Cruising convertibles do battle for ultimate feel-good vibes. Classy Convertibles. Have a taste of the good life without the financial strife – the BMW 335i M-Sport Convertible E93, Alfa Romeo Spider Type-939, Saab 9-3 Aero V6 Turbo Convertible, Volvo C70 Convertible and Mercedes-Benz CLK350 Convertible A209. Which is best? Pan-European adventures or staycation exploration – it’s all glamorous in our open-all-hours quintet. Words Dan Bevis. Photography Chris Frosin.
CLASSY CONVERTIBLES Big-brand drop-tops that make you look good
Airs & Graces CRUISING CONVERTIBLES
Convertibles have always been cool. There are few experiences more evocative, or more feel-good, than an old-timey cruise across sweeping widescreen moorland, through some lush and verdant valleys, or just trundling to the shops with the breeze in your barnet. In a ragtop, every journey is an adventure.
It doesn’t need to be a darty point-and-squirt road-racer. These cars are all about la dolce vita. So with a scorchio summer about to brighten up all our lives, yours would be hugely enriched by a convertible. Just think, by this time next month you could be picking flies out of your teeth as your hair amusingly rearranges itself into a Flock of Seagulls style. But which car will kick the needle on your feel-good-o-meter into action? Which one will best turn that wintry frown upside-down?
Something German, a Swedish option maybe, or a car with a little Latin flair? Here’s our selection. Make your choice.
ALFA ROMEO SPIDER TYPE 939
Million-dollar style for under £10k in Alfa’s elegant strada-strider
The Alfa Romeo name became synonymous with topless fun when Spider- driving Dustin Hoffman started eyeing up Mrs Robinson in the 1967 movie The Graduate.
Alfa’s original plan to give its 1966 sports two-seater the name ‘Duetto’ – the winning suggestion from a huge public ballot – hit legal trouble, so the traditional Euro ‘spider’ name for a convertible was adopted and retained on this model right up to 1993, when it was put onto the entirely different GTV-based convertible, and then onto the car you see here.
This Type-939 Spider, lovingly crafted by Pininfarina between 2006 and 2010, was offered with a variety of engines, from the 1750cc four-pots to the JTDM oil-burners and of course the full-fat 3.2-litre V6 that we had to nab for this test. Sure, it’s no chromed- inlet Busso engine, but it’s a lusty tool that alters the Spider’s underlying character from ‘playful’ to ‘a bit cross’.
It’s pleasing to note the up-close cohesion of this car’s styling. Its Brera stablemate was such a well-resolved and charming piece of design that it was always going to be a risk scything off the roof and lobbing on a booty implant, but the proportions really are spot-on. As photographer Chris and I circle the Alfa, we can’t help but agree that there isn’t a bad angle on it. It looks pretty wherever you’re standing.
Put it down to the power of three. There are three headlights either side, three side-by-side air vents in the dash, three gauges angling toward the driver, and three rings peeping out from each tail-light cluster. As we’ve come to expect from modern-era
Alfas, slipping into the sumptuously- trimmed leather interior is like descending into a Turin furniture boutique. Slot the key into the dash, thumb the starter and… woof! The V6 signals its intent with a low rumble. You’re definitely not in a diesel. Let’s get ready for some fireworks.
Snicking the autobox into Drive, you’re immediately aware of the torque. This is a big-hearted engine that pulls you away from the kerb with almost supercharger-like efficiency.
Fireworks, though? No, actually. This car isn’t built for fireworks. It’s not a hooligan’s plaything, more a balloon-lunged grand tourer that’s been shrunk down to a two-seater. It accelerates with effervescence rather than urgency.
That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining through the curves, of course; the Q4 all-wheel-drive system is about 60 per cent rear-biased, but it can shuffle up to 80 per cent of the power to either axle as required, which gives the handling a limpet-like quality.
Naturally, with all of that engine up there it’s quite nose-heavy, leading the front end to wash wide under extreme cornering, but ‘extreme’ isn’t what this Spider is about. ‘Relaxing’ is a much more fitting word.
Everything’s there if you need it: a big bucket of horsepower, a firm brake pedal, the safety-net of intelligent all-wheel-drive. What’s far more important in an everyday context is that there’s plenty of room for your elbows, the wind deflectors work well, the suspension is soft and absorbent, and the controls are logically laid out.
This is a car that chills you out, while spurring you on to eat up the miles. Just as an Alfa Spider should.
I BOUGHT ONE: ASHLEY VENABLES
‘I had a Corsa VXR before this, and that’s a car that makes you drive like a loon,’ laughs Ashley. ‘This is a bit more of a cruiser. Mine lives a pampered life in a heated, dehumidified garage. There have been one or two issues – a coolant hose split, creating a lot of steam which we initially thought was a fire! The micro switch on the brake pedal failed too, which brought up all manner of warning lights – but these are minor niggles. It’s a joy to own, and wonderful to drive.’
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The 3.2 V6 is a robust engine, but its timing chain has been known to stretch, according to Alfa Owner (alfaowner.co.uk). The engine management light will warn you of this, so you should be able to catch it before it becomes catastrophic, but it’ll cost £300 to fix.
These cars have soft paint, so don’t be surprised to see stone chips. Suspension bushes can wear, which you’ll notice from the knocking sounds as you go over bumps. If you get weird noises from the steering, it’s because it’s got the wrong fluid in it (as many earlier cars did) – it should be green, not red. And don’t be surprised if it consumes tyres at a surprising rate – it’s a powerful car with a lot of grip!
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS ALFA ROMEO SPIDER (939)
Engine 3195cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission 4WD, 6-speed manual/automatic
Max Power 256bhp @ 6200rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 238lb-ft @ 4500rpm / DIN nett
Top speed 152mph
BMW 335I M SPORT E93
Power, poise and pose value: it’s all there in the twin-turbo E93
Each car within this group has its own unique hook that marks it out from the rest. With the Alfa, the hook is rarity: in that engine and chassis configuration, there are only 334 examples in the UK.
And the BMW hook? Power. Owner Alex usually runs his 335i E93 with a vast amount of it. For today, he’s kindly remapped it back to the standard 302bhp and reattached the stock air-box. That makes it a fair fight.
Even throttled back to factory specs, that barnstorming 3.0-litre straight-six twin-turbo is making a huge statement. Still, you have to remember that the 335i isn’t here to bully the others with its bruising thrust. It’s here because BMW’s generations-old 3 Series line has always lent itself very well to open-top motoring. Ever since the factory can-opener was applied to the BMW E21 3-Series, customers have been swarming toward the archetypal mid-size premium drop-top like bees around Piglet’s wingman’s front door. This has always been a model that’s offered feel-good roof-down hijinks with, if it’s required and you tick the right boxes, sizeable thrust. Fun first, fast second.
The interior, with its Zagato-like double-bubble dash, demonstrates this inherent duality by providing you with an illusion of simplicity. At first glance there appears to be simply two old-school dials before you and little else. It’s only when you run the usual pre-flight checks – which side’s the indicator stalk on, how the hell do you adjust the seat and so on – that you realise there are buttons everywhere. It’s a cunning design that hides its complexity well.
One transparently simple element is that big stick in the middle. Yes, there’s no self-shifter here: this car has six ratios and a third pedal. That’s reassuring and, in a 3 Series, proper.
On the move, the 335i is little short of breathtaking. Given that it sits in the tumbleweed-strewn middle ground between the sensible Threes and the boxers-aflame M3, it serves up a surprising trick: it offers 295lb-ft of torque – identical to the M3 – but it’s all available from just 1200rpm. That’s a full 2600rpm lower than the M3. What this means in real terms is that the 335i makes a sterling job of smearing the scenery into a blurry green wash without ever leaving you thinking ‘oh, I do so wish I’d gone for that M3 instead’.
This is great news, but let’s not lose focus: we’re here not to set lap times around the Goodwood estate, but to enjoy these cars as convertible GT wafters. And that’s a set of dice the BMW rolls convincingly.
The steering is gorgeously fluid without ever feeling over-assisted; the brakes are reassuringly progressive without biting too hard and jerking your passengers around; and the chassis doles out plenty of grip while leaving the handling pleasantly neutral. This is why you didn’t buy the M3. You bought the 335i because it’s actually far more civilised.
Better still, you can easily fit four full-grown adults into a 335i. If you’re after a car to ferry your mates to a country pub, this is surely the one.
NEED TO KNOW
Phil at Peter Van Der Veer (01484 843133) tells us that 6-cylinder E90s are far more mechanically reliable than 4-cylinder siblings and don’t share their timing chain issues. However, you need to be mindful of oil leaks from the automatic gearbox, which can leak in three places – sump, oil cooler pipes, and electrical connection cover. All three can be addressed for £350 plus VAT at petervanderveer. co.uk. The ABS pressure sensor can fail, which will cost £500 plus VAT. ‘All E90s are susceptible to water ingress in the E-box beneath the windscreen,’ says Phil. ‘Once the ECU is wet it’ll need replacing. It’s an expensive repair – normally around £1500 plus VAT.’ It’s also vital that the roof mechanism is lubricated at proper intervals.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS BMW 335i M-SPORT (E93)
Engine 2979cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 6-speed manual
Max Power 302bhp @ 5800rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 295lb-ft @ 1200rpm / DIN nett
Top speed 155mph (limited)
I BOUGHT ONE: ALEX STRIKE
‘Despite their reputation for fragility, the car hasn’t really given me any problems,’ says Alex. ‘It developed a misfire soon after I bought it, so I replaced two injectors at a cost of £400and it’s been as good as gold since.’ Alex is now taking the car off the road for awhile so that he can convert it to a single turbo and chase some properly large power figures.
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VOLVO C70 T5
Sanitary, sober and soothing, with a side of sneaky naughtiness
Driving a hot Volvo is a bit like dating wayward twins in a low-budget 1990s sitcom: you spend half your time doing sensible things, and the other half haring around in a directionless fashion with a figurative Exocet missile in your hind quarters.
The considered nature of the Swedish brand’s design values has been distinctly at odds with their engineers’ enthusiasm for chucking massive horsepower under the bonnet. It all came to a head with the second-generation C70. The blobby first-gen car had been brought to market in either tin-top coupé or canvas-roof form, but this clean-cut replacement fused the sensibilities of the two with a folding metal roof that made it a coupé and a cabrio at the same time. That’s a mainstream idea now, but it wasn’t in 2006.
This model came about as a result of a joint venture between Volvo and Pininfarina. Indeed, it was the first time Pininfarina had built cars outside of Italy. The clever three-panel roof was crafted by Webasto.
All big names, but the biggest was probably Volvo’s own T5 badge, even though it didn’t account for many C70 sales. Truth be told, we struggled to find a good one for this test, the vast majority of these cars apparently running on the devil’s oil, even though diesel hardly fits in with the idea of continental open-top jauntery.
Things start to become a lot clearer as soon as we open the thing up on the country lanes of West Sussex. The automatic gearbox is a typically Volvo-ish affair, being rather leisurely in its operation but not actually slow- witted. It’s not so much dumb as relaxed; you do need to give the pedal an eager hoof if you want to summon up some quick kickdown.
The five-cylinder turbo motor, while muscular, is no muscle car honker; it delivers a rich swell of creamy, multi-layered torque to provide ample thrust at any speed, and pretty much at any revs. That’s the fundamental nature of this car – it just wants to get you there.
Whether or not you’re keen to take the long route home in the C70 is entirely down to personal taste. The interior, while logical and ordered, is somewhat polarising. The cascading dash centre is picked out in lurid, retina-searing wood, while the 1990s- style 8-bit display graphics could have been lifted from a Barcode Battler.
But this troublesome interior treatment is neatly counterpointed by an excellent driving position and a thoroughly decent chassis. While you do feel the odd suspension jolt on mid-corner bumps, it’s admirably free of shakes and shimmies while making progress, and the car does have surprising levels of grip considering its 1651kg kerb weight. It’s nota sports car, it’s a cruiser, and that’s a cap it wears well. You feel cosseted, secure. Miles simply melt away.
In this group, the Volvo is the good- value all-rounder: not the cheapest (that’s the Saab), but the most affordable one that you’ve actually got a realistic chance of finding. Well, within reason. There’s a decent number of them about, but owners do seem to want to hang onto them.
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As you might expect from a Volvo, the C70 T5 is a near bomb proof proposition – sturdy, rugged, and extraordinarily reliable. One unexpected thing to bear in mind, though, is that the steering can screech on full lock, so you’ll need to factor in some lubrication to remedy for that each time you get the car serviced. The electric seats are quite slow to move, so if you’re getting rear passengers into the car in the rain, you’ll probably get wet – but this is more of a quirk than a fault! Check that the air-con is blowing cold too – it may not just need regassing, it may be the condenser, in which case it’s a £600+ job at a main dealer.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS VOLVO C70 T5 (P1 type ) second generation
Engine 2521cc, 5-cyl, DOHC
Transmission FWD, 5-speed auto
Max Power 226bhp @ 5000rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 236lb-ft @ 1500rpm / DIN nett
Top speed 146mph
I BOUGHT ONE: JORDAN NAYLOR
‘These were designed to be big, comfy cruisers,’ says Jordan. ‘I love taking it to the Lake District, between Windrose Pass and Knottend Pass, and just enjoying the open valley roads and steep gradients. I’ve recently had the wheels refurbed and the paint corrected too, as well as upgrading the exhaust to make it sound a little bit fruitier.’
MERCEDES-BENZ CLK350 Convertible A209
Burn the pipe, lose the flat cap, eat your slippers – and never judge a book by its cover
The CLK 350 is the biggest surprise of the group. The reason for including it in this test, its claim to uniqueness and its very raison d’être, is simply the fact that it’s a Mercedes-Benz. It needs to be here just because, for some buyers, it doesn’t matter how good any of these cars are across whichever criteria you care to judge them: for certain diehards, the convertible grand tourer genre begins and ends with the three-pointed star.
The W209-generation CLK is considered by many aficionados to be a high watermark of Mercedes-Benz excellence, with the CLK 350 being the non-AMG jewel in the crown. The previous W208 had carved outa whole new niche for the brand, taking the C-Class base and grafting the aesthetics of the E-Class onto it to create a thoroughly saleable luxury coupé/convertible.
The newer model improved upon that first effort, replacing the old recirculating-ball steering with a pukka rack-and-pinion and bringing in aluminium multi-link rear suspension. ‘Elegance’ trim offered burr walnut sumptuousness, but the ‘Avantgarde’ that we have here was the keen driver’s choice, marked by aluminium accents and wider wheels.
The interior is an exercise in pure elegance too, with everything as sensibly positioned as it is in the Volvo
but also with a clear effort to make it all as aesthetically satisfying as possible. There’s a classy carriage- clock appearance to the instruments, the dials looking as if they’ve been hand-rolled from delicate papyrus. If you’ve ever sat in a bigger-brother SL, it’ll all seem familiar.
The problem with being dependable, of course, is that you have few surprises to offer. Just ask Ned Flanders or Philip Schofield. You’re a safe pair of hands, but no-one really wants you at their parties.
But this is where the CLK 350 reveals its secret weapon: it’s an absolute lunatic. No, we didn’t see that coming either. But peel away those sensible trousers and the Merc comes alive with unexpected vigour. It genuinely feels like the quickest- accelerating car here which, given the relative power deficit and auto ’box, is no mean feat. That gearbox is a very willing accomplice, wringing out the revs right up to the redline if you keep your foot planted.
Then you remember you’ve got your granny in the back and you’re off to the garden centre, at which point you can simply jump on the phenomenal brakes (which shear off vast gobs of speed with physics-reordering ruthlessness) and apologise for your mischievous indiscretion, before returning to the business of driving a Mercedes-Benz. Which mainly involves wafting along on a tide of marshmallow-filled mattresses in supreme peace and quiet.
What a genuinely surprising car this is. It’s not Ned Flanders at all, it’s Sideshow Bob. Ride comfort is really outstanding – the best in the group, no question – and, while this is a double- edged sword when it comes to precision (the BMW, for instance, is infinitely more rewarding through complex curves), the CLK’s chassis is hearteningly characterful.
Once you’ve calibrated your expectations for a bit of bounce and wallow, it feels perfectly Mercedes- like. Which, again, is why it’s here.
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The CLK 350 should be a very reliable thing. They’re well screwed together and built to last. The Mercedes-Benz Club (mbclub.co.uk) do offer a few pointers to bear in mind though, firstly with regard to the automatic gearbox: it should be silky smooth in its action, and the gearbox oil needs to have been changed every 40k miles. Check the history to ensure this has been carried out, and be wary of clunky ’boxes. A gear oil change should cost £150 including filter. Pre-2003 cars weren’t galvanised, so you need to thoroughly check the bodywork for signs of wallet-busting corrosion. The rear arches will be the first to go, so take a torch and a mirror along with you for inspection purposes.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS MERCEDES-BENZ CLK 350 (W209/A209)
Engine 3498cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 7-speed auto
Max Power 268bhp @ 6000rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 258lb-ft @ 2400rpm/ DIN nett
Top speed 155mph (limited)
I BOUGHT ONE: ANDY SKIPPER
‘I looked at the E93 BMW before buying this, but the Merc was a better all-rounder,’ reasons Andy. ‘I love the power of it, and to be honest I don’t crave any more – if I wanted more, I’d buy an Aston! But what I think makes this car really special is that it’s the last of the petrol era: you couldn’t get this generation of cabriolet with a diesel engine, that was just for the coupé. The cabrios are proper drivers’ GT cars.’
SAAB 9-3 Aero V6 Turbo Convertible
Your face will ache from grinning when the boost kicks in
Poor old Saab. It feels like it’s here as a kind gesture, like allowing the dorky kid to join the basketball team simply because he showed up.
It’s the cheapest car of the bunch by a considerable margin, possibly because its parent company no longer exists and people are irrationally scared of it, plus it has a rather unfortunate reputation in some circles of being a roof-chopped Vectra in drag. Owner Anthony is almost apologetic, opening with the caveat that he ‘hopes it won’t be a let down in this company’.
Anthony has nothing to be worried about. The Saab is, quite simply, utterly superb. The name is rather long-winded – 9-3 Aero V6 Turbo Convertible, arrange them how you like – and that’s wholly appropriate for a deliberately complex proposition.
Famously the favoured choice of architects, Saabs wear their aeronautic heritage with pride and, yes, there may be a whole bunch of General Motors DNA in there, but it’s still very much a traditional Saab: robust, boosty motor, have-it looks, hewn-from-granite gearbox, these are all good things.
The fact that it offers precisely 276bhp will appeal to Generation Gran Turismo (if you know, you know), and the sense of whimsy is apparent right from the off.
Settle yourself into the generously bolstered seat, take a moment to adjust to the sheer onslaught of buttons (holy cow, there are a lot of buttons in here), and casually pop out the cup holder to rest your bottle of water. And… woah! It’s the most beautiful and elegantly crafted cupholder you’ve ever seen, butterflying out of the dash like a wonderfully delicate bit of origami.
This simple act sets you up neatly for the drive, as the way the 9-3 hustles is similarly surprising.
The manual gearbox – a full-fat six-speeder – is reassuringly heavy- duty, and the defining characteristic of the engine it’s bolted to is its turbo whistle. Now, when I was a kid, my dad had an 1982 900 Turbo, and the main thing I remember of it is the whistle and the boost gauge. That’s been true of every Saab I’ve enjoyed since, and it’s very much in evidence here. The 9-3 wants you to misbehave. It makes hilarious noises at you, that perky boost gauge’s needle flips and flits like a moth trapped in a table lamp, it’s just so naughty.
This damn thing spins the front wheels in third gear going uphill. It’s an absolute hell-raiser. The boost arrives in a massive spike and delivers a roundhouse smash to your tailbone in all six ratios. It’s all brilliant fun, if not what you’d call relaxing. Of all our convertibles, this is the one with the harshest suspension. It clatters and bounces relentlessly, and the brakes aren’t really what they should be given the amount of thrust involved. The V6 hums like a taxiing biplane, and the spectre of torque-steer is always present… but crikey, what a ride!
The Mercedes-Benz or the Volvo will get you to your destination in supreme comfort, but in the Saab you’ll arrive fully adrenalised and feeling a bit fighty. The pivot point seems to be directly beneath your buttocks, so grabbing armfuls of lock through the corners (it’s not the quickest rack) feels 1970s-movie-star cool. If that’s what you want from an open-top plaything, there’s a hell of lot of chutzpah here for your money.
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Impressively, Abbott Racing (01255 870636) couldn’t list many faults with these cars. Interior plastics can scratch easily and the surface of the buttons can rub off, but the only real issue is that the CIM (column integrated module) and the ignition key can fall out with each other and prevent starting. Fitting a new module at £120 is easy.
V6 9-3s are generally cheap to buy as people are put off by the mpg figures. They are thirsty in town, but on a long run they’re pretty decent. There’s no hood trouble and no real corrosion issues. Rear trailing arms can wear, front springs can snap, and headlights can go milky. But on the whole they’re trouble-free cars and parts availability is great.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS SAAB 9-3 V6 TURBO AERO
Engine 2792cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission FWD, 6-speed manual
Max Power 276bhp @ 5500rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 273lb-ft @ 2000rpm / / DIN nett
Top speed 155mph
I BOUGHT ONE ANTHONY RALPH
‘The car was a bit of a bargain,’ says Anthony. ‘I bought it for £2200. It’s had a few little bits done to it – bigger intercooler, down-pipe and soon–but all-in it only owes me about three grand. Parts are easy to get and owner support is great. And I should have a tally on the door of the number of Audi scalps it’s taken!’
The Modern Classics view
‘THE ALFA IS PRETTY ENOUGH TO HAVE YOU TURNING BACK FOR ONE LAST LOOK’
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, but the big lesson learned from this test is just how much diversity there is in the £3k-£15k drop-top cruiser sector.
Each of our cars was picked on merit and each one leaves with its head held high, secure in the knowledge that, just like Liam Neeson, it brought its own unique and particular set of skills and delivered them with inarguable efficiency.
Realistically, we have five winners here. Time to get stuck into the unenviable task of narrowing it down.
First off, there’s the Mercedes-Benz. For many, this is the archetypal quality cabrio, and it bolsters its street creds with ample power and a grin- widening chassis, as well as a solidly screwed-together feel that’ll certainly go the distance.
If you’d already made up your mind that this was the favourite, you may congratulate yourself at this point, but watch out: those pesky things called emotions are about to get in the way.
The BMW tugs at the heart-strings with frantic horsepower and always-on grip, which broadens the smile yet further. The Volvo may not be the most exciting choice on paper, but the way it makes you feel is akin to the glow you get from a cuddle from a beloved relative. It feels like it’s on your side. It wants to help you win.
Emotion, of course, can’t be the only factor, otherwise you’d simply ignore the others and just buy the Saab. It’s hilariously good fun. The act of driving it makes you feel like an absolute champ, and it’ll add sparkle to every journey in any day-to-day life.
But when you sprinkle that sparkle over a fresh platter of fabulous design, stir in some gloriously refined handling and bake the recipe to perfection, you end up with a car that’s fast enough to be entertaining, comfy enough to stride across continents, and pretty enough to have you turning back for one last look every time you refuel or put it to bed.
The Alfa Spider ticks every box with a sumptuous flourish. Okay, so it may not have the ultimate power of some here, and nor may it be as delightful in the twisties as some others, but it will more than make up for any of these shortcomings with sheer character and positive vibes. After all, none of these cars will handle quite as well as their tin-top brethren, and hooligan- level speeds aren’t really appropriate in terms of what these cars do best.
What they all do brilliantly is offer a taste of the high life without the financial strife, with an irrepressible feel-good factor. And the biggest smile comes from behind the wheel of the Alfa. Right, that’s that. Now, where did we leave the factor 15?
THANKS To the helpful and friendly staff of The Kennels at Goodwood – goodwood. com/estate/ the-kennels – 01243 755132.