Open-air motoring has a truly visceral impact on the senses: the wind in your hair, engine and road sounds in your ears, every stoplight acceleration and tight turn magnified with the top down. The inconveniences of classic convertibles — finicky drop-tops that were tough to close, failed to seal out the elements and sported rear windows with the opacity of a tarp — are long gone. Today’s high-tech convertibles have become civilized and fun to drive. Plus, play your cards right and going topless won’t result in an empty wallet. What follows are 20 capable convertibles that you can park in your garage for less than $20,000.
2014 – 2015 Ford Mustang V6
Price range: $16,000 – $20,000
Live the pony car dream in the naked rays of the sun with 300 horsepower under your right foot and a smile on your face. We’re talking about the lower echelon 3.7-liter V6 engine here, not the gut-busting V8, but the ambiance is the same. The Mustang was updated for the 2015 model year, so look for one of that vintage first and work your way back in time.
2014 – 2016 Volkswagen Beetle
Price range: $14,000 – $18,000
Go retro Euro in a new (to you) Beetle. Established in 1997, the New Beetle was redesigned to its current swept-back rear styling in 2011 (when “New” was finally dropped from the name). The drop-top version of this newest Beetle debuted in 2013. Buyers will be shopping two powertrains. One is the base 1.8-liter turbo 4-cylinder unit rated at 170 horsepower; the uprated engine is a 2.0-liter turbo four that pumps out 210 horsepower. Flower Power lovers, your ride has arrived.
2014 Chevrolet Camaro LT V6
Price range: $18,000 – $20,000
You won’t be mistaken for Bumblebee of the Transformer movie franchise fame, but 323 horsepower will provide plenty of action movie thrills. This is the third most powerful car on the list. The LT V6 runs a 3.6-liter engine and buyers can opt for a manual or automatic transmission. The current generation, the sixth of the line, came out in 2016 so sub-$20,000 buyers will most likely be shopping fifth-generation models that hit the scene in 2010.
2014 MINI Cooper
Price range: $18,000 – $20,000
Small, light, nimble and tough are the calling cards of this iconic Brit. The Mini took the world by storm in 1959 and became a rally racing all-star in the mid ’60s. BMW took over the diminutive company and its diminutive car in 1994. In 2001 the new-look retro-inspired models hit the scene and the rest is history . . . again. The turbocharged 189-horse MINI Cooper S is the brass ring here, but in our price range a 1.6-liter naturally-aspirated four with 121 horsepower is the more likely candidate. No matter what lurks under the hood, these cars are a blast to drive.
2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Price range: $18,000 – $20,000
The epitome of grace under pressure, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been a favorite of car testers, racers and enthusiasts since its inception in 1989 as a 1990 model. The Miata entered its fourth generation in 2016, and Mazda deserves credit for keeping the car focused on the act of driving during every step of its evolution. The Miata has always been more about balance than brute force, and the model years in our price range take advantage of the automaker’s SKYACTIV design philosophy that puts an emphasis on efficiency. The MX-5 Miata is powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with 167 horsepower in manual transmission variants and 158 horsepower in automatic transmission-equipped versions. We highly recommend test driving one of these Mazdas first, since it may well be the benchmark to which you compare other possible purchases.
2014 – 2015 Jeep Wrangler
Price range: $18,000 – $20,000
Are you the rugged type? The Jeep Wrangler has always been one of the most convertible convertibles out there. Beyond removing the top, you also can take off the doors and fold down the windshield of these iconic off-roaders. The current generation of the Wrangler, dubbed the JK, hit the trails in 2007. It received a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with a healthy 285 horsepower in 2012, so our budget buys the Wrangler at its best. If you’re a dare-to-be-different type of person, you may have found your convertible.
2012 Volvo C70 T5
Price range: $16,000 – $19,000
One of the big advantages of the C70 is the fact that it’s a hardtop convertible, which adds a degree of security and refinement. Security because it can’t be broken into with a box cutter and a bad attitude, and refinement because its hardtop configuration provides a quieter cabin. This Volvo is for the low and slow cruiser types. Its 2.5-liter turbocharged inline 5-cylinder engine provides 227 horsepower, but it’s only available with an automatic transmission.
2012 Infiniti G37
Price range: $19,000 – $20,000
One of our favorite cars on this list, the G37 is the perfect blend of sportiness and luxury. A 3.7-liter V6 also seen in the Nissan 370Z with 325 horsepower is at the heart of the matter. As the second-most powerful ride on our list, look for a 6-speed manual but know the 7-speed auto has a pretty nice paddle-shift setup that takes full advantage of the G’s low-slung ride and beefy tires. This car is also a hardtop convertible and offers the same advantages as the Volvo.
2012 BMW 328i
Price range: $17,000 – $19,000
In the 3-Series you have a prestigious lineage that reaches back to the 1970s and the 320i. All that automotive evolution has resulted in a highly-refined car with an intoxicating blend of style, luxury and driving performance. The 328i’s legendary reputation is borne of a balanced suspension that blends the quick moves needed for spirited canyon carving with a compliant and forgiving ride quality needed for the daily commute . . . a true win-win. Power comes from BMW’s tried-and-proven 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated inline six rated at 230 horsepower.
2012 BMW 128i
Price range: $16,000 – $18,000
The 1 Series is BMW’s new kid on the block. It is different than the 328i from the very first glance with shorter overhangs and a stubby nose. Some will like the freshness of this new model that debuted in North America in 2008. If you’re a Bimmer fan, base your choice solely on looks and handling because underneath the sheet metal both BMWs are powered by the same 230 horsepower 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated inline 6-cylinder engine.
2017 smart fortwo cabrio
Starting MSRP: $18,900
To go new you have to go small. At 106.1 inches in length, the fourtwo is shorter than many other vehicles on the road. This savvy smart has three ways to go topless. At the push of a button the car’s canvas roof slides back like a ginormous sunroof. Click the button again and the canvas back window portion of the roof tucks away. To go Full Monty, the side rails that serve as the track for the sliding canvas and part of the roof structure can be removed and stowed within the trunk’s tailgate. The third-generation of the smart debuted in 2014, and the current car features an 898 cc turbocharged 3-cylinder engine rated at 89 horsepower, a 22.8-foot turning radius, a 2,094-pound curb weight, and a 94 mph top speed.
2017 Fiat 500 Pop
Starting MSRP: $16,490
The other new car on this list is also proportionally challenged. The Fiat 500 is 139.6 inches in length but, unlike the multifaceted roof of the smart, the Fiat features a retractable ragtop that is more oversized sunroof than convertible top. Another place the 500 bests the smart is under the hood, where its 1.4-liter Multi Air four cylinder dwarfs the 898 cc smart unit. The Italian puts out 101 horsepower, and fashion-conscious shoppers can pick from a 15-hue boutique-worthy color pallet. Want more substance? The up-model Fiat 500 Lounge adds more standard gear and refinement while staying within budget at $19,900.
2004 – 2009 Honda S2000
$13,000 – $20,000
With an MSRP around $34,000 when it was new, the S2000 was Honda’s most expensive ride at the time and never sold 10,000 units in the U.S. in any given model year. Still, it’s a worthy driver’s car with a decent racing pedigree and tons of accolades from the world’s motoring press. Early AP1 models — 1999 to 2003 — sport a 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated F20C rated at 240 horses. The later AP2 models — 2004 to 2009 — have a larger 2.2-liter F22C1 engine rated at the same 240 ponies. The S2000 was also offered with an optional hardtop which was a rare option back in the day, and a desirable feature in 2017. Shop well — there are some low-mile darlings to be found once you’ve sorted through a sea of fully-flogged street racers.
2004 – 2006 Lexus SC430
$14,000 – $20,000
Want a classy, top-down luxury cruiser? Meet the Lexus SC430. The second generation of SC line, the SC430 replaced the SC400, which was produced from 1992 to 2000. The SC430 gets an evolution of the SC400’s groundbreaking 250-horse 1UZ-FE V8, namely the 288-horsepower 3UZ-FE, an integrated hardtop that retracts in 25 seconds, and tons of standard luxury accoutrements. These extravagant features include Burl Walnut or Bird’s Eye Maple wood trim, a Mark Levinson premium sound system, a DVD-based navigation system, and headlight washers. Although this is a 4-seat convertible, don’t be fooled — in the real world it’s a 2-seater with well-appointed in-cabin rear storage.
2010 Lexus IS 250C
$19,000 – $20,000
These hardtop convertibles, two-door coupe versions of the IS line, make up a small percentage of overall IS production, but they are hidden gems that are worth the needle-in-a-haystack search. Although available as the IS 250C and IS 350C, the 250 is the only model within our $20,000 budget. These cars let the sun shine in via an aluminum hardtop that’s powered by no less than 15 electric motors and 37 sensors. The IS 250C is motivated by a 204-horse 2.5-liter V6 powerplant, and 3-pedal fans can hold out for a 6-speed manual — only available in the IS 250. Inside, you get top-quality materials and world-class fit and finish.
2008 – 2009 Audi TT
$12,000 – $18,000
The 2008 model year represents the second generation of the swoopy TT, and it was only offered with a 200 horsepower 2.0-liter four cylinder and front-wheel drive. In 2009 Audi offered Quattro all-wheel drive with the traditional 3.2-liter 250-horse V6, as well as the 2.0-liter turbo four. Our budget edges us away from the Quattro V6, but we urge diligent shopping as the more engaging 2.0T/Quattro combination may be within reach.
2003 – 2006 Mercedes-Benz SL500
$16,000 – $20,000
The 2003 model year saw a redesign and a paradigm shift in the look of Mercedes’ svelte roadster. Mechanicals are impressive; the SL brings a 302 horsepower 5.0-liter V8 engine and 7-speed automatic transmission to the party. This design has aged well and in many respects the 11- to 14-year-old SL500 looks a lot like today’s Mercedes-Benz offerings.
2004 – 2006 Nissan 350Z Roadster
$13,000 – $20,000
Like the Miata and S2000, the Nissan Z is a foot-stompin’-the-floorboard thrill ride. Nissan’s stout VQ35DE 3.5-liter V6 and its 287 horsepower are the stars of the show. Angle toward the face-lifted 2006 model and its VQ35HR Rev-Up engine, which became standard on all models that offered a 6-speed manual transmission. Power jumped to 306 ponies and many internal engine components were redesigned to handle the HR’s lofty 7600-rpm redline. These Nissan V6s have decades of sports car evolution behind them, and served as the foundation for the GT-R’s VR38DETT engine . . . so there’s plenty of street cred to boot.
1999 – 2001 Porsche 911 Cabriolet
$17,000 – $20,000
You’re getting the 996 here . . . the first water-cooled Porsche 911 and a vehicle touted at the time as the most suitable daily-driver 911 to roll out of Stuttgart. Purists had a hard time with the water-cooled engine and the body lines, since the 996 was the first substantial redesign of the iconic 911. The formula was the same: a sleek silhouette, rear-mounted 3.4-liter 300-horsepower Boxer 6 engine, and rear- or all-wheel drive. But there is a reason this vintage of 911 seems too affordable to be true. Their reputation got a black eye when problems surfaced with the engine — namely intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failure. It would be wise to purchase a 996 that has already had the faulty bearings updated, because if the bearing lets go so does the engine . . . to the tune of $15,000.
1997 – 2004 Chevy Corvette C5
$13,000 – $19,000
Let loose some American V8 thunder in the C5 vintage ‘Vette. Going topless in this era Vette was a prime design initiative — the car’s frame was specially fortified for open-air motoring. The C5 was offered as a traditional convertible and as a fastback with a removable roof panel. The car’s long nose, rumbly V8, and hunkered stance makes quite an impression on driver and onlooker alike. The Corvette has long been Chevrolet’s technology and performance juggernaut, and this vintage of Vette offers a small-block LS1 V8 with a list-topping 350 horsepower on tap and cool period technology such as a head-up dash display, magnetic suspension and more.