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Retractable hardtops go mainstream

Until the last year or so, if you were in the market for a retractable-hardtop convertible you had just a handful of higher-priced models, like the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, from which to choose. Things are different now.

Volkswagen, Pontiac, Mazda, and Chrysler have all launched or are readying new retractable-hardtop convertibles for the average convertible buyer, and BMW and Volvo have new luxury-oriented retractable hardtops.

Why the flurry of activity in this segment? Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Boston-based forecasting company Global Insight, says baby boomers are partially responsible for the growth because they're in search of a fun weekend car. She said Generation Y is also having an influence, and automakers know they need to add special features like retractable hardtops to get buyers to consider their products.

Retractable hardtops have a number of practical advantages when compared to their soft-top counterparts. "One of the things that you're always at risk for is theft," Lindland said. "Retractable hardtops help in that regard."

"In your colder-climate states, up north, convertibles aren't the best thing to be driving in the wintertime," said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting at IRN, a Grand Rapids, Mich., consulting firm. "The hardtop gives you insulation from the sound and cold."

So you're interested in a retractable hardtop but are hesitant to raid your retirement account to get one. Before the 2006 model year, there wasn't a retractable-hardtop convertible priced less than $40,000. Today, buyers have a range of choices that start well below that number. Let's take a closer look at the new models in the segment that are priced between $20,000 and $50,000.

2008 Chrysler Sebring (estimated $28,000): Not content with offering just a retractable-hardtop convertible, Chrysler also gives buyers a choice of two soft-tops, vinyl and cloth. The reason? Beth Ann Bayus, a public relations representative for Chrysler Group, said some convertible buyers are diehard soft-top fans, while others like the appearance of a retractable hardtop when it's up. "We wanted to make sure we offered a variety," Bayus said. The vinyl top also lets Chrysler sell the Sebring convertible at a lower starting price, according to Bayus. All the tops are powered and can be operated with a key fob.

2007 BMW 3 Series (estimated $45,000 to $55,000): The latest 3 Series convertible gets BMW's first-ever retractable hardtop. The convertible's steel roof is made of three pieces and can lower in 22 seconds. "It is a completely different chassis than the coupe," said Thomas Plucinsky, BMW product and technology communications manager. The rear-wheel-drive convertible is offered with a choice of two engines; the 328i gets a 230-horsepower inline-six-cylinder, while the 335i has a twin-turbo 300-hp inline-six.

2007 Mazda MX-5 ($24,350 to $26,360): With the introduction of the MX-5 retractable-hardtop convertible, Mazda has the distinction of selling the least expensive retractable hardtop on the market. Previously offered as just a soft-top, the MX-5's new retractable-hardtop convertible has a silhouette that's much like the soft-top's, and it takes just 12 seconds to lower or raise the roof, according to Mazda. Like the ragtop, the retractable hardtop is offered with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that drives the rear wheels through a manual or automatic transmission.

2007 Pontiac G6 ($28,680): Introduced for the 2006 model year, the Pontiac G6 retractable-hardtop convertible has room for four people and transforms from a coupe to a convertible in about 35 seconds. Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson said the automaker decided on a retractable hardtop for the G6 convertible in part to keep its shape like a coupe's when the top is up. Buyers can choose between a 3.5-liter V-6 and a 3.9-liter V-6; both engines team with a four-speed automatic transmission.

2007 Volkswagen Eos ($28,110 to $36,970): The new Eos convertible has room for up to four people, and its retractable hardtop features a tilt/slide glass sunroof - an uncommon setup. Volkswagen says it takes 25 seconds for the roof to lower. Two engines - a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a 3.2-liter V-6 - are offered. Air conditioning, a CD stereo and an electronic stability system are standard.

2007 Volvo C70 ($39,090): When Volvo brought back the C70 for the 2006 model year, the automaker relaunched the two-door as a retractable hardtop. "Customers looked at the concept and basically told us they liked it," said James Hope, product communications manager for Volvo Cars North America. "It's an extremely hot product for us." The C70 is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder engine and can have either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. It takes about 29 seconds to lower the roof, but only 27 to raise it.

Even though the price of entry into the retractable-hardtop segment has come down, you'll still have to pay extra if you want one.

"It's not cheap," Merkle said. "It's still going to be a niche kind of offering, but what the hardtop retractable allows you to do is have your convertible without all the inconveniences of the past."

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