Convertible sales fail to raise the roof

Australia has experienced its hottest day, week and month on record in 2013, and everything is pointing to this year being one of the warmest 365-day periods ever.

But despite more temperate conditions, sales of convertible cars appear to be going through a chilly period.

The number of convertible cars sold so far in 2013 is down 15 per cent compared to the same time last year, despite the overall market being stronger than ever.

The downward trend doesn't appear likely to be bucked in the final months of the year, either, with fewer than 6000 drop-tops expected to be sold in 2013. In context, 6266 were sold in 2012, and 6414 in 2011.

Why is it, then, that sales of the cars most suited to temperate climates are nose-diving when the mercury is hitting new highs?

It essentially comes down to the products available in the fickle, fashion-conscious convertible market.

Let's take Mazda's MX-5.

It's the world's most popular sports car, and when the current generation had its first full year of sales in 2006 it accounted for 25 per cent of Aussie convertible sales.

Since then, sales have dipped from 1468 units to just 159 in 2012, and, according to Mazda Australia senior manager of public relations Steve Maciver, they won't pick up until the new model comes.


"It comes down to product life cycles and the current MX-5 is nearing the end of its product life cycle," he says.

"As it ages, the appeal and the sales attached to that begin to drop off. I think what we're seeing is a natural ageing of the product."

Maciver says the new-generation model, which will have its first full year of sales in 2015, will "absolutely" see a large increase in sales.

"Obviously sports cars and convertibles in particular are a bit more of a niche market - they're never going to see the same volumes as a car like a Mazda2, Mazda3 or even a CX-5.

"We're working on market equations right now, we're doing planning for new MX-5. We do expect a significant upswing in volume when the new model comes in," he says.

The fact the MX-5 is situated at the "attainable" end of the spectrum makes a big difference.

A number of new convertibles have launched in 2013, including the Jaguar F-Type, Porsche 911 Cabriolet, McLaren MP4-12C Roadster and Ferrari 458 Spider - but with the most affordable of those models costing more than $138,000 they're very exclusive propositions.

At a slightly more attainable - but still luxurious - level, BMW will soon introduce a new 4-Series Convertible to join the just-released Coupe model.

The German brand's 3-Series Coupe and Convertible models followed a similar trajectory to the MX-5 - sales have slumped 74 per cent since the current version's first full year on sale in 2007 (from 2921 sales to just 765 in 2012).

BMW Australia general manager of corporate communications Lenore Fletcher says the fashionable factor does play a part in sales, particularly for sporty drop-tops.

"Particularly with a sports or performance vehicle, you will definitely see a spike on the initial release.

''This is obviously because they have really strong styling appeal, and they appeal to people who have an affinity with styling."

Audi Australia product communications executive Shaun Cleary concurs. The current A3 Cabriolet has been a popular part of the brand's small car line-up, at times accounting for a quarter of overall sales. Cleary says the new A3 Cabriolet, due in 2014, will be a style-led purchase, and its more macho, coupe-like look - in contrast to the hatchback styling of its predecessor - could draw new buyers.

"Convertibles are a particularly individual choice. They're a type of car that doesn't suit everyone, but 'convertible' people are quite passionate about it," Cleary says.

In terms of types of buyers, many of the brands with drop-tops currently on sale told Drive their main market is successful 40- to 50-something males - the "midlife crisis" set, essentially.

Dr Rajat Roy is a lecturer at the Curtin Business School, specialising in marketing and psychology, and he says it's a case of that classic midlife crisis.

"You take a review of what you have done and things you could not do earlier - for example, buying a convertible," Roy says.

"If a convertible stands for someone who is outgoing and reliving his youth, or making more friends - why not [own one]? The whole point is how others perceive a person who drives a convertible, and what that stands for.

''He might be viewed as outgoing, more adventurous, letting his hair down, and people are attracted to that kind of character," Roy says.

"Society is cooking up a perfect storm - we're being driven by material success, symbolic consumption, youth and beauty. So all those things together, and the mid-life review, and the personality and emotional change happening at mid-life probably explains this [situation] better."

The exception to the rule is Volkswagen's Golf Cabriolet, which is most popular with younger couples (25-40) - that's likely due to it being one of the more affordable convertibles, priced from $37,490. Like all convertibles, it sold well in its first full year (823 units in 2012), but has dropped off, with fewer than 400 sold so far in 2013.

When it comes to volume sellers, there's one convertible that consistently tops the charts - and it's an unexpected one.

The Jeep Wrangler is not sleek, nor sporty. But it consistently sells in big numbers, and it comes with a demountable hard-top or vinyl soft-top for both the two- and four-door models.

Jeep consistently shifts around 2000 units a year, but despite its removable roof section, it's considered an SUV rather than a convertible by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, so doesn't count in the official figures for convertible sales.

"Nine times out of 10, people want to have the hard-top," says Fiat Chrysler Group director of communications Karla Leach.

"It's dependent on the use of the car as to whether they remove the roof - people in Sydney or Queensland would lose the lid more often."

Leach says that although the removable roof is part of the decision process for most buyers, it's "the versatility of the car that's the driving factor".

"The flexibility with the roof is part of it, the ability to go anywhere is a big factor for the Wrangler," Leach says.

Drive's top convertible picks


Fiat 500C

For less than $20,000, your summer could be spent motoring around in a funky Italian roadster … of sorts. The Fiat 500C Pop is the country's most affordable new convertible, and while its rag-top isn't the whole-hog in terms of drop-top motoring, it's a wallet-friendly way to enter the market.

Price from $17,900, plus on-road and dealer costs.
1.2-litre 4-cyl, 51kW and 102Nm.
Pros Cute, simple to park.
Not a proper drop-top, automatic only.


Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet

The Golf Cabriolet wowed Drive's judges at the 2012 Car of the Year awards, knocking off the formidable Porsche Boxster. How? It has practicality on its side, and it's priced just marginally higher than a regular well-equipped hatchback. It's no wonder young couples love it. The current Cabriolet is based on the previous generation Golf; a new model is due in 2014.

Price from $37,490, plus on-road and dealer costs
1.4-litre 4-cyl twincharger, 118kW and 240Nm.
Drives like a hatch, quick roof operation (nine seconds).
Dual-clutch auto can be jerky, options can be pricey.

Affordable fun

Mazda MX-5

The epitome of open-top motoring for the masses. More than 900,000 MX-5s have been sold ever since the car was created in 1989, and the current model - though due to be replaced next year - still lights many fires for its fun factor. Sending power to the rear wheels, the modestly powered MX-5 doesn't set any performance benchmarks but delivers classic sports car roadholding on a budget. We can't wait for the new model in 2015.

Price from $47,280, plus on-road and dealer costs.
2.0-litre 4-cyl, 118kW and 188Nm.
Sweet handling, proper sports car road manners, classic looks.
Modest performance, feels its age inside.


Jeep Wrangler

Not your average drop-top, this one, particularly given that you should allow a few hours - not seconds - to give you the open-top experience. It's rough-and-tumble, can go anywhere and you can have the wind (or mud) in your hair while you're at it.

Price from $32,500, plus on-road and dealer costs.
3.6-litre V6, 209kW and 347Nm.
Pros Can go anywhere, both hard and soft tops included.
Roof is complex to dismantle, not fun to drive.


Porsche Boxster

Hands down, this is one of the greatest performance cars on the road. The Boxster, updated in 2012, is now more masculine, more focused and is supremely easy to drive. The Boxster S model is potent, but the regular 2.7-litre model is a bargain. On top of that it's surprisingly practical, with two luggage areas (one front, one rear) and a two-seat cabin with plenty of space.

Price from $101,500 plus on-road costs.
2.7-litre horizontally opposed 6-cyl, 195kW and 280Nm.
Pros Luscious to drive, peachy engines, surprisingly good luggage space.
Cons Expensive options, lacks cabin storage.

Money no object

Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

At more than the cost of the average suburban terrace house, the Drophead Coupe is the definition of opulence. Powered by a 6.7-litre V12 engine, this 5.61-metre long behemoth features a neat optional Starlight Headlining, which mimics the night sky using 1600 fibre-optic lights when the roof is up.

Price from $1,075,000 drive-away.
Engine 6.7-litre V12, 338kW and 720Nm.
The ultimate in luxury, tremendous grunt, genuine presence on the road.
Cons The price (and resale loss!), it's huge.