Why the convertible will survive, but not the way you think

Despite weak sales, the sun is not setting on convertibles.

But the ragtop’s role could be changing — dwindling further from being the car of choice for daily transport for a small fragment of drivers — to being a second or third vehicle, a toy to play with on sunny days. And that convertible may not be the traditional two-door car it has always been.

Consider that the best-selling convertible in the industry today isn’t a car, it’s an SUV, the Jeep Wrangler.

Sales of convertible cars in 2016 skidded into being little more than a statistical rounding error. Example: Buick Cascada racked up 367 units sold in November. The Mazda MX-5 Miata, 387, the Fiat Spider sold 350, the Jaguar F-Type, 269. Chevrolet and Ford don’t break out sales for the convertible versions of the Camaro, Corvette and Mustang, but sales of all three sports cars were just over 13,000 units. Even if half were convertibles, the number sold still would be small compared with other niches.

According to IHS Markit, sales of convertibles have been skidding since at least 2009 and now account for less than 1 percent of new-car sales.

Haartz Corp., the famous maker of convertible tops — think of the rich looking cloth tops on classic Mercedes-Benz and other luxury cars — commissioned a study recently among two groups of consumers, those who own or have ever owned a convertible, and those who would consider buying one.

While the tiny sales numbers make it difficult for automakers to justify future investments in convertibles, there may be a glimmer of hope if the survey of 574 consumers is an accurate reflection of the market.

If convertibles were more affordable, had more room for passengers and cargo, were more attractive, offered more colors and were quieter, they might sell better, the survey revealed.

Some of those needs are not going to be filled by vehicles such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette. In fact, it could very well be that the SUV is the future of the convertible because it can deliver more of what potential buyers want in an open-top car.

I’m not talking about the disastrous 2011-14 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet that sold in the dozens, or today’s Range Rover Evoque convertible that you almost never see or hear about. The future convertible may be vehicles like the Wrangler, upcoming Land Rover Defender and Ford Bronco, and possibly convertible versions of high performance SUVs, such as the Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Pace.

The challenge for Haartz and other suppliers of convertible tops will be to make these vehicles not only look attractive but also eliminate the big blind spots that are typical of large vehicle with cloth roofs. Or come up with some new way of providing open-air driving.

The Haartz survey revealed that drivers like the feeling of driving an open-top car. But cars with a folding fabric roof scored lower than vehicles with retractable hardtops and panoramic glass roofs. Vehicles with heavy, but removable hardtops — such as the Jeep Wrangler — also did not score high on the Haartz survey.

Convertibles have been endangered for years, but somehow the body style survives. The huge market shift from cars to SUVs and trucks is just the latest dark cloud for a body style that has been around since horse-and buggy days.

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