The dog days of late summer can wear you down with the last blast of heat and humidity, but there are some automotive remedies.
The worst dog days are not at all depressing if experienced from behind the wheel of a convertible. There are a growing list of drop-tops, and if you want to be sure no dogs are allowed, consider as an assortment that includes a BMW, such as the 650i; a Jaguar, particularly the XK-R; and a couple of Chevrolets, whether a Corvette or a Camaro.
With any of these, the evidence is convincing that there is no better way to dispose of a little disposable income to be able to take in the passing scenery than with the windblown rays of sunshine blowing through your hair.
Not too many years ago, convertibles seemed to be vanishing from showrooms and roadways, but they have resolutely moved back into the marketplace in a quite remarkable assortment that allows consumers to pick their price range and find an applicable model. The convertible mix we’re discussing starts with a couple of vehicles such as the 2012 BMW 650i, at $107,000, or a 2011 Jaguar XK-R roadster, at $104,000 — both exotic enough that you won’t see another one on your neighborhood streets every day.
There is a far greater chance of seeing other Corvette convertibles, from vintage models to 2011a, although it will take from $60,000 to $75,000 to get into a new Grand Sport model. Chevrolet also offers more reasonably priced Camaro convertibles, in both mild (the RS with a V6) at close to $30,000, or wild (the SS with a huge V8), for $40,000-$43,000. Camaro was doing a good job of challenging Ford’s ubiquitous Mustang, and added the convertibles for 2011 to broaden its appeal.
Up North, we donate about half our driving season to winter or the chill of fall and early spring, so when it’s adequately warm out, we put our tops down at every chance to soak up every available ray of sun. Recently, though, I proved you can overdo it. Driving that 2012 BMW 650i during some 100-degree days in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, I was determined to keep the top down on a short trip, and I paid for it with a little sunburn on my wrist and neck.
Some Northerners park their roadsters for the winter, which is understandable, although others drive them year-round, either out of necessity or simply wanting to continue enjoying the car’s unquestioned sporty flair and agility, even when traction liabilities threaten the predominately rear-wheel-drive layouts.
My own private rules for convertibles, by the way, are that when you put the top down, you must also put the side windows down. Nothing is wimpier than having the top down on a convertible with the side windows rolled up, and it eliminates much of the sportiness of the top-down shape as well. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer when a nice, warm day turns chilly. In my convertible world, you can wear a sweatshirt or jacket, on up to a down parka and gloves, and you can crank up the heater or the seat heater, if need be. But if you have to put up the side windows, then put the top up, too.
The BMW 650i is a fantastic car, with a fabric roof that is tight and sleek even when up, and it is powered by a 4.4-liter V8 with multiple valves and instant response through an 8-speed automatic transmission, controllable by steering wheel paddles for manual shifting. The test car’s Vermillion red metallic paint offset the rich, ivory white nappa leather interior in the optional luxury seating package.
The touch of a button causes the top to mechanically unfasten, rise up, and stow its folded self under a panel that only intrudes slightly on trunkspace. It went back up with impressive swiftness when a sudden rainstorm struck, also. The 650i convertible has a rear seat, although you’d scarcely suggest it for adult habitation. Still, you won’t lack for youngsters clamoring to ride back there, and smaller adults can fit if you slide the front seats forward.
Handling in the BMW is accentuated by the extremely low-profile tires on the special alloy wheels, and you can use a switch on the console to pick normal, which is quite firm and sporty, to sport, which is firmer and sportier with more aggressive shiftpoints, or sport-plus, which stiffens the suspension to track-day firmness and is definitely incompatible with many weather-worn roads and highways.
Base price is $90,500, including driving dynamics control, dynamic stability control, traction control, Xenon adaptive and auto-leveling headlights, and other BMW standard features. The test vehicle added a driver assistance package with lane-departure warning, parking assist, head-up display, premium sound, active roll stabilization, night vision with pedestrian detection, and a cold-weather package, pushing the sticker to $106,975.
The BMW 650i’s 4.4-liter V8 is a smooth gem of an engine, with four overhead camshafts, Double-Vanos steplessly variable valve-timing on 32 valves, and twin turbochargers forcing fuel into the direct injection intake system. The comparatively small-displacement V8 puts out 400 horsepower, which may pale in numbers next to larger engines, but performs in a manner that makes you realize nobody needs more power. If you were to purchase the M5 high-performance sedan, you find the same engine can be tweaked to 560 horsepower and 502 foot-pounds of torque. The 650i, in either sport coupe or convertible, is based on the 5-series platform. A 6-speed stick is available, but the test car had an 8-speed automatic, shiftable by steering wheel paddles for manual control.
BMW has made the console-mounted i-Drive control unit easier to operate over the years, but at the same time it has made the automatic shifter a project demanding full attention. You choose D, N, or R for conventional shift selections, and a P for park is at the top. However, you can’t get there from here. If you’re stopping at a mailbox and flip the shift lever up as far as it goes, don’t assume you’re in park, because you will still be in reverse. That could lead to an interesting surprise if someone is behind you, or if you step out of the car. To reach park, you must push the lever up, then click a switch on the side of the top of the selector lever to engage P. More frustrating, I found, is that sometimes you have to properly click it three or four times before the tiny lighted “P” comes on the shift knob indicator to verify that you, indeed, have found park.
Also, another incident proved, or disproved, the wisdom of race-car-like low-profile tires, while also underscoring the deteriorating condition of some of our best roadways. I was cruising in the left lane of Interstate-35 in Minnesota, moving over to allow safer access to several vehicles that had just entered the freeway, when a terrible jolt hit the car. A worn-out chunk of concrete popped loose at the seam where the freeway met a bridge overpass, leaving a small but dangerously jagged opening that was imperceptible to the eye. It certainly was perceptible to the ear, and to the rest of my body, and it would have blown the tire with potentially tragic consequences had the BMW not been equipped with Dunlop Sport run-flat tires. The ultra low-profile tire held its air and I completed the last 50 miles of my trips, and after a thorough inspection, I noticed the tires were run-flats, and I made my 165-mile return trip after determining that the tire had seemed to heal itself. The next day I had a service outlet in Duluth named Foreign Affairs to tend to the tire.
One of the problems with expensive and near-exotic convertibles is that they tend to have very stylish, but expensive wheels. Large wheels, with extremely low-profile tires can greatly stiffen cornering capabilities, but they also are much better suited to extremely smooth pavement, such as a racetrack, than they normal streets. These days, even freeways can’t be certain of being racetrack smooth. Obviously.
Pride of the United Kingdom, Jaguar has kept up with the latest engine and chassis technology, while its design has set its own pace to create cars that stop others in their tracks. The XKR is the top model of the XK line, and the convertible at the top of that list. The all-aluminum chassis is remarkable for its stiffness, and while it conveys occupants in luxurious comfort, the car is also free of any shakiness that used to be common with all convertibles.
Jaguar designed a new V8 engine several years ago, when it was owned by Ford. That engine has been refined from its original form and as a supercharged 5.0 liter it produces 510 horsepower compared to the 385 horses of the non-supercharged version of the light but strong dual-overhead-camshaft powerplant. At that, I was able to get highway fuel economy of 25.4 miles per gallon with the XKR.
The XK goes back to the days when the XKE was the eye-popping specialty of the day in the 1960s, and it has continued on through various letter designations to today, when it gains stature as the “R” — which denotes the supercharged version of that 5.0-liter engine. It runs through a 6-speed automatic, with paddles for clutchless manual operation. You might find a “base” XK for less than $90,000, but the test XKR started at $102,105, and only a heated windshield boosts it to the sticker’s $103,375.
With an active dynamic and active differential control, the Jaguardrive winter and dynamic modes might help modulate all that power to the rear drive wheels in moderate winter driving, but it would seem prudent to park the sleek cat when snowfall gets serious. While the BMW is a sleek coupe with the top up, the Jag looks fine with the top up but mainly is a showboat with the top down in its self-fitting compartment. It is the ultimate 2-seat roadster, almost to the point where you’d prefer to leave the top down and garage it, for sunny-day withdrawal only. I had driven it a couple times before my son pointed out that there is, in fact, a tiny rear jumpseat, which would be better named a small package seat.
It is safe to say the lean and lithe appearance of those old-days XKEs has not been forsaken with the new XKR. It is stunning to look at, and was particularly classy in the test-car’s Lunar gray, with contrasting charcoal and ivory interior leather and burl walnut.
The powerful engine and smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic gives the power to lunge befitting Jaguar’s symbolic leaper. And the suspension allows you to drive it hard through tight turns, and the flex-free aluminum platform gives you plenty of agility to go with the built-in luxury.
The XKR still offers its unique shifter, which rises out of the console like a smaller diameter hockey puck. Once up, you click it clockwise from park to reach reverse, neutral and drive. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable with the rotating shifter, as long as you remember you’re shifting gears, not seeking the climate control of BMW’s iDrive. I feel even more secure trusting my shifting to the big steering wheel paddles.
Corvette Grand Sport
My favorite Corvette of all time goes back to 1963, when the split-window coupe first made me realize that a sports car could come in coupe form that might be as neat as any roadster. Still, that fastback roofline has gone away, and sleek as the new one is, the convertible has risen in prominence to make the new Corvette stand out.
The Grand Sport is something special, even for Corvette, and its “dual-mode performance” exhaust won’t let you forget it. When you get on the gas hard, and let the big engine’s 436 horsepower roar up the RPM levels, suddenly the full throated exhaust booms in straight-pipe resonance. You’ve got to try it to enjoy it, neighbors notwithstanding.
Chevrolet continues to stick with its pushrod V8, extracting great power at bargaining production costs. To get such enormous power, however, it takes larger and larger displacement. Obviously, a high-tech engine with smaller displacement and overhead camshafts might produce more than adequate power, but with Corvette, excess is the name of the game. The Grand Sport’s engine is up to 6.2 liters now, and its 436 horsepower is commendable. There is a supercharged version, producing 638 horsepower, and even a 7-liter for those for whom any excess is worthwhile.
The 6-speed stick enhanced the sportiness of the ‘Vette, and a console switch allows you to click into sport for firmer and smoother stability in fast cornering. Magnetic ride control has impressive shock absorbers, in which tiny metallic slivers are snapped into longitudinal formation to stiffen the fluid, and the shock, in abrupt cornering.
I got 20.7 miles per gallon with the Corvette convertible, with some city driving but most of the tankful on freeway trips, where the EPA estimate suggests 26 mpg.
The fabric top is easily dropped. Just flip the latch to unhitch it, and push a button and the top drops away. There remains a surprisingly good and deep storage bin as a trunk under the rear lid.
The Corvette is slippery smooth in its latest design mode, and it remains the icon among American sports cars. The base price is $58,600, and at that you get the LS3 6.2-liter engine and 6-speed manual, plus active handling, traction control, heated rear window glass in the folding roof, Xenon headlights, and 6 months of OnStar directional help. The Grand Sport test vehicle showed a sticker of $74,235, by including all sorts of options, starting with a Bose premium 7-speaker audio, head-up display of vital readouts, navigation system with its upgraded audio, magnetic selective ride control, the dual-mode exhaust, and supersonic blue metallic paint.
Chevrolet offers a bargain convertible with Corvette power with the Camaro SS, at a base price of $39,650, with a sticker on the test vehicle of $42,995. You get the Corvette 6.2-liter pushrod V8, with 426 horsepower, 10 down from the flagship Corvette.
The Camaro began life built by Holden in Australia, on the G8 large sedan
platform, so it is plagued by being overweight, even though the powerful engine makes it fun to drive. The smooth, hard plastic on the door and console may draw criticism from those who prefer soft and fuzzy trim, but the convertible does away with the visibility problems of the coupe with a simple unlatching of the top and push-button stowage.
The 6-speed manual shift works well, finally free of the regrettable “skip-shift” features of previous models. The Camaro runs strong and powerfully. Economy shoppers might find that the 312-horsepower V6 with its dual overhead cams might be a more cost-effective way to buy a Camaro convertible, but those hoping to rekindle the Trans-Am days of 1970 Camaros will choose the hotter V8, despite EPA highway mileage estimates lower than the Corvette at 24.
Instrumentation is complete, but with an asterisk. Four small gauges are included, but they are located ahead of the console and deeply recessed, where they are difficult to see with time, and impossible to check at a glance. Fortunately, the head-up display works very well, superimposing speed, RPMs, and/or remaining fuel visible to the driver while looking straight ahead.
While the Camaro 2SS comes strongly equipped, the test car added 20×8 front and 20×9 rear wheels, high-intensity headlights, black interior with inferno orange trim accents, and an extra charge for the inferno orange metallic paint and the black stripe package.
By the way, not everyone agrees with me on my top-down/window-down rule. In fact, while shooting photos for this particular convertible review, I asked my wife, Joan, to do a drive-by in the Corvette Grand Sport. She agreed, so I got everything ready, lowering the top, and the side windows. She drove off, and returned at a normal pace, while I shot several frames, panning to enhance the image of speed. Later, I noticed that Joan had, of course, put the windows up, for hairdo preservation I assume, despite violating the look I was seeking. Fortunately, I can’t complain, because she works cheap.