Unless you’ve been living under the Canadian Shield (or in a rainforest in B.C., you lucky devil…) you know all too well that this country’s snowbound, well, half the year. Yes, as epic as it sounds when spoken in a deep, beer commercial announcer’s voice, “The Great White North,” is not just a clever nickname. What’s more, all those falling flakes have a major impact on the vehicles we Canucks buy: “Tank treads, a plow and a Tim’s double-double all standard? I’ll take it!”
Seriously though, our climes really do make vehicles like convertibles fair-weather toys rather than daily drivers (Mazda sold about 700 MX-5s in 2010 versus 5,000 Tribute SUVs) as much as some Canadians admirably fight the reality with top-down and toque on.
Basically, you’re looking at parting with $30,000 to $50,000 to get yourself into just about any mainstream convertible today. That’s a lot of cash for most Canadians, so finding a ride that’s right is key. That’s why we decided to pull together three of the best non-luxury droptops, all unique as said snowflakes. The Chevrolet Camaro, Volkswagen Eos and Mini Cooper S are all four-seaters, bring a modicum of practicality, but from there they’re divergent – Canadian-, Portuguese- and British-made for starters…
Mr. Muscle – 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible
Since the first example did a smoky powerslide out of GM’s Oshawa, Ontario factory the Camaro’s been a bright spot for the reborn American automaker. Roughly two years on, the drop-top version has joined the herd in V6 ($33,995) and V8 ($43,255) form.
We have to admit to a collective raising of eyebrows when Chevy announced the al fresco muscle car. Without getting all Physics 101 on you, a car’s roof is an essential part of its structure, keeping it rattle-free and helping with that glued-to-the-road feel. Lop off the lid and the car gets “cowl shake,” where its wiggles over bumps like a Golden Retriever just out of the lake.
Our anxiety was all for not in the Camaro’s case: GM’s engineers did a bang-up job bracing the structure of this rather large car. That said, it now tips the scales at a hefty 4,168 lbs. in our tester’s SS trim line, and the steering and suspension are surprisingly on the softer side. If you’re looking for a full-size, rear-wheel drive American boulevard cruiser this is your ride. Sports car it ain’t. Room for four aboard is the best of our bunch, though leg and shoulder room’s not exactly generous. Same goes for trunk space, though that’s an issue in all of our competitors. Golf clubs ride in the rear seat in all cases.
Shorter drivers like Yours Truly note: you sit low in the Chev, affecting sightlines, and with the top up, the view rearward is, not surprisingly, compromised. At least the lid’s quiet when fixed. A niggling flaw we all saw in the rearview mirror of the Camaro was the tendency for its folded roof to bounce up and down in the wind when out driving. It made an otherwise well-built car look not quite sorted. It also had the most fussy and involved procedure for getting the roof up or down out of our three testers.
The enthusiast side of our brains is glad we had a 6.2-litre “L99” V8 model to wring out, versus the 312 horsepower 3.6L V6 base Camaro cabrio. Even with 426 horsepower and 410 lb-ft of torque on tap, the eight-cylinder Chevy was quick but not a full-blown Yankee rocket. The six-speed auto gearbox probably hampered proceeding some, but if you order it you also get Active Fuel Management, which shuts down four cylinders to save fuel when you’re not tromping the go pedal and chasing the sunset.
The soccer hooligan – 2011 Mini Cooper S Cabriolet
If maximizing at-the-wheel entertainment is your bent, then the Mini Cooper S Convertible’s your warm weather ride. All that stuff you’ve heard about the brand’s go-kart like handling is gospel. British-built and German-designed (the brand’s owned by BMW) the cabrio is powered by a raucous little 1.6-litre engine wearing a turbocharger. It knocks out 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque (198 lb-ft for brief bursts…). Who’s to argue with 0-100 km/h in 7.3 seconds and average fuel consumption of just 6.7 L/100 km?
There is a standard Cooper without the turbo, but the same great handling, for $29,200. Cash-conscious sun lovers will note that makes it the least expensive car in our trio. Those drivers best avert their gaze from our full-jam $44,945 (wowzers!) tester. It wore equipment like navigation, a Harman/Kardon sound system and premium leather seats. A BMW by any other name still smells as sweet, no? One standout feature all Cooper Convertibles wear is the Always Open Timer, a gauge behind the steering wheel that counts how long you’ve been driving with the roof down. Kitsch we know, but still cool.
We do take issue with the $1,490 six-speed automatic gearbox our front-wheel drive Cooper S wore. This is a car that dazzles with a manual transmission, so to go the automated route is a cardinal sin worth 1,000 lashings. We miss the first-gen of this reborn Cooper which did not offer an auto-box on its most potent ‘S’ models…
Kudos to BMW, err, Mini, for designing a soft folding roof that not only looks good when up, but stacks neatly on the rear of the car à la original Volkswagen Beetle. Bonus: you can slide the top back halfway for impromptu open sunroof action. Good thing the tumbled top doesn’t eat into trunk space though, because, wow, this is a small “boot” if there ever was one. The way the rear hatch flips down like the ’60s-era Mini is a proper nod to nostalgia, but there’s room for but one small bag in there.
Of our competitors, the Mini is affected most by the cowl shake we explained in the Camaro critique. The extra-firm suspension and super-short wheelbase are factors here to be sure, but it can make an otherwise fun rip through a corner a little terrifying. Another negative: there may be four seatbelts in the Cooper, but this is pretty much a two-seat car. Rear legroom is best described as “minimal,” and that’s being polite… Kids only need apply.
Those issues aired, what matters most with the Mini is that it makes even milk runs fun. Climb into the compact cabin, power down the roof, scroll-and-click to your iPod’s favourite track on the centre display and then grab that thick-rimmed wheel and mash the gas. It’s one of few cars left that can leave us genuinely grinning hours later.
The sophisticate – 2012 Volkswagen Eos
Veedubs’s Eos (named after the Greek goddess of the dawn) strikes a nice middle ground between the Camaro cruiser and the spunky Mini Cooper S in driveability, comfort and tech – if not price: it’s the most expensive droptop here at $39,075 to start. At least you get your Loonies’ worth:
Officially a 2012 model, our tester was one of the first refreshed Eos’ off the boat in Canada. Gone is the chrome goatee grille the drop-top once wore, replaced with VW’s new, conservative (some drivers said, yawn… boring) styling which debuted on the redone Jetta sedan.
Your honour, the front-wheel drive Eos does present a convincing case as a four-season machine. Its star witness? The magic folding solid top, officially called the “CSC (coupe-sunroof-convertible) automatic folding hardtop roof.”
This is quite the bit of German engineering. Think of it like sunscreen: Low SPF? The top’s down. 60 SPF? The roof’s closed and the car’s about as solid and quiet as any coupe. 30 SPF? Eos was the first hardtop cabriolet to offer a massive, power glass panoramic sunroof built into its lid, meaning you can regulate your vitamin D levels even with the top closed. As you’d expect, trunk volume is eaten up by the roof when it’s folded.
There’s only one powertrain combo offered for the 2012 Eos: a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) with Tiptronic. What all this means is that the convertible’s rockin’ the same driveline as the legendary GTI hot-hatch, good for 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. The transmission’s a double-clutch design, meaning rapid shift times and automatic or manual modes.
Our tester was a standard “Comfortline” model, which lives up to its name with, well, neutral drivability. No muss, no fuss here. The $45,775 Highline model does add sport suspension and sport seats for those with a bit more need for speed. Four people aboard can be done if the front seats are set forward and the Eos wears a neat little pop-up windblocker at the top of its windscreen which helps reduce blown hair for backseat riders.
The materials, build quality and feel of the controls on the Eos were all on our reviewers’ ‘likes’ list. This is a car that presents itself as far more premium then the asking price and badge suggest. If you (and your wallet) are so inclined, you can load the VW up with luxury gear like navigation, bi-xenon adaptive headlights and rain sensing wipers.
Finally, do remember there are other “affordable” droptops on offer in Canada aside from our cross-section of testers – the Ford Mustang ($28,965), Mazda MX-5 ($28,995), Chrysler 200 ($29,995) for example – so put on those shades and shop wisely…