German ingenuity might have given the world a vaccine, but we gave it the modern roadster. Both will improve your 2021
By PH Staff / Thursday, November 12, 2020
Some people don't like convertibles. Not their cup of tea, apparently. And when it comes to cars like the Ford Focus CC and the Vauxhall Cascada, you can see why. True enough, the days when removing the load-carrying top portion of a monocoque resulted in teeth-shattering scuttle shake are long behind us – but most modern open-top cars are still heavier, slower and shakier versions of something else.
But if you avoid those models – as we have done for the most part here – what you're left with is a roll call of some of the most exciting cars it's possible to buy. Because driving with the roof stowed and the wind on your face is one of life's rare pleasures. And thanks to our appetite for that feeling in this country, the choice is varied, and in several notable cases, very affordable, too.
Plus it's November and we're stuck indoors and honestly sick of looking at the rain. So here's to sunlit uplands of 2021 and the best cars to enjoy your vaccinated freedom in…
Up to £2,500…
- Mazda MX-5 (NB)
While it’s true that a recent resurgence in interest for Mazda’s NB MX-5 owes much to the rising values of NAs, it’s also true that the second-gen machine is a great sports car in its own right. As such, its place at the start of this list in no way means it’s the least worthy drop top here; some might proclaim it’s about as authentic as convertible sports cars come given the Chapman-inspired formula. Values are rising – see this six-grand 13k miler for proof – but £2-2.5k still buys you a decent example that’s all about good clean fun.
The NB has obviously never been a particularly quick car, but even at this price you’re able to access the sprightlier 1.8-litre model, where 140hp is on offer. At the time of writing, choices here are limited to six-figure mileage cars, but MX-5s are known for being mechanically tough, hence their popularity with trackday drivers. That’s why the 120k on the clock of this 1.8 need not necessarily be of concern; its visible condition gives us hope that its largely evaded tin worm underneath, too. Assuming it has, there’s got to be investment potential in such a healthy example of this modern classic.
Up to £5,000…
- Toyota MR2 (Mk3)
To the untrained eye, the Mk3 MR2 is just a cute-faced convertible; to those in the know, it’s a cut-price route into the world of mid-engined motoring. Lighter and better balanced than Mk2, the Mk3 is in growing demand, although its lack of presence still means it's very attainable. Prices aside, there’s no contest in the performance department; the 140hp 1.8-litre Mk3 holds the advantage thanks largely to its one-tonne kerbweight, something that makes this healthy £4,950 car all the more appealing when it comes to on-road thrills.
The overall choice is fairly limited these days, but it seems that when cars come online, they’re generally well-kept and affordable, probably because Mk2 MR2s have always been leftfield choices. The more practical (in terms of bootspace) MX-5 outsold Toyota’s offering by an enormous margin. The MR2 is arguably a more serious proposition, though, and it’s easily able to take on more power. One seller here has fitted Toyota’s Elise-bound 1.8 to this MR2 with 190hp, but at £7k, it’s way out of budget.
Up to £10,000…
- Lotus Elan M100
Despite the prowess of the badge on its nose and a legendary predecessor, the Elan M100 has never received the respect given to the Chapman-era Elan. And fair enough; a front-wheel drive convertible sports car is unconventional no matter the brand, let alone one from Lotus. But Hethel’s talents are not restricted to cars with a rear-driven axle. Like the Protons to have been fine-tuned by Lotus’s boffins, the M100 is a front-driver with brilliant handling. You just have to drive it like a well-judged, two-seater convertible hot hatch. Do that, and the magic is obvious.
The cheapest cars go for just over eight grand, with the lower mile offerings – like this POA 22k car – often going for over thirteen grand. That’s still pretty cheap given what’s on offer from the chassis and revvy Isuzu 1.6-litre engine, in a car that weights under a tonne. This £8,950 M100 looks bang on the money for our list here, because it comes with the SE turbocharged four-pot and its 167hp. Or, if your budget can stretch over £10k, you could opt for this lovely 60k example here for £10,990. There’s plenty of choice, put it that way.
Up to £15,000…
- Honda S2000
Thanks to the spiky on-the-limit handling of early cars, the S2000 isn’t to everyone’s taste when it comes to convertible sports cars. But there’s plenty to love, especially in facelift cars; they’re brilliantly involving, offering an experience led, although not dominated by, the high-revving 2.2-litre VTEC engine – 243hp is delivered at 7,800rpm, after all. Yet the motor is considered to be near bulletproof, meaning those wanting a proper sports car with old school charm in a package that keeps on going, the S2000 nails the brief. For up to £15k, you’ve a healthy choice.
Prices start from under seven grand, although that does buy you a car with 158k on the clock. Double that price and you can cut that mileage by two thirds; this 50k car looks to be in especially fine shape, outside, inside and under the bonnet – and underneath! Although those on a tighter budget can still access strong alternatives, like this late-run 2008 car for £13k. It gets the larger 17-inch wheels so that timeless design looks even fresher, and with 73k on the clock, it’s probably not even middle-aged yet.
Up to £25,000…
- Porsche Boxster (987)
As great as Honda’s machine is, when it comes to sports cars, the Porsche badge carries with it unbeatable clout. And when it comes to convertibles, the Boxster has always been right there at the sharp end since its launch. The 987 was great when it was new, but now, at a time when the non GT or GTS versions of the 718 are flat-four powered, it looks even more appealing. You can access 2.7 987s for under £11k, or you can multiply that figure (or times it by four) and nab yourself one of the greatest sports cars of any category, the Boxster Spyder.
For this list, however, where we’re sticking below £25k, you’re still in easy reach of low-mile examples of the 3.4 S, like this PDK car, or even those with the desirable six-speed manual, like this one. As far as used convertible sports cars go, the 987 is about as close to nailing it on the head as you can get. Tuneful 310hp flat-six, tactile 'box and mid-engine balance; it’s the sort of blueprint which tends to make every other car look a bit pricey…
Up to £35,000…
- Lotus Elise S3
At last we come to the Elise. Given we've already covered sports cars and track machines, it's safe to say that Norfolk's more recognisable model has been on the verge of recognition for weeks. We saved it for convertibles because, at heart, it's unfettered access to the sky which makes the tiniest Lotus so appealing. The Evora and Exige have respectively exceeded its liveability and performance (admittedly for much greater cost) – but nothing has ever trumped the Elise for B-road slaying, hair-ruffling fun.
You don't need us to tell you that the car can be had much cheaper than £35k, and there are several good reasons why you might want seriously mull an S2 for around £10k less than we've pitched here. But the fact that a middling (relatively speaking) budget now unlocks a low-mile S3 is definitely worthy of consideration – if only because Lotus itself won't sell you a new one for under £40k.
Precisely which one you should have is a matter for extended debate. Lotus no longer sells the entry-level 1.6-litre model, but there's a lot to be said for the simplicity and give-it-death nature of the naturally-aspirated unit. Of course, more people bought the supercharged 1.8-litre car, and there are several to choose from, including the more track-bias 220 Cup. Honestly though, it's hard to resist the purity of the less fussy (and no less powerful) Elise S. This one has accrued 1,000 miles a year since 2016. Perfect.
Up to £50,000…
- Morgan Three-Wheeler
Not everyone's choice, we'll grant you. And it would be very reasonable (perhaps even advisable) to argue that you could have a nearly new F-Type, Boxster – or even a slightly older Audi R8 – for the same money. But we throw the Morgan hat into the ring primarily to point out that there is an entirely different way to do open-top motoring if you really are just looking for a good time – and are inclined to step outside the box.
It doesn't get much more different or good than the Three-Wheeler, a car (in the loosest sense) which requires you to leave your preconceptions at the door. The combination of a lazy V-Twin, an MX-5 gearbox, a tubular chassis and a belt-driven rear wheel doesn't sound like the perfect recipe, and sure enough it takes some getting used to – but the experience is as interactive and as unprocessed as riding a bike. Here's a great looking one from Krazy Horse.
And if that thought doesn't appeal, there is the rest of Morgan's secondhand lineup to consider, alongside Caterham's, Westfield's, Ariel's, TVR's, and even Zenos's. Some version of all of them can be had for £50k, and while they all rank somewhere on the weather-dependent, second-car spectrum, any one of them will deliver a relationship with the sky and the road that you never even knew existed.
Up to £75,000…
- BMW i8 Roadster
In the opposite corner to the above we have the i8 Roadster. It is here for three reasons: number one, the car looks fantastic as a convertible; two, thanks to merciless and almost immediate depreciation, you can have what is essentially a new car for around £50k below list; and three, somewhat against the odds, it is a wonderful way to indulge the softer side of soft-top driving.
Removing the roof ought not to have worked in BMW's all-wheel-drive, petrol-electric hybrid sports car, and perhaps it wouldn't if it had attempted it earlier in the life cycle. But by 2016, the i8 had evolved with more range and power and BMW devised a way to strengthen the bespoke architecture. The result was fast and fluid and consistently lovely to use.
It was also attention-getting without being demonstrably in your face. Sure, it had its problems, and one day in the not too distant future that exterior is going date like a Dr Who episode – but for as long as it doesn't need to try too hard (and you're prepared to plug it in occasionally) the i8 Roadster is one of the most underrated and undervalued cars on sale. Here's one for £70k with 350 miles on the clock.
Up to £100,000…
- McLaren 650S Spider
We're obliged to include a McLaren in this list for the simple reason that no other manufacturer is producing open-top cars which require so little sacrifice in handling or performance. The manufacturer's reliance on its carbon fibre tub might have limited it in other ways, but in the practice of chopping the roof off supercars, it is unsurpassed. Almost without exception, McLaren Spiders are terrific.
The 650S is not the prettiest car it has ever made, but virtually every example in the classifieds is now available for less than £100k. Here's one in special order paint with just 10k miles for £9 shy of six figures. Alternatively you could wait till the new year and see if the 570S Spider has followed suit – here's one with 9k on the clock for £105k. Save perhaps for the sound it makes, there is no finer do-it-all supercar.
Sky's the limit…
- Lamborghini Huracan Performante Spyder
As ever, this category is purely subjective. You could have a 675LT Spider or a Pagani Huayra Roadster or a Porsche 911 Speedster and justifiably have claimed to have purchased one of the best and most invigorating topless cars money can buy.
In their company, the Huracan Performante Spider seems almost like a tame choice. But it isn't. It's a rock star with a supermodel on its arm. Any Lamborghini is designed to have slack-jawed pedestrians falling down open manholes, but the Performante really takes the amaretti biscuit. Launched in 2018, a year after the coupe, it delivered 640hp from its V10 in much the same way God delivers a sermon. Loudly, and with emphasis.
Sure, it was worse than the coupe – it weighed about 125kg more, which is effectively like taking Billy Vunipola with you everywhere – but the Performante Spyder is the exception that proves the rule: all you really need for automotive euphoria was a very, very loud and sweet-sounding engine – and absolutely nothing between you and the heavens. Here's one for a shade under £200k. You won't regret it.
- The best luxury cars to buy in 2020
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