November 9, 2004
by Haney Louka
These are good times to be in the market for a convertible of any type, as this year’s Canadian Car of the Year “TestFest” demonstrated. TestFest is put on each year in Shannonville, Ontario by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada to separate the winners from the also-rans in their respective classes.
Eligibility requirements for this contest dictate that for an entry to be accepted, the vehicle must be new or significantly improved compared from its predecessor. Even after eliminating models that have been on the market for more than one year, we still ended up with a full field of topless beauties:
- Audi S4 Cabriolet ($82,900)
- Chevrolet Corvette ($84,915)
- Chrysler PT Touring Convertible ($32,205)
- Mercedes SLK 350 ($64,500)
- MINI Cooper S Convertible ($39,995)
- Saab 9-3 ($59,920)
- Toyota Solara ($39,100)
With looming clouds and cool temperatures, there were precisely seven drivers mad enough to engage in top-down motoring on the 401 in late October. These dedicated journalists would stop at nothing to achieve the objective of the day: determining the best new convertible for 2005.
2004 Audi S4 Cabriolet. Photo: Lawrence Yap
This was arguably the most difficult group to evaluate, given that these seven machines had nothing in common other than their power-operated retractable tops. With as-tested prices ranging from $32,205 for the PT Cruiser to $84,915 for the ‘Vette, this was a disparate group to be sure.
The track testing exaggerated the cars’ strengths and weaknesses in the context of extreme driving conditions, much like real-world emergency situations that might require a quick lateral transition or a hard stop. Our on-road routes took us through country roads and highways allowing us to evaluate the cars as everyday transportation and to determine which cars best handled having their tops lopped off in terms of cabin turbulence, cowl shake, and noise levels at speed.
As expected, the Toyota proved to be the boulevardier of the bunch, with loads of understeer and minimal feedback for the driver. It seemed the most resistant to going where it was pointed, and made no bones about not wanting to be rushed around the track. On the road, however, it was a refined and luxurious cruiser and acquitted itself well as an everyday driver.
Chrysler’s PT provided more grip and better steering response than the Solara, but with its truck-like ride height and centre of gravity, it had trouble hanging on in the corners. Its low-buck roots showed in fit & finish and refinement, but overall it proved to be an attractive package for the price. Most hurting the PT was its awkward profile with the top in place, which also led to limited headroom for rear seat passengers.
The Cooper ragtop is every bit as fun as its coupe counterpart, with excellent power delivery and razor-sharp turn-in for steering response that challenges cars costing twice as much. Excessive cowl shake and lots of noise on the highway detracted from this funky ragtop’s appeal by the end of the day.
The Saab spent most of its day flying under the radar thanks to its forgettable driving dynamics. It didn’t have any glaring faults, but for the first time ever I can say this Saab lacked character. For nearly $60K, buyers should be entitled to a little passion – and more than four cylinders – from their ragtop.
The Corvette was a formidable performer, but its four-speed automatic transmission lacked a manual shift mode and behaved oddly in sport mode on the track, executing shifts when they were least expected. On the road it was a comfortable drive with arguably the best seats of the bunch, but an $85,000 car – especially a convertible – deserves a better interior.
The Audi S4 is the member of this group that would be most likely to end up in my garage. While not a star on the track, it certainly remained composed while being hurtled around, and with 340 horsepower courtesy of the V-8 stuffed under its hood it was never wanting for more juice. All wheel drive, a beautiful interior with comfortable seating for four, and luxurious features make this the best rounded entry of the group.
With its top-tier performance, the SLK 350 also had the most passion and best styling of the group. With a new gearbox, new engine, fully automatic retractable hardtop, and beautiful interior detailing, the SLK represents a huge leap forward for the “affordable” Benz roadster and represents a good value in its segment.
Louka’s pick for best new convertible: Mercedes-Benz SLK 350.