible, the last of its kind. Speaking of collectibles, Lexus is likely to phase out the SC430 ($82,000), so think about its collectible value, too.

From there, you have more options, but you'll need to bring along an armoured car if you pay cash. North of $100,000 you have not just the new Audi R8 Spyder, but also BMW 650i ($105,500) and M6 ($131,300). Jaguar's XK is a stunner, a slinky ragtop that can handle whatever driving skills you throw in the mix ($103,200-$114,000). Naturally, Porsche has the 911 range and no one with this sort of money should overlook it ($109,900-$178,400).

But as you can see from the pricing, the convertible reality is simple: while open-lid driving choices remain numerous, the vast, vast majority of the cars out there are out of reach for people making monthly mortgage payments. It's a shame.

If you want to cast blame, point it at regulators whose onerous rules even on even small-volume cars have forced auto makers to lard on the safety and emissions features on anything and everything with four wheels - even small-volume models, niche players bought and owned by a handful of enthusiasts. Don't overlook the role buyers have played here, too. Most demand the safety gear, along with comfort and convenience features - including those ubiquitous fold-in-the-trunk hardtops that sop up most if not all trunk space when the lid is down.

The last utterly simple and affordable new convertible was arguably the Mazda Miata which arrived in the summer of '89. It had a lightweight, cloth lid that even the most pathetic 90-pound weakling could stow with one hand - backward. Technology all around was basic and simple, but if I were going to buy a convertible today, I'd seek out an old Miata roadster. They're out there for $4,500 or less.

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On the other hand, for the buyer who wants something new and sensible (four seats and a trunk of some sort), your best option may be the Mustang. Ford puts plenty of effort into preserving the Mustang's place, and that's why 2011 version has been significantly updated. The V-6 ragtop is up to 305 hp, which is just 10 hp shy of the 2010 V-8 (315 hp). And the 2011 V-8 Mustang convertible delivers a whopping 412 hp. Honestly, the V-6 today stands out for what Mustangs where in the 1960s: motorized entertainment for mid-management types.

Driving in a fun, sexy convertible: pricey in most instances, but not completely, as you can see here. But for how long?

*****

Clarification: The Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder convertible is available as a 2011 model; there was no 2010 model available. Incorrect information appeared in the May 20 print edition of Globe Drive.

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