Incredibly, Americans bought more station wagons in 2019 than convertibles, whose sales fell to just 102,000 units, said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. Yet faithful automakers still offer nearly 40 models, even as snarled commutes and conformist S.U.V.s threaten to spoil the hair-mussing fun.
“Convertibles still play a role in image for sports and grand touring cars, but consumers have been making more practical choices,” Ms. Brinley said.
In light of the lowly sales, the number of convertible model choices is surprising. American perennials include the ragtop Ford Mustang, a go-to for renters in Florida or Hawaii. General Motors has an open-air Chevrolet Camaro and, after a factory coronavirus delay, is rolling out its midengine Corvette convertible to a backlog of waiting customers. Mercedes-Benz offers the most, with six body styles and a raft of engine and model choices.
“I love a convertible drive on a beautiful summer night, seeing the stars,” he said. “I also love hearing the sound of the V-8. I like to listen to music, but the best music is still the engine.”
Mr. Wagener characterizes convertibles as “more of a show-off car, where you present more of yourself, and you’re more in touch with the environment, less isolated.” But a convertible is far more challenging to design than a coupe, he said, because slicing off the roof can create visual imbalances.
“In design, proportion is everything,” Mr. Wagener said. “But for a convertible, you have to work without a greenhouse, and instead it has like a big tent on top.”
In 1998, Mercedes’s SLK roadster caused a sensation with its then-novel folding hardtop. A trend was born. The idea was that hard-shell roofs would make convertibles quieter, more versatile and more durable against winter elements.
But for these sunniest of conveyances, Mr. Wagener and other designers have seen new light: Retractable hardtops — with notable exceptions like the Ferrari or McLarens — are out. Traditional fabric tops are back in, precisely fitted with multiple insulated layers to keep noise and weather at bay. Most convertible owners store their babies in garages anyway, and avoid driving in rain or snow, Mr. Wagener said.
Retractable hardtops can impress onlookers with origami-like routines as their panels and rear window pivot and stack below a motorized deck lid. But the technology brought its own issues, including oddly shaped rear ends, Rube Goldberg complexity and unsightly seams that break up the lines of the coupe roofs they aim to mimic.
“All that folded sheet metal isn’t in harmony,” Mr. Wagener said. “Fabric is much more luxurious, and gives a couture-fashion aspect.”
A coming Mercedes SL will trade its current metal lid for a cloth roof. BMW’s latest Z4 roadster has also switched back to a fabric roof, and is all the better for it. The new Corvette convertible keeps its hardtop, yet ingenious packaging lets it swallow two sets of golf clubs even with the top folded.
Like Porsche’s stalwart Boxster, the BMW Z4 is the kind of luxury roadster that Miata fans gravitate to as careers and incomes advance. Zipped around the Catskills, the $65,000 Z4 M40i is a summer concoction as bracing and balanced as a perfectly mixed gin and tonic.
As for those visual imbalances, some auto fans find cruel sport in calling out cars that should never have spawned a convertible version. On “The Office,” Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott drove a pair of ragged ragtops, Chrysler’s Sebring and PT Cruiser, that underscored his chest-puffing obliviousness as well as any scripted laugh.
Today’s obvious temptation for automakers is the convertible S.U.V., which Ms. Brinley said sounded great on paper, with an outdoorsy rush and family practicality in one, but has failed to gain traction.
The first brave-yet-bizarre attempt, Nissan’s Murano CrossCabriolet, was sold from 2011 to 2014. The CrossCabrio resembled a lopped-off Humpty Dumpty, bobbing awkwardly above the road. Critics and shoppers smashed it with rare glee. Yet the Nissan is enjoying some nostalgic reassessment, an oddball that draws curious onlookers wherever it goes.