Some of motoring journalist Richard Webb’s best memories were made on balmy summer nights in open top cars. He relives his heydays with a pick of the latest covetable convertibles on the market.
There is something incredibly nostalgic about driving a convertible car. It’s about the planning of a journey as an act of celebration and discovery, or even that spontaneous road trip for no particular reason.
Bentley Continental GT V8
Tradition and convertible cars are steadfast bedfellows, of course. For example, early Bentleys were mostly open-topped and what, I’ve wondered, would it be like to try their more modern take on sporting luxury? I tried the ‘basic’ V8 model – the Continental GT – the one that wafts from 0 to 100kph in 5.0 seconds.
I glide the roof down at the gentlest caress of a button as I gather speed. I am surprised at how perfectly I’m able to hold a conversation with my passengers without shouting, trying not to notice the gaze of hungry camera lenses swivelling towards us. Appropriately quiet, the engine murmurs in agreement, making this V8 everything I’d expect of a luxury rocket ship.
Pale amber sunlight retreats across the road as I press the accelerator, giving rise to a perfectly tuned exhaust note and a relentless surge of power. I direct this wide, lavish car through the narrow streets, easing it out of the receding city. Its sheer presence adds distraction to the cell phone-yielding motorists – their view of the road seen only through their cameras – giving rise to potentially nerve-wracking encounters, but happily, years of driving experience help me to thread this car safely away from incident.
Once in the countryside, though, I revel in its alter ego. It’s on the car’s speed demon side where l find myself grinning, not just because of how fast it is, but how much grip it has in the corners. By any standards the Continental GT Convertible is a magnificent car to drive or be driven in. As an open grand-tourer, it’s peerless.
When it comes to covetable convertibles, modern or classic, my heart leads me directly to the impossibly beautiful Jaguar E-Type. The firm’s follow-up F-Type took its own sweet time to arrive, but wow, it was worth the wait! In a return to the company’s heartland, this two-seat convertible sports car is focused on performance, agility and driver involvement – and I love it. As I slide into the cockpit it is like summer has wrapped its arms around me in a welcome hug.
The F-Type is a continuation of a sporting bloodline that stretches back more than 75 years, and it exudes defined, athletic elegance. The almost sensual sounds, feelings and looks entice me. Sharp handling, unimpeachable body control and the uncanny turn-in make for an intimate drive. Whether you choose the 3.0 litre V6 or 5.0 litre V8, they both come standard with that addictive hair-raising burble as it pops and fizzes on the over-run.
Mercedes-Benz SL 500
However, the Brits certainly don’t have it all their way. The first-ever Sports Leicht, a Mercedes-Benz lightweight sports car called the 300SL, was designed by legendary engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut to add its name to the winners’ roll call alongside that of Alfa-Romeo, Bentley and Jaguar at the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Mercedes-Benz are not known for half measures, and their 1952 win with this SL set the stage for a continually endearing and elegant high-performance roadster.
There have been five generations of SL since that first one, with each more fabulous than its predecessor – although I’d argue that the ‘prettiest’ ever was either the original Gull-Wing or the Pagoda. For sheer driving versatility and joy though, I rate the current SL 500 ‘off the scales of desirability’. It offers a perpetual promise of summer with its panoramic vario-roof.
The aluminium body is a manufacturing triumph. Why? Because apart from achieving targets for stiffness, it’s the way it drives. I slump into the sumptuous interior after a tough day creating content on my MacBook Air. And then… ah, everything changes. The gentility and attention to detail is mind-boggling. The redesigned cabin is a sartorial delight, with gentlemen’s club seats and all the key functions accessible via the clear centre console screen and rotary dial.
I find the ride-quality to be sublime as the car goes exactly where I want it, with no body roll. The seasons may change, but the SL still gives that sense-of-occasion every time I climb aboard. The V8 burbles away quietly until a prod of the accelerator raises a seamless burst of power that relentlessly propels me forward. The SL has always been a statement of where one believes one stands in the world.
In the more affordable genre of sports cars, the world loves the pony cars. The new Ford Mustang is currently the best-selling sports car in the world, having sold 76 124 vehicles for the first half of 2015, up 56% year-to-date. Sales among women in particular are up 40% over the last year, giving Mustang a healthy 36% of the entire female sports car market.
This is the first year the Mustang is available to customers in more than 100 global markets, including South Africa, with open-top and fastback models arriving in December – just in time for summer cruising in an icon. Choose between six-speed auto or manual gearboxes and the power plants of the 233kW four-cylinder 2.3, which sprints from 0-100kph in 5.8 seconds, or the 306kW 5.0-litre V8, which dispatches 0-100kph in 4.8 seconds. Pricing is expected to be competitive with rivals Audi A5, BMW 4-Series and Nissan 370Z.
Audi A3 1.4T FSI
Also in the women’s market is Audi’s baby soft-top, the A3 Cabriolet, which is lovely to look at and drives well, too. I tried the 1.4 turbo-charged petrol engine car, which extracts 92kW and 200Nm from its petite pint-sized engine. Performance is good enough but what makes it all come together so well is the super 7-speed S tronic twin-clutch gearbox, which hooks up nicely throughout the rev range.
Audi’s engineers have also been working hard to improve ride quality and this car shows they are getting it right. It feels well-heeled and supple, and the quality of the interior adds to that feeling of well-being in the cabin.
The cheapest way to get into a new BMW badged-convertible is through the 2 Series. I timed the five-layer fabric roof at 20 seconds to retract fully, but it can be done at speeds of up to 50kph, which is very handy when the traffic light turns green just as the roof is halfway down.
I tried the 220i, which manages to get from 0-62kph in 7.5 seconds yet still returns a combined 6.5 /100km, thanks in part to the superb eight-speed automatic gearbox. The standard suspension setup can be upgraded to be electrically adjustable, and the prodding sport button makes the ride firmer but also much more controlled.
The extra body strengthening required over its tin-top siblings adds nearly 200kg to the car’s weight, but it does look every part an authentic BMW convertible, with its pretty flat-shouldered profile. Inside, it feels like a cosseting car, especially in the front, with great driving position. There is nothing to fault the clarity or quality of the controls, and BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is now of an age where it’s just about perfect. With the roof down and the sun shining, this 2 Series makes for a great cruiser.
Citroën C1 Airscape
What about nearer the lower end of the price scale, I’ve wondered? Memories of my bright green 1987 Citroën 2CV were rekindled as I stepped into Citroën’s cheeky C1 Airscape. It gave me that familiar conviction of life starting all over again with the onset of summer. Settling in to the irreverent, funky cabin, I mobilise the powered fabric roof open and in came the country air – as if dusted with the spice of a million fynbos.
Citroën’s new C1 is, for me, a modern Deux Chevaux – the spiritual successor of my old 2CV. Upon start-up, the tiny 1199cc three-cylinder engine throbs, is extremely nippy and fun to drive. I like the playful, highly colourful interior with its bright dashboard inserts and seat-edge stripes looking like it screams ‘fun’. A touch-screen display mirrors my mobile-phone screen, so I can use my phone’s satnav or bop to my iTunes collection. It’s trendy and capable, roomy and almost a convertible small car that is the yin to Bentley’s yang. And in it, I experience a freshness and beauty in watching the clouds float across the sky.
Open-top motoring reminds me that, although all days are equally long in hours, some of those days are longer – not only because of the season, but also because of the rewards they offer. NEED TO KNOW Audi A3 Cabriolet
Top speed: 216 kph
0-100kph: 8.9 seconds
Power: 103 kW
Torque: 250 Nm
Combined fuel consumption: 5.1/100km
CO2 emissions: 114 g/km
Transmission: 7-speed S tronic
Price: R461 000 (December 2015)