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Archive 5
six open toppers assessed in 1999

Six ways to enjoy the delights of fresh air motoring
are assessed in Stuart Bladon's mixed package
of sports cars and convertibles.

When the sun shines, out they come in their hundreds: all kinds of cars with the top folded back and people enjoying the lovely weather. You might be wonder where they have been through the dreary months of the winter and the answer is that they've been around but are less noticeable when the hood is in place.
   My first car was a convertible: a 1934 Hillman 10, and since then I have always been delighted by open top motoring. It's not just the wind in the hair and release from the confines of a saloon; you get a completely new concept of motoring. At low speeds, wafting through the lanes, a convertible or sports two-seater is amazingly quiet, as there is no sound box to amplify the sound of the wheels and engine.
   You hear instead all sorts of sounds that would otherwise be missed, such as the tweeting of birds in the trees, a dog barking in the distance, and the murmur of the tyres on the tarmac.
   Of course, there's more to it than that, and another important asset of the kind of cars under review is their sporty road behaviour, with impeccable steering, handling and brakes.
   While few doubt the pleasures of driving an open car on a fine day, it doesn't follow that the convertible is such a joy in rotten weather. Aspects to be considered are how easily the top goes back up, how effective the heating and ventilation are, and what the visibility is like when all is closed.
   There's no pretence, of course, that this is a competitive group. No one would think of the Fiat Punto convertible in the same class as the BMW Z3, with their prices thousands of pounds apart. Instead, we present a varied batch of six sporting open cars, which all look terrific with the top down, and which all bring that special indefinable appeal of fresh air motoring.
   As usual in this series, the cars are covered in ascending price order, and performance is indicated by maximum speed and acceleration time to 80 mph, without any suggestion that such speeds should be indulged in, under present British speed limits; and the fuel consumption is the actual mpg measured while testing the cars for Wessex Wheels.

It was originally the intention for this group to include Fiat's charming little Barchetta two-seater sports car, but this is available only in left-hand drive. This limits its appeal, and possibly its resale value. As an alternative, the Punto Cabrio is certainly an attractive car to consider in the quest for enjoyable open-top motoring.
   A new 16-valve version of the FIRE engine (Fully Integrated Robotised Engine - if you wonder what the letters stand for) was introduced last year in a surprising move by Fiat, since the new engine has capacity of only 1,242 cc, and replaces the former 1.6-litre. The more efficient engine, although a lot smaller, delivers almost as much power (86 bhp).
   In the test car, it was not very smooth at low speeds, tending to snatch slightly almost as if suffering a flat spot, but this happened only in gentle acceleration. When driven hard, the engine is crisp and eager, and the performance is much more lively and responsive than one would expect for its size.
   The gear change is a bit ësticky', and one has to remember to press the lever down when selecting reverse, opposite fifth gear. The brakes are effective and can have anti-lock control as an option - it was fitted to the test car. The pedal area is a little cramped for large feet.
   In other respects, the Punto is light and easy to drive, with positive steering, power assisted as standard, and a confident feel to the handling.
   Making a convertible four- or five-seater strong enough to take bumps without a lot of shake and shudder is always a problem, and the Punto suffers some of this. There is also visible tremor of the gear lever on an uneven surface. The car becomes noticeably more rigid when the top is in place.
   One of the big attractions of the Punto Cabrio is the electrically folding hood, which is a standard feature. The handbrake must be applied, and ignition on (with or without the engine running). Two very easily released catches at the top of the windscreen are released manually, and then it's just a matter of holding the button down while the hood folds neatly back into the rear well. Putting the top up again is equally easy, the whole process taking less than half a minute, and there's no fiddly tonneau cover to be clipped on - though one is available as an option. The rear window is of plastic, with no provision for demisting or deicing.
   Some luggage space is lost to the hood well, but the self-locking boot can be undone with the key, and pull-releases inside allow either part of the centrally divided rear seat squab to fold down, after first tipping forward the cushion component. This makes quite a lot of extra space available, and it's good that the folding seats do not give thieves access to the boot. The doors have no intermediate checks, and close with a rather tinny 'clang'.
   A rather plain and very plastic looking interior detracts from the appeal, otherwise the Cabrio is a very attractive open car, offering space for four and the convenience of the electric top.

Fiat Punto Cabrio ELX - £15,509
Hood - electric folding
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage (extendable)
               - 8 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 106 mph
0-80 mph - 25.3 sec
Fuel consumption - 34.7 mpg
Insurance - Group 8

Of the two-seaters tested in this group, the Mazda MX-5 proved clearly the most practical and user-friendly', even if lacking a little in terms of sportiness compared with the MGF or the BMW Z3. It's certainly the one to be chosen for a weekend away, since it has a more spacious boot and a more useable interior.
   For this review, the example tried was the 1.6-litre, which has a remarkably smooth and free-revving engine. Although it's rather low-geared, giving only 19.2 mph at 1,000 rpm engine speed in fifth, it cruises quietly and without fuss and will even reach 80 mph in third - but only if you are prepared to take it right up to the start of the red zone on the rev counter which is at a high 7,000 rpm!
   Almost everything about the MX-5 pleases. It steers and handles well, although not with the sort of near-limitless adhesion that the MGF and Lotus Elise can provide, and the ride is comfortable without any of today's popular tendency to over-firmness. The brakes respond well, although there is no anti-lock provision. If you want that, you have to buy the 1.8iS version, costing £3,250 more.
   The seats are very comfortable, and although there is no provision for adjusting the height of the seat or the steering column, a driver of average stature finds the seating position just right; and there is a good range of to-and-fro adjustment.
   A lever release allows the seat backrest to tip forward so that you can put things behind the seats, and there is a full width net for maps. In addition, there's a usefully big lockable glove box in front of the passenger, with air bag above, and a small locker with side-hinged lid between the seats. There's room for something like a mobile phone here, as well as a cup recess, and release levers for the boot and fuel filler flap are inside, so that they can be securely locked when the car is left with the top down.
   Turning the key in the driver's door also controls the passenger door and the self-locking boot can be opened by key as well as by the concealed release lever. Inside, there's a sensible amount of space, with emergency spare wheel in a well in the boot floor.
   Clever release catches at the top of the windscreen allow the hood to be freed very easily, and it is then the work of a moment to push it back, and it falls almost of its own accord into the hood well. You can do this from the driving seat, and if there are two in the car it can be pulled up equally easily to refasten, without getting out.
   Not quite so good is the tonneau cover, which attaches to complete the neat appearance of the MX-5 with the top down. As often the case, it's not quite large enough, and I gave up the struggle to fasten the last of its nine studs.
   The radio cassette unit is fiddly to use, with tiny buttons and minute labels, but works well and has a removable front panel. It is well located, high up on a well-planned console, with easily read digital clock above. This is of liquid crystal type - much better than LED displays which become invisible in sunlight in an open car.
   A final special point in favour of the MX-5 is that it has a glass rear window with electric heating element. It helped to make the MX-5 very easy to drive, with good visibility, even on a day of heavy rain. It is certainly a very satisfying, pleasing open car.

Mazda MX-5 - £15,520
Hood - quick action folding
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
              - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 119 mph
0-80 mph - 15.4 sec
Fuel consumption - 31.4 mpg
Insurance - Group 11

In April there was a major realignment of the Renault Megane range, and the cars were given more sporty, flowing styling with an air intake grille either side of the Renault badge on the bonnet. The most significant change was the introduction of more equipment, while some models became cheaper than they had been before. The test was carried out on the launch, when accurate fuel consumption measurement was not possible. So the mpg figure given is an estimate.
   Something of an innovation for Renault was the elimination of most options, so that metallic paint became about the only thing the buyer may specify. Instead of drawing up a list of options, one chooses from four available trim packs - Base, Sport, Sport Alizé, and Monaco. Automatic transmission is available on three of the models, adding £800 to the price and is listed as a separate model rather than as an option.
   For the Cabriolet there are just two engines available, the 1.6-litre 16-valve developing 110 bhp, and a new 2-litre 16-valve engine with direct fuel injection, which Renault claims is the first European-designed engine with petrol injection direct into the cylinders. This gives more power (an impressive 140 bhp) and better economy. But noting that the 2-litre engine - available only with Sport Alizé or Monaco trim - adds a clean £2,000 to the price, there can be little doubt that the 1.6-litre is the better bargain.    Sport Alizé also seems the best trim package for value, which is why this version was chosen. It's an attractively-styled, generously equipped and pleasingly furnished car, bringing all the pleasures of open top motoring while also offering accommodation for four.
   Mind you, the space in the back is a bit marginal, and the front occupants need to move their seats forward a little when there are rear seat passengers. Space in the front is also rather cramped, and more than once my knee knocked the switch for the hazard flashers and turned them on when I was in the passenger seat.    The body of the Mégane Cabriolet feels commendably taut and resistant to flexing over bumps or when cornering hard on an uneven surface. Having a lot of extra weight low down to provide the necessary strength, the Cabriolet also handles well and sits down very reassuringly on the road. It comes with anti-lock brakes as standard, as does the whole Mégane range.
   The big asset of the Mégane Cabriolet is the electric hood operation which follows the format pioneered by Mercedes-Benz: a rigid tonneau cover hinges upward and back, allowing the hood to close down into the well, and then the cover comes back down. The only action needed by the driver, other than applying the handbrake and holding the switch down, is to fasten or release the hood from the top of the windscreen. This is done just by turning a single handle. There is also provision for lowering all windows at a touch, while also putting the hood down. The rear window is plastic, but has a fan demister.
   Although called a cabriolet, the Mégane is really a true convertible; and it is a delightful car to drive with the top down, as well as being very snug and totally free from draughts when the hood is raised. One can also enjoy the special delight of having the hood down and the air conditioning playing on a hot day, since this is standard with the Sport Alizé package. The new Mégane also has twin front air bags as well as at the side - all as part of the very generous equipment package.

Renault Mégane Cabriolet Sport Alizé - £17,900
Hood - Fully electric including tonneau cover
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage
              - 12 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 124 mph
0-80 mph - 17.5 sec
Fuel consumption - 38.4 mpg
Insurance - Group 5

Two versions of the 1.8-litre K-Series engine are offered for the MGF, one having a fairly conventional 16-valve twin-overhead camshaft unit of 1,796 cc, and the other is basically the same but has an extended rev range. It has an ingenious device which automatically controls valve opening times to give optimum efficiency, and increases the power output from 120 bhp to 145.    But would the private owner wish to rev his engine to 7,000 rpm? I fancy most of them will be well pleased with the vigorous performance and smooth-revving character of the engine, without going to such limits. So our test car was the standard MGF, with the incidental advantage of costing £2,575 less. Yes, it's a big difference isn't it? However, the dearer version does include anti-lock brakes and electric power steering, both of which are available separately as options and were fitted to the test car.
   It's no surprise that the MGF has proved so popular, to the extent that you see them now all over the place. With its very precise steering, taut feel on the road and impeccable handling as a result of having the engine in mid-position, behind the seats, it is a delightful car to drive. It feels inherently safe, manageable, and wonderfully nippy and responsive. Having the engine to the rear of the occupants also helps to make it an impressively quiet car.
   The mid-engine design is not without its drawbacks, though, worst of which is the limited accommodation. The boot is very small, and it is important not to make the mistake of opening it, then putting the key down inside and closing the lid, because there is no other access to the boot.
   Another drawback which may have been due to some fault on the test car was the ingress of engine fumes when stationary. They are not evident while the car is on the move, but when writing notes in the MGF I had to open a window to get rid of them.
   It's a pity that more was not done in the design of the interior to provide stowage space, and what could have been useful space behind the seats is scarcely useable because the seat backs won't tip forward, though they can be inclined forward tediously by turning the handwheel adjusters. There is no seat height adjustment. Otherwise the interior is pleasing, with the radio/cassette unit mounted high up where it is easily seen and convenient to use, neat and clearly legible instruments, and snug-fitting seats. A small locker is fitted between the seats, but it is too small to be of much use.
   For security, the radio front panel is removable and the car has remote locking for the doors. Automatic isolation of the engine cuts in about half a minute after switching off and one must then press the remote unlocking button or use the special security key.
   Folding the hood is so easy that it can be done single-handed from inside the car - just release two simple catches at the top of the windscreen and let it drop back into the well. Covering it with the tonneau cover for neat appearance calls for getting out and a little more exertion, but is again easy, and the clever arrangement of trapping the front of the cover under the closed boot lid reduces the risk of having the tonneau cover stolen when the car is left with it in position.
   The side windows are electrically operated, and the mirrors have manual adjusters inside. The heating is very effective to keep occupants warm with the top down on a cold day, but a bit uncontrollable and inclined to make the interior too hot with the top in position.
   All the traditional joy of a true sports car comes with the MGF, enhanced by the comforts and refinements of ingenious modern design.

MGF - £17,995
Hood - quick action folding
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage (extendable)
              - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 120 mph
0-80 mph - 15.0 sec
Fuel consumption - 39.1 mpg
Insurance - Group 12

My first reaction on starting the engine of the Z3 was that the wrong model had been sent for test: it was so quiet and smooth that it seemed more like a six-cylinder, and not the four-cylinder version which had been requested. No need for concern - this was just confirmation of the way in which BMW manage to build a very refined power unit.
   In February this year, the Z3 range was realigned, and a new entry level model brought Z3 motoring to a wider market with the 1.9-litre 8-valve engine. Perhaps to avoid confusion, it's called the 1.8, although the capacity of the engine is 1,895 cc, and the price is £21,505.
   The model tested, Z3 1.9, is now replaced by a 2-litre six-cylinder model, but this four-cylinder 1.9 is the Z3 that is likely to be sought after on the used car market. It gives formidable performance, effortless cruising, and impressive fuel economy.    There's a pleasantly slick and easy gear change, though the metal gear knob might be a bit uncomfortable on a cold morning.
   A disappointment was the slight imprecision of the steering, allowing the car to wander a little bit off course especially in cross winds; and there is no adjustment for the steering column. However, the handling is very reassuring and the Z3 gives a delightfully positive and controllable feel through fast corners. The brakes, too, are excellent, with immediate sharp response and good progression.
   BMW have given the Z3 very taut and sporty suspension, which results in a rather choppy ride on poor surfaces with reaction to all sorts of bumps. The car is much more enjoyable on well-surfaced roads, when the low levels of tyre roar and thump are appreciated.
   Well-shaped seats have high backs and electric adjustment, including a small amount of vertical travel so that you can set a comfortable driving position. The whole car feels very taut and strong, with no detectable flexing on bumps or undulations.
   It's very easy to put the hood up or down - just undo two lever catches at the top of the windscreen and fold it back in a moment without need to get out of the car. But the tonneau cover is quite a fight to put in place, and is made from very firm and unyielding material so that it consumes a lot of space when the hood is up.
   It would be helpful if the seat backs could be tipped forward to allow things to be placed behind them - it's a bit tedious to motor them forward with the electric switches. There are two small compartments with a central lock behind the seats which can take some small valuables, and the boot is reasonably spacious, but there are no pockets on the doors and the facia locker is too tiny to be of much use. A small net pocket is provided to the left of the transmission tunnel.It's very helpful that the Z3 has remote central locking with a separate button to free the boot.
   This is a very attractive two-seater, practical for a weekend away, and very enjoyable to drive or travel in, and it's a pity that the 140 bhp Z3 1.9 has ceased production. One now has the choice of the much less powerful eight-valve engine, or the considerably more expensive six-cylinder models with 150, 193 or 321 bhp.

BMW Z3 1.9 - £21,510
Hood - quick action folding
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
              - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 127 mph
0-80 mph - 16.7 sec
Fuel consumption - 33.8 mpg
Insurance - Group 14

A fair indication of what the Elise is like is to say that you put it on rather than get into it, and that once on the road it is like being propelled along on a motor cycle. This isn't quite true, of course, because you clamber over the high side sills and lower yourself gently down into it much as you would getting into a bath, and the controls are fairly conventional and car-like.
   The experience of driving it, though, has close affinity with motor cycling, including the shattering acceleration which takes it to 80 mph from rest in 10.5 sec, and on to 100 mph only 7 sec later.
   To show what it's like, take a typical roundabout on a fast dual carriageway road. Ahead, the brake lights of other cars come on; the Elise doesn't need to start braking for a long time yet. As the roundabout is approached, a firm tread on the pedal brings the speed tumbling down, and the gear lever is knocked across quickly into second.
   On seeing that the way is clear, a couple of quick movements of the steering guide the Elise through the roundabout like negotiating a chicane, and then away through the gears: Barrp-snatch-Barerrrp-snatch-Barrrerrrup - and then it's up into fifth again with the gaggle of cars that had previously been in front now diminishing as specs in the mirror.
   With the performance goes amazing handling - such that you need a test track to discover its limitations - and hairline steering. There's no power assistance for the steering of course, nor for the brakes. Both are heavy at low speeds, but lighten up with speed.    The fabulous road behaviour and the purposeful appearance are the plus side of Elise; the down side is that it's a car very much built for a purpose, with nothing included that might be omitted to save weight and cost. Thus you get no airbags, no electric windows, no keeps to hold the doors open or central locking, no glove box and not even a prop to hold the inspection hatch open.
   The hood fastens simply and fairly quickly, using a provided Allen key to tension it. When removed, the hood material and stays can be stowed behind the seats. A formidable options list includes leather upholstery, fitted on the test car at cost of £585 extra, and driving lamps add £255. The rear window can readily be removed, which reduces wind noise at speed.
   As with the other two-seaters tested here, it's annoying that the seat backrests won't tip forward for access to the stowage net. The passenger seat is fixed - it's not even adjustable for leg length.    Lotus evidently expect you to take the minimum with you, although there is a small luggage space behind the engine, and it is presumed that everything will be concentrated on the pleasure of travelling, without any thought about what happens when you arrive. Perhaps you'll then be looking eagerly forward to the joy of driving back again!

Lotus Elise - £22,450
Hood - Fully detachable
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage
              - 8 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 126 mph
0-80 mph - 10.5 sec
Fuel consumption - 40.8 mpg
Insurance - Group 20


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