buying a convertible

open for buisness want to buy an open-topped car? your search starts here. jonathan crouch is your guide

buying a convertible

Buying a Convertible is no longer as simple as it used to be. For a start, there are now four quite different market sectors from which to choose, full of products offering quite different recipes for wind-in-the-hair driving pleasure.

You used to know what you were getting from the name. Whereas the 'Convertible' title designated a fully-folding roof, 'Cabriolets' left you with an unsightly rollover hoop once you were open to the elements. Fortunately, these days, stiffer bodies have tended to make such hoops a thing of the past but the 'Cabriolet' tag remains.

Either way, it's first of all a case of deciding exactly what you want. Sports convertibles tend to sit just above the Family Hatchback-based models, sired by cars like Vauxhall's Astra, Renault's Megane, Peugeot's 308 and VW's Golf. Here, with more money spent on development, there are fewer drawbacks in terms of scuttle shake, roly-poly handling and general juddering.

At one end of the scale is Ford's Focus Coupe Cabriolet, aimed firmly at the sporty set. The latest version looks even better and is great fun to drive. At the other end of the spectrum lie cars really aimed more at Grand Touring, models like Volvo's C70 Convertible, Audi's A5 Cabriolet, and Saab's 9-3 Convertible.

If you want a bit of both, there are a couple of good all-rounders here though, the traditional choice being BMW's 3 Series Convertible, a great combination of rear wheel drive handling fun and refined class. In fact, it was pretty much unbeatable until the launch of Audi's gorgeous A4 Cabriolet which has now been superseded by the A5 Cabriolet.

As a general rule, you probably don't want to drive your convertible too fast. By cruising along there's a far better chance you'll be spotted by desirable members of the opposite sex and thus fulfil the primary purpose of this type of car. Of course, should the rain be prevailing or the streets be deserted, Audi has been kind enough to build in some potential for fun. Power comes from one of five engine options. The 1.8 TFSI petrol unit opens proceedings with 160bhp, then there's the 211PS 2.0 TFSI or there's the 265PS 3.2-litre V6. The final option with the standard A5 Cabriolet is the 3.0-litre TDI that deploys its 240PS with the aid of quattro all-wheel-drive but those wanting a drop-top that can really shift will favour the mighty S5. Here the engine is a 3.0-litre V6 TFSI unit with a supercharger helping it to 330PS.

The metal roof is electrically operated of course, it opens or closes in 15 seconds and there are no fiddly manual latches to break your nails on before you can press the button.

If you're fortunate enough to be able to afford something better than this, the Luxury Convertible sector beckons - and one car currently stands out, the Mercedes SL. Every curve melts into the next and the overall effect is supremely elegant. As for obvious alternatives, the two most common are Jaguar's XK8 and Porsche's much-improved 911.

An excellent alternative to the 911 however, is Maserati's GranCabrio Sport Given that Porsche will charge virtually this much for a 911 with this sort of performance, the GranCabrio Sport seems rather good value for money. The interior is finished throughout in exclusive Poltrona Frau leather and there are options to further personalise the car. The MC Sport Line package is available for those who have deeper pockets still, and runs to interior and exterior carbon fibre features. For example it is possible to change the front splitter to carbon-fibre, while the side skirts are also available in black.

All of which leaves us only with one more option; that of pure, unadulterated fun. Hang practicality, refinement or anything else of any sensible consequence. You want to just get in and drive. In which case, you want a Roadster. And there are plenty to choose from. Mazda's MX-5 is the evergreen choice,

While the MX-5 is a car you could realistically use every day, the Lotus Elise most certainly isn't, uncompromised, uncomfortable but a lot more fun. For the best balance between sense and sportiness however, you need to spend a bit more. Either Mercedes' SLK or Porsche's Boxster will fit the bill.

Britain's appalling weather has never stopped us enjoying affordable open-topped cars - nor will it, thanks to the current crop of cabrios. If your chequebook can stand it, the open sky beckons.