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It's convertible season, so what are you waiting for?

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

Buying a summertime convertible is one of the most underrated things you can do in the car world. Anyone who can’t appreciate a drop-top during the span of warm months either has no levity in their heart, or no adventure in their soul. Macho car guys may make snide remarks, and the light-skinned or the overly coiffed will worry about sunburns and mussed hair. Ignore the boors and aid the anxious by tucking sunscreen and a baseball hat in the glove box.

Life is better in a convertible.

When was the last time you actually rode or drove in one? Longer than you’d like to think, I bet. Perhaps you rented a Camaro or Mustang while on vacation in Miami. Or a Mini Convertible in Hawaii. You likely left a damp beach towel over the rear seat and got sand on the floor and you didn’t care at all.

You likely left a damp beach towel over the rear seat and got sand on the floor and you didn’t care at all

That sense of the eternal vacation is endemic in a convertible, even when you’re stuck at home running errands. Along with the aroma of the sea (or garbage day in August), a convertible carries the whiff of indulgence. People in their boring workaday cars will stare, a mix of wonder and fear in their eyes, like your presumed irresponsibility might spread. And secretly, they wish it would.

So maybe you should do something about it. Consider taking the leap and owning a convertible. Which one is right for you?

To my thinking, the actual open-air component should be central to the experience, not an afterthought. Both the Mustang and the Camaro fall into the afterthought camp, destined for rental fleets. They’re as close to charmless convertibles as you’ll find. Open-air cars should seem affable and approachable, and the gruffness of a muscle car makes a strange pairing, like a four-wheeled mullet. They are faux convertibles.


lamborghini-huracan-spyder-01


(Lamborghini)

If you’re really looking for the mix of speed and sun, you might consider the Lamborghini Huracán Spyder. I just spent a week in one, and found that the canvas roof lowered in a handful of seconds and made it easy to listen to the glory of the naturally-breathing V-10 engine. It is even better-looking than the coupe, top up or down; a dartlike sheath of liquid metal.

Oh, you say you’re not an original Google investor? Well, the car does start at around $265,000, so a lack of towering wealth might be an impediment. And in truth, the outright Lamborghini-ness of the car slightly detracts from the convertible experience. Your friends will likely focus on the fact you bought an Italian exotic and not the fact that it so wonderfully lacks a roof.

You are very much out in the elements; fresh air swirling around your body

Which brings me back to the Mini, which starts at around $30,000 for the Cooper S convertible. The open-air model has always been central to Mini’s BMW-era brand, and the car broadcasts accessibility. It has four seats and the cabin is expansive, so when you drop the top you are very much out in the elements; fresh air swirling around your body. It is the opposite of a targa-style car, which is sort of a convertible for those who can’t really commit.

The Mini was recently updated, but it’s still got a soft top, and cutely features an app called Journey Mate which pings your phone when the forecast calls for rain and your car is parked with the top down.

Still, when it comes to design, the first generation of BMW-owned Mini Cooper convertible is my favorite, produced from 2005 to 2008. It was smaller and had a much a lower hood. Compare the two and the newer car looks like an overgrown sibling. Kelley Blue Book shows a very basic 2005 example in good condition can be had from a private seller for an average of $4,200. Which sounds fabulous, except that many of the earlier Minis are known for poor quality, and it could cost you twice that to get all the bugaboos fixed.


2008-mini-cooper-convertible-01


(BMW)

Since we’re already talking used cars, and talking about buying a convertible on a budget, let’s skip over the many excellent new cars from the VW Eos to the Audi TT and Mercedes SL and Jaguar F-Type and Ferrari 488 Spider.

Let’s get down to basics. Hardtops are silly. If you’re looking for a metal roof, buy an uncompromised coupe or sedan. And a convertible isn’t a natural grand-touring car, so you can chuck the luggage space. And it’s really hard to talk to anyone in the back seat with the top down anyhow, so let’s do away with rear seats, too.

Look for used examples, ones that will last you a couple of summers

Which leaves us with small, soft-top two-seaters, and that puts two of the world’s greatest roadsters in your sights: the Porsche Boxster and the Mazda Miata MX-5. They are one-trick ponies in the best of ways, delivering unadulterated summer fun.

The new Porsche, now rebranded as the 718 Boxster, starts at $56,000 and has 300 horsepower. Sublime, but pricy for a summer toy. A new Mazda (155 hp) remains wickedly economical, starting at a friendly $25,000.

But both models been around for a long time, and here’s my actual advice: look for used examples. Ones that will last you a couple of summers. Wring every bit of fun out of them, and then move on.

In the case of the Boxster, a 2004 example in good condition can be had for some $14,000 or less. It may not be beautiful or perfect, and power may seem quaint at 225 hp, but you will find yourself looking for excuses to wile away hours on back roads to the beach.


MX-5 Lead w Watermark

And if that sounds too pricy for a summer toy, only used on lazy Sundays, then you can pick up a Miata for thousands. Mazda’s been making them since 1990 and you might pay $4,000 for a not-so-bad version. The top opens manually. With one hand. While you’re still seated. It will seem like the coolest trick ever. You will run it to the top of its rev limiter and it will feel like you’re tearing down the road. The wind will rip at your hair. You will still be under the speed limit.

No part of the convertible equation could be more central — or fun — than that.


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