By Andrew Ganz
Monday, Apr 16th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 
With sunshine now drenching most of North America, convertible sales will inevitably be on the rise - and that's definitely a good thing, since droptops offer a uniquely engaging driving experience.

Interest in open-top motoring has wavered over the years with the advent of air conditioning, moonroofs and targa-like designs, but convertibles have always been available to consumers.

The Leftlane team initially set out to create a list of great affordable convertibles, but we soon realized the limitations of putting a price limit on open top motoring. We could have made a list of brand new convertibles under $30,000, but we can't whole-heartedly recommend all of them. Instead, we ratcheted our price limit up a bit to include a few models available from premium import brands. But if your budget doesn't stretch that high, you'll still get some great open top joys from a few cut price models.

The 10 best convertibles under $45,000
1. Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's not that fast and it's not practical, but few cars on the road provide as many smiles per mile - or dollar - as the bargain-basement MX-5 Miata. It channels the great British and Italian roadsters of the 1960s and '70s, and while it doesn't quite possess those classics' character, it will probably never leave you stranded. Miata offers both inexpensive manual soft and pricier power-retracting steel roof choices; we're perfectly content with the classy soft top, ourselves.

2. Ford Mustang GT. Chevy's Camaro convertible might be the freshest pony car on the block, but Ford's wild horse is a little more fun to drive. It might have an archaic solid rear axle, but it puts that truck tech to surprisingly good use. The V6-powered base Mustang provides solid power and impressive fuel economy, but the GT's open top means we can hear its 5.0-liter V8 rumble even better.

3. Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. With its new-for-2012 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed transmissions, Jeep's go-anywhere, do-anything Wrangler is just about perfect for any occasion. We'd pick the long-wheelbase Unlimited so our friends could come along, and we'd also spec ours up with the Rubicon package to take advantage of its locking differentials and automatic-disconnecting sway bars for off road use. But even a base two-door Wrangler Sport is an amazing starting point for budding off roaders at around $23,000.

4. MINI Cooper S. As the "just right" droptop in MINI's ever-expanding lineup, the Cooper S provides a perfect balance between solid performance and relative practicality not found in its siblings. The Cooper S John Cooper Works is a hoot to drive, but it's expensive, while the stylish new Roadster trades what limited cargo-hauling ability the standard MINI Convertible has. Goldilocks has found her MINI.

5. BMW 135i. A new entry-level BMW four-seat droptop is just around the corner, but the current car remains a delight to drive, especially given its lack of BMW's much-maligned iDrive interface (unless you order navigation). Opt for the 135i's Sport Package and you'll net a firmer suspension, sports seats and one of the greatest three-spoke steering wheels to ever be offered.

6. Audi TT. Audi parent Volkswagen's ubiquitous 2.0-liter four-cylinder might be best experienced in the TT roadster, the droptop version of the German automaker's style-oriented line. While lacking the ultimate dynamicism of Porsche's pricier rear-drive Boxster, the all-wheel-drive TT is a great stepping stone up the roadster ranks from the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

7. Chevrolet Camaro SS. Removing the Camaro's top addresses one of our primary criticisms: The coupe's miserable rear visibility. It's still a bit portly, but a strong 6.2-liter V8 and Brembo brakes give the Camaro SS some serious performance credentials. You'll need them to scoot away from gawkers still smitten with this cool-looking droptop's styling.

8. Audi A5. It's hard to believe that Audi's sensuous A5 line has been around since 2007, isn't it? We're still smitten with the A5's beautiful shape, even if our budget limits us to the front-wheel-drive model equipped with a CVT rather than the available quattro all-wheel-drive model with its eight-speed automatic transmission.

9. Nissan 370Z. Dropping more than $40,000 on a Nissan Z isn't for the faint of heart, but doing so at least nets buyers a terrific performance car. Way sharper than the related Infiniti G Convertible, the 370Z is an underrated, precise track machine that's civilized on road. Still, we wish there was a cheaper version.

10. Fiat 500C. Certainly the most chic droptop on our list, the Fiat 500c is more delightful to drive than its stylish positioning and marketing might suggest. This pint-size convertible retains its coupe sibling's roofline thanks to a smaller cloth soft top that folds into a retro-cool stack. Beneath its cute look lurks a taut suspension and sharp, direct steering, not to mention a remarkably flexible little four-cylinder engine.